All In The Neighborhood
As Dr. Roger Lulow's yearlong stint as interim superintendent comes to a close, it is ironic that the schools' chief would characterize one of the strengths of Greenwich Public Schools as "a commitment to neighborhood schools."
It is that longstanding commitment by the town that has the school district being cited once again by the State Department of Education. In a June 11 letter from Connecticut Commissioner Stefan Pryor, andSchools were cited as being racially imbalanced and and were cited as being impending imbalanced. Previously, and have been cited as impending as well, which does not require any action.
Not A Surprise
While Greenwich has received such notifications from the State Department of Education before, Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarity explains that this letter includes a specific request for a submission of a revised plan to address the racial imbalance at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools by Sept. 14, 2012, and requests the the Greenwich superintendent attend the Oct. 3, 2012 State Board of Education meeting to explain the revised approach. The district may request a delay in these deadlines to allow time for proper vetting of alternatives.
In response to the state request, First Selectman Peter Tesei said, "Neighborhood schools are part of the unique fabric of the Greenwich community. State mandates set to meet artificial social engineered demographics do nothing to improve student performance."
Lifelong Byram resident and former BET Chairman Stephen Walko said, "the writing has been on the wall for a long time" with regards to "the failed policies concerning the state's view of racial imbalance."
Is Greenwich Gerrymandered?
At the last Board of Education meeting of the 2011-12 school year held June 21, former Board of Education member Marianna Ponns Cohen spoke of the racial imbalance issue during public comments articulating that she believes that the magnet programs do not work to address racial balance.
Specifically regarding Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon Schools, she said that the magnet school strategy has failed and should not be considered a viable solution to solve the issue.
She proposed 4 possible solutions:
- 1. Charter School - a plan she proposed back in 2008 when the District was also cited is to turn New Lebanon into a charter school using the Amistad Academy (New Haven) model;
- 2. School closure or closures – folding in schools which are currently racial imbalanced into the rest of the district might be considered;
- 3. Redistricting – stating that Greenwich is currently "gerrymandered" and specifically citing Grahampton, Clapboard Ridge and Round Hill Roads as examples.
- 4. Open Choice - an approach that she does not believe is a viable one but simply "an extension of the failed magnet voluntary selection option."
In a reaction to the suggestions, Hamilton Avenue School PTA Presidents Mark Radzin and Peter Bernstein, who are both magnet school families, told Patch, "While a solution is needed, closing racially imbalanced schools and transferring the students to other locations is not a solution. The reality is that this is an invitation to more problems."
The gentlemen went on to cite why. "Further, the idea undermines the long tradition of neighborhood schools in Greenwich, a tradition that has proven essential to developing community pride."
The Neighborly Way
Moriarty confirmed her support and belief in Greenwich's neighborhood school system, knowing that this support is shared throughout the community. Balancing against that, Moriarty also explained that the district has an obligation to abide by state legislation. Moriarty would like to see a plan that respects the community's perspectives, continues to focus on equitable outcomes and delivers on the expectation that every student in Greenwich Public Schools should succeed.
Back in July 2010, the Greenwich Board of Education submitted a plan to the state intended to eliminate the racial imbalance at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools. A population growth and a change in the demographics in the Western end of town have countered the impacts of the current magnet programs.
Moriarty explained that the minority population in the New Lebanon catchment zone has increased, essentially doubling the school's minority percentage over the last 10 years. In 2001-2002, it was at 34% versus 67% in the current year. For the comparable period, Hamilton Avenue's minority population percentage grew from 54% to 62% in the current year.
(And those numbers appear to mirror projections the district forecast back in 2007. Please see accompanying PDF.)
Define The Problem, Develop Solutions
Lulow stated that what will now occur is "an analysis of the present program to make sure we can speak effectively either why or why not the magnet will or will not solve problem." He also said that they are looking at legal requirements and then State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s response to board back in 2008.
"We need to make sure we define the problem first before we develop solutions. Let’s make sure we understand the problem," advised Lulow. "It is clear to me that they are looking for a revised plan, but that the use of the magnet (system) to solve this is certainly not restricted," he said.
Moriarty concurs with Lulow's approach which starts with gathering the facts related to enrollment trends, facility issues and magnet program impacts. The administration also will collect information on how other Connecticut communities have addressed this issue and get a better understanding of the intent and implications of the law. Moriarty also stated that she plans on meeting with the PTA presidents of the two cited schools to discuss their perspectives and concerns.
Tesei was supportive of the board and administration's efforts. He said, "I have confidence in our BOE and will work with them to protect our neighborhood schools."
This is welcome news to Mike Bocchino, who is the New Lebanon School PTA president as well as the president of the Byram Neighborhood Association. "The New Lebanon PTA is eager to discuss with the members of the Board of Education and our incoming Superintendent the letter received from the State regarding our compliance with the racial balance legislation."
Given that the families attending these schools are the main stakeholders, Bocchino said "any discussion regarding this issue should primarily be with parents who actually have children in the Greenwich Public School System."
Not Looking for 'More of the Same'
Based on conversations with the commissioner's office, the schools' chief also reported that "the State Board would like to know that the plan that is submitted has a high probability of being successful instead of more of the same; the State Board would not appreciate that."
Lulow advised not just to look within for the answer, but look at other districts in Connecticut stating that it is not "as simple as opening up another school" and that he plans on "gathering information from other school districts." He specifically spoke about West Hartford, which has 1/3 more racial imbalance than Greenwich and "they have worked it out."
Radzin and Berstein see the solution inside the magnet programs. "The solution to racial imbalance is a simple one: create meaningful and attractive magnet programs at schools in need, and the parents—and students—will come," said the PTA co-presidents.