‘Redrawing on the table’ for Fairfield Schools to tackle enrollment and racial imbalance

Fairfield – “Districting is on the table” in a proposed new plan to address racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary School.

On Tuesday evening, interim superintendent Stephen Tracy presented an updated version of the district’s plan to round out the number of students at McKinley Elementary School in line with the demographics of the district as a whole.

Currently, 56 percent of McKinley’s students are classified as a minority, compared to 26 percent of students in the region overall.

In May, representatives from the district met with the state board of education, which directed Fairfield to update its plan to address the imbalance by September 8.

The updated plan has five parts: outreach to the community, equity workshops for school staff, a school climate review, primary school repartition and consideration of an inter-district magnet school.

The plan calls for the superintendent to submit a redistricting proposal to a board of education committee in May 2023. The committee will take the proposal to the full board in June 2023, and the full board is expected to vote on the plan in October. The demarcation process will take effect in August 2024.

Tracy told the Fairfield Board of Education that steps must be taken regardless of racial balance to address the unequal distribution of students across the district’s eleven elementary schools. Currently, five of the district’s schools are below 75 percent of capacity, and five are above 85 percent. Overall, the number of students enrolled this fall is expected to be 1,000 fewer than the number of seats available.

“This is an issue in my opinion that the region will have to confront in the next few years, regardless of and regardless of racial balance issues,” Tracy said. “How do we get the most out of our facilities? How do we distribute the youth population in a responsible way?”

Tracy said that although the proportion of minority students in Fairfield has increased from 17.5 percent to more than 25 percent in the past 12 years, housing patterns mean that minority students are concentrated in certain schools like McKinley.

Tracy said the district will likely need to bring in advisors to decide how best to redistrict, and the new superintendent may want to submit several plans to the council for review. Tracy said he wasn’t sure how the appointment of advisers would affect the district’s budget.

According to board member Nick Ayse, the district was also considering a “pocket division” within the McKinley District – meaning that children living in any new housing developments in that district would be sent to a school other than McKinley.

Previous attempts to reconfigure the school district’s student demographics by creating a system for parents to “opt in” or “opt out” at McKinley, by increasing the district’s Open Choice program, and by allowing students in the McKinley district to enroll in preschool in the Two other schools, Fairfield Schools, and then later enrolled in these schools, did little to alter the racial imbalance.

Issa said the board also met with a lawyer to ask if there was a way to adopt a plan that was not in line with state law.

“At the end of the day, the answer is no,” Aisha said.

According to Issa, the attorney told them that the state board of education could fine the city for failing to comply with state law regarding racial imbalance. He said that given the scale of the ethnic imbalance in the region, the lawyer believed that the outcome was unlikely to be in the council’s favour.

“We’re going to spend a lot of town money on something that we really couldn’t win,” Aisha said.

This will affect everyone.

Board member Jessica Gerber noted that the primary school redistricting will also affect middle and high schools in the area.

“It’s no secret that redistricting is certainly one that will generate a tremendous amount of trial and error,” she said. “This will affect everyone in our town.”

Gerber said McKinley offers services that many students rely on, such as the after-school program run by the Boys and Girls Club. She wondered about the additional cost of having to provide these services in other schools.

Board member Carol Guernsey asked about the cost of redistribution across school system services currently offered only at McKinley.

Board member Jeff Peterson said he felt the district needed to start looking for shortcomings in things like teaching, academic support and school climate much earlier than the plan calls for. He said that if the region waits until February for a climate review, the region will not be able to implement the recommendations until the next budget cycle.

Tracy also suggested a timeline for the district to consider establishing a magnet school within the district, using either the IB or a bilingual program. He said the idea had been encouraged by the state board of education.

Tracy said that while magnet school wouldn’t do much to address racial imbalance, it would have other positive effects.

“I think it gives us an opportunity to create new programs, to make them attractive to families, and to get families to think about getting their children to go to a school they can’t attend in their area,” Tracy said.

Tracy has proposed a two-year planning process for the magnets, with the school opening for enrollment in December 2024, and if this has generated enough interest, first class enrollment in August 2025.

But several board members expressed doubts about the district’s ability to implement a magnet school within the district. Members also wondered if the district could handle the creation of the Magnet program and the repartition of the provinces at the same time. Others questioned the timing.

“We’ll move the kids in August 2024…and then we say, OK, do you want to move again at 25-26? We’re deliberately building in a double transition. What we know educationally isn’t good for kids,” Jacobsen said.

Board Chair Christine Vitale said the magnet school within the district may prevent the district from sliding back into racial imbalance if housing patterns change after redistricting occurs.

Aisha added that magnets within the district can also provide other benefits to students, for example, if one or two schools offer bilingual education.

“There are areas that we lack in the area outside of the racial imbalance, which includes serving our non-English speaking students,” he said.

‘We need to go deeper’

The plan also includes training workshops on equity for district administrators and staff, which will take place during winter and spring 2023. This proposal was triggered by discussion with the state board of education, Tracy said, which emphasized the need to ensure that all schools in the district were catering to students’ needs.

“In the District Improvement Plan, she addresses the idea that we have subgroups in Fairfield Public Schools that have not received the same teaching competencies and opportunities as our white and Asian students. And so we need to go deeper into our programs, in our understanding, in our own concepts so that we can provide opportunities Degna Mart, director of diversity, equality and inclusion in the region, told the board.

The board members confirmed that they will engage members of the public through information sessions, both in-person and virtual, scheduled for this fall.

Aisha, chair of the Utilities Committee, emphasized that from a utility perspective, changes must be made regardless of the racial imbalance numbers.

“…I am thinking of putting the children in place in a way that they can get the best educational value. Resolving the racial imbalance in this process is great if we can do that, and I think that is our goal here.”

The council is expected to vote on the proposed plan on August 30.

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