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Reposted from The New York Times
Law on Racial Diversity Stirs Greenwich Schools
By AL BAKER
GREENWICH, Conn. — Just a few minutes’ drive from the polo fields, the fieldstone walls guarding 10-acre estates and the Greenwich Country Day School, from which the elder George Bush graduated in 1937, is far denser terrain, where the homes are smaller and closer together and part of a public housing complex that seems escaped from New York City.
This, too, is Greenwich, and the two public elementary schools in this part of town look, demographically, nothing like most schools in the whiter, wealthier areas. At both, minority students make up at least two-thirds of the enrollment, including some students who are the children of housekeepers, landscapers and construction workers who keep up the lavish homes in the backcountry.
And that is putting the town on a collision course with the State of Connecticut.
Segregation within school districts is not unique to Greenwich — one need look no farther than New York City to find mostly white schools a few blocks from mostly black schools. But Connecticut is one of a few states that forbid districts from letting any of their schools deviate too much in racial makeup from any of their other schools.
The Greenwich district, where minority students constitute one-third of the overall public school population, is trying to come up with solutions. But as previous attempts to correct the imbalance have failed to keep up with population shifts, the district’s leaders and many parents are challenging the notion that the law, which was passed in 1969, is even relevant today.
“In 2013, that is a very different conversation than in the civil rights era,” the superintendent, William S. McKersie, said. “We are getting high-quality outcomes. The challenge with the state is, ‘Are you applying an old understanding of how to get educational opportunity that could undermine what we are trying to do here?’ ”
Based on a number of measures, including high school students’ performance on SAT and Advanced Placement exams, Greenwich in recent years has ranked near the top among Connecticut districts in its economic class, said Kimberly D. Eves, a district spokeswoman. She said, “We are among the top performing districts in the state, over all.”
The district’s student body breaks down as 69 percent white, 16.9 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian, 2.9 percent black and 2.8 percent multiracial.
State law says that no school’s nonwhite enrollment can deviate from the districtwide average for schools with the same grade levels by more than 25 percentage points. In addition to New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue Elementary, the two schools on the western edge of town with too few white students, two schools on the far eastern and northern sides of town are flirting with imbalance of an opposite kind: having too few minority children.
Greenwich education officials are weighing several proposals for state review, including starting additional magnet schools and doing some modest redistricting, with busing for those options. This week, district officials updated state education officials on their plans.
In a statement, Stefan Pryor, the state education commissioner, defended the law as a way to improve the quality of education for all students in Greenwich.
“Greenwich has grappled with this issue for years,” Mr. Pryor said, “undertaking, for example, efforts regarding magnet schools and facility upgrades, with limited effect to date.” Noting that Greenwich “continues to have a significant achievement gap,” he said it was important that the district make greater progress.
Greenwich officials say they have made gains, even if not enough.
The gap between whites and blacks on meeting state goals in reading dropped to 27.4 percentage points in the 2011-12 academic year, from 32 points five years earlier, said John Curtin, the district’s special projects manager. For whites and Hispanics, the gap fell to 21.7 percentage points, from nearly 30 points in the same period, he said. (Asians make up only a tiny percentage of the students at the two schools.)
Dr. McKersie, the superintendent, said, “We are not satisfied with the quality of education we are providing, particularly to our low-income Latino and African-American students, and our other low-income students.”
But in making their case that improving education might not be as simple as rebalancing the schools’ racial makeup, Greenwich officials point to another, smaller gap. In New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue Elementary, black and Hispanic students are passing state tests at only a slightly lower rate than in the other schools — in math, the difference is six percentage points.
They also say they spend $2,000 to $4,000 more per student in those schools, in addition to any federal aid given to schools with high-needs populations. This is evidence, they say, that the district has tried to address head-on the core concerns behind the state law — that segregated schools do not provide for their lowest performing students.
“We have evolved educationally in recognizing that we must provide high-quality instruction based on individual student needs, regardless of where the school is in the district,” Dr. McKersie said. “I am not convinced that forcing students to move from their neighborhood elementary school is the best strategy for improving academic outcomes, especially in a district where students attend integrated schools from 6th through 12th grade.”
The imbalance was created by a steady increase in black and Hispanic residents on the western side of town, which created another vexing problem for the district: Several schools are now in danger of becoming overcrowded.
Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Board of Education, said the state preferred local officials to solve the racial imbalance issue. If it found a remedial plan was insufficient, she said, the state could order the district to redraft it, and if it was still lacking, the matter could end up in court.
Amid the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a number of states developed policies or enacted laws on racial integration in the schools, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and law at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is a director of the university’s Civil Rights Project.
Since then, he said, many of the desegregation policies have been “repealed or interpreted away, or died of little use.”
In Boston, it was a federal civil rights lawsuit, not a state law, that led to busing, and the resulting widespread protests and white flight from the public school system.
Susie Ponce, whose parents are from Colombia, moved to western Greenwich from Queens in 2007. She thinks Hamilton Avenue Elementary, which her two children attend, could have more white children, she said, but it has an array of nationalities.
“If I had a choice, I would keep my kids where they are right now,” said Ms. Ponce, who until recently was the school’s parent coordinator. “Because not only are they getting a great education, they are getting the social-emotional intelligence that I grew up with, just being exposed to other children from different cultures.”
Still, Jennifer Roberto, 15, said that had Hamilton Avenue Elementary been more integrated when she went there, her high school experience might not now include a lunchroom demarcated in unofficial zones: light-skinned faces here, dark ones over there.
“If they change the groups at kindergarten and everything, if they start mixing it, it will be more diverse later,” Jennifer said. “Cliques wouldn’t even form.”
Adriana Ospina, the lone Hispanic member of the Greenwich Board of Education, said, “You hear some of the kids being referred to as ‘the ghetto kids,’ and that is horrendous.”
But even parents and local officials who think Greenwich needs to try harder to integrate its schools are wary of forcing students to travel across town.
Ms. Ospina said she was hoping that voluntary measures, like increased used of magnet schools, could solve the problem. She said it was not fair to tell a parent of an elementary school student on the eastern side of town that her child “no longer has the right, or privilege, to a neighborhood school.”
That is the stated view of virtually all parents, almost all of them from schools in the northern and eastern parts of town, who have spoken at the district’s public meetings on the issue.
Lori Fields, whose daughter just completed kindergarten at Parkway Elementary, a school in the backcountry, in far-northern Greenwich (with a 17 percent minority enrollment this spring), said the school was a large reason she bought her home eight years ago, when she was moving from California.
At a June 14 hearing she said, “I don’t support any option that would force children out of their neighborhood schools.”
At the hearing, Benjamin D. Bianco, a lawyer and father of a student at North Street Elementary School (29 percent minority enrollment), in the center of town, said he saw the state’s racial balance mandate as open to challenge as violating the equal protection clause of the Constitution, an idea the district has also said it is considering.
“We all bought our homes based on what school our kids were going to go to,” Mr. Bianco said. “If you talk to any Realtor, I’m sure in this town, but probably in any town across America, when they give you the listing for homes you have price, square footage, school district. I mean, it’s not a complicated concept.”