For the Record

The Rise of RISE



Bob Capazzo

Facing the Greenwich public education system in the months ahead are two important issues that the Board of Ed needs to resolve. How they will be resolved will be a matter of concern to a number of students and parents. One is correcting the racial imbalance in certain of our schools; the other is the need to adjust for a declining enrollment that has left some schools underutilized. To tackle these problems, the Board of Education and Schools Superintendent Betty Sternberg established a task force called RISE, standing for Racial Imbalance, Space Utilization and Declining Enrollment (which is a pretty good excuse for an acronym). Represented are members of the BET, the RTM, the selectman’s office, parents, teachers and the school administration.

Connecticut State Statute Section 10-226 requires schools throughout the state to achieve and maintain certain specified levels of racial balance. The levels for each school are determined by comparing that school’s percentage of minority students with the minority student percentage in the public schools in the town or school district as a whole. The problem facing Greenwich has grown with the sizable influx of minorities. In just the past ten years, minority enrollment in our public schools has grown from 1,493 to 2,095 students, an increase of 40.3 percent and now represents nearly one out of four students. To achieve racial balance alone could, in the extreme, require significant transfers of students and even a radical redrawing of some school neighborhood boundaries. By way of illustration, Hamilton Avenue school is 59 percent minority, New Lebanon is 53 percent, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, Old Greenwich is less than 5 percent.

Bringing these schools into compliance with the State Board of Education guidelines would appear to be an unacceptably dislocating project. Some may recall the anger and frustration created some years ago when school neighborhood lines were redrawn in Riverside and Old Greenwich. Out of it, however, came the establishment of the International School at Dundee (ISD), a magnet school with its popular baccalaureate program.

A school is not in compliance with the state statute if its racial minority percentage varies more than 25 percentage points plus or minus the district norm. If a school reaches 15 percentage points of variance, it is warned that it is in impending imbalance, and action should be taken. According to John Curtin, assistant school superintendent, the two schools now out of balance could be brought into balance by the transfer of as few as eighty students. Still, this is a lot if you are one of the eighty and you don’t want to move. So the intent of the Board of Education and the RISE task force will try to achieve the goal through student choice. They have developed a series of options to correct the racial imbalance by attracting students to the town’s three magnet schools and by promoting “open choice.” Besides ISD, the two other magnet schools are Hamilton Avenue and Julian Curtiss. Magnet schools are defined as those that students want to attend because they offer unique programs or themes that appeal to students with special interests. It will remain to be seen whether any or all such voluntary transfers will be sufficient.

It is interesting to note that there is no specific penalty for noncompliance. Lawmakers must have realized that in many school districts it would take time to achieve these goals. Forcing students to transfer from their neighborhood schools to ones in unfamiliar neighborhoods, otherwise known as “busing,” was simply out of the question. The state does have the leverage, however, of withholding educational funds to enforce the statute.

The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court rendering unconstitutional the use of race as a qualification of eligibility in providing educational opportunity raised the question of whether Section 10-226 would be affected. Attorney General Blumenthal has given his initial opinion that it would not, and the State Board of Education has notified Betty Sternberg that Greenwich should continue with its efforts to comply.

As the Board of Ed tries to adjust for a declining school enrollment, the goal of the RISE task force is to entice students to choose to move to an underutilized school from one that may be overcrowded. Over the years, there have been dramatic swings in our student population, from 11,110 in 1970 to a low of 6,453 in 1988 to 8,954 today. Projections can’t be made beyond five years, so changing school boundaries that may have to be redrawn ten years later makes no sense. There is also the unpleasant option of closing a school. Fortunately, neither of these options is being considered at this time by either RISE or the Board of Ed. When it comes to issues affecting the education of our kids, emotions can run high. We hold out hope that the student choice approach of the Board of Ed and the RISE task force will satisfy the needs of both racial balance and school utilization.