Bob Horton: Greenwich knew how to do magnet schools … once
It has been 16 years since the state first told Greenwich it had a racially imbalanced school population. Students at cited schools have underachieved while students in other neighborhoods have gone to some of the best schools in the state. That is still the case.
That means a generation of western Greenwich students got the shaft. Their parents were not given the opportunity to move them out of bad schools even though there were empty classrooms in the town’s many good schools. The sanctity of the neighborhood school had to be protected. “Don’t let those kids come to our school,” one North Street School parent said.
And what did the school board do in those 16 years to turn around those bad schools? It played by the rules, according to the acting superintendent, Salvatore Corda. It created the illusion of concern and progress by conceiving magnet schools that did not attract new students, and built a new, bigger school with rooms for magnet students who never showed up. The achievement gap got wider while the school board fiddled.
The state Board of Education played by the rules of this game as well, making it just as culpable as the town in denying some Greenwich kids a good education. The state kept approving Greenwich’s plans to integrate kids without ever holding it accountable for past failures. What’s that saying about doing the same thing and expecting different results? It’s the definition of idiocy.
Now, with strong prodding by a state Superior Court judge, the governor’s office has called a stop to the game. And Greenwich is crying foul.
“Greenwich has followed the letter of the law,” said Corda, in a long statement released to the Greenwich Time earlier this week. Letter yes; spirit, not so much. In his long statement, he listed the many steps Greenwich has taken to comply with the law; not once does he mention that those efforts have been futile.
The fastest and surest way to change the racial mix of students is redistricting, but it’s also the most politically unpalatable. Greenwich prefers magnet schools, but it has forgotten how to create an educational environment so compelling that parents will bus or drive their children outside their comfortable neighborhoods.
This was not always the case. In the late 1990s elementary schools on the eastern side of town were severely overcrowded. The school board decided to take the closed Dundee School out of mothballs. A long, contentious battle ensued over how to divide the existing school boundaries of the Riverside, Old Greenwich, North Mianus and Cos Cob neighborhoods. But the school board had to do something, and new districts were drawn.
But then the school administration made a very savvy decision: It made the best elementary principal in town the new principal at Dundee. Doug Fainelli had been the Old Greenwich principal for years. He was well respected by teachers and students and was a strong presence in the larger Greenwich community. Not long after his appointment several of the best teachers at Old Greenwich School announced they were following Fainelli to Dundee. And Fainelli and the school administration decided to make Dundee a magnet school, hoping to appeal to parents and students from the greater Greenwich community.
Fainelli and his staff them embarked on a yearlong exploration that engaged parents and teachers in a conversation about what kind of curriculum and learning environment would emerge at the new school. It was an arduous effort. But in the end, the new school had strong support from parents before it even opened its doors. And Dundee became the town’s first International Baccalaureate school, a different curriculum than was offered in other elementary schools.
The Dundee principal and its teachers knew they had to continue engaging parents once the school opened its doors. They created programs that brought students and parents together. They forged strong bonds and new friendships, and the school thrived.
It remains to this day a successful magnet school. By the end of his school career, Fainelli created two successful magnet schools in Greenwich. After retiring from Greenwich Public Schools, Fainelli went to Whitby School, a private school in far northwestern Greenwich. The once healthy Montessori school was losing students and its survival was in question. Fainelli took over and went through a process very similar to the one he used at Dundee. The curriculum changed from Montessori to IB, and Whitby is once again a progressive school that has built a strong community from across the town.
But Dundee’s success was never replicated at any of the public magnet schools created since. Conventional wisdom holds that there is no magnet strong enough to move parents out of their neighborhood schools. Yet evidence to the contrary is on display every day. School buses pick up kids from all corners of Greenwich to take them to the town’s many private schools.
The school board should go back and look at the Dundee process. It should then appoint its best elementary school principal to lead a new magnet school, and engage the greater Western Greenwich community in a serious process to explore real options, not just window dressing of existing failed schools. That would show a serious commitment to educating kids in western Greenwich. It will not make up for the hundreds of kids the school system abandoned for 16 years, but it will give the community a shot at really fixing the problem.
Bob Horton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.