The Middletown Board of Education’s recent approval of a school redistricting plan has sparked debates about race and diversity across the city. The plan, passed last Tuesday, is the first of its kind in nearly 20 years and will move approximately 440 students out of their current schools, including about 80 students currently attending Commodore Macdonough Elementary School, where many Wesleyan students volunteer.
The plans were ordered by the State Board of Education to correct racial imbalance. Macdonough, which is located in Middletown’s lower-income North End, recently saw its minority population exceed the district average by 25 percent the point at which redistricting is required by a state racial balance law passed in 1969. School officials and parents who support the change also hope the plan will address overcrowding at Van Buren Moody Elementary School, where many students from the North End have been bused to correct racial imbalance problems.
“Before this plan was proposed, a report came out that demonstrated that people wanted neighborhood schools,” said Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Barbara Senges, who sits on the Middletown Board of Education. “They didn’t want their children to have to travel 15 to 20 minutes on a bus to get to school. The problem with Macdonough is that it’s physically the smallest elementary school—it doesn’t have room for all the children that live near it, which is largely minority.”
A month prior to the official vote, the city opened up discussions to parents. Although some were pleased with their new assignments, many were opposed to uprooting their children from their current schools into less familiar ones.
“Nobody wants to move—it doesn’t matter when you do it, it doesn’t matter what the reasons are,” Senges said. “Some people bought a house in a certain part of town understanding that their child was attending a certain elementary school, and then all of a sudden someone tells them they have to leave. The bottom line is, this is a tough change for everyone.”
Despite the specified goals of the plan, however, many of the discussions have turned into disputes over racial discrimination. Several parents have expressed a desire to withdraw their children from the system altogether. Despite recent increases in test scores and general improvement in student performance, some parents fear that Macdonough will provide a lower quality of education than the schools their children currently attend.
“I don’t think race can be dismissed as one of the underlying principles,” said Edward McKeon, a parent of two children at Farm Hill Elementary School. “It is an issue. People have expressed that they don’t feel comfortable sending their kids to school with those kids. And it’s pretty clear who those kids are. I think it’s just really sad.”
In anticipation of the transfers many young students will have to make, Middletown Schools will be implementing school welcoming and support policies for the upcoming school year.
“I recognize how difficult this issue has been for so many families, but ultimately I think it is the right thing to move back to neighborhood schools,” said Macdonough Principal John Romeo. “I’m happy to welcome new parents to Macdonough.”
Some parents raised concerns as to whether or not the plans could keep Macdonough in compliance with the racial balance law in the long run. According to Wesleyan English Professor and future Macdonough parent Sally Bachner, redistricting will only adjust Macdonough’s racial balance by two percent. Bachner’s second grader is currently attending Wilbert Snow Elementary School, but will be moved to Macdonough under the new plan.
“What happens if there’s a tiny demographic shift?” Bachner said. “Some of us just want to be there and stay there. I don’t want to revisit this in two years.”
According to the Middletown Press, the redistricting will change Macdonough’s minority population from 67.77 to 64.79 percent.
Other ways to correct Macdonough’s racial imbalance have also been considered. According to Senges, some ideas have included turning Macdonough into a bilingual school, or giving each child a Kindle to encourage reading. One alternative proposal suggested turning Macdonough into an inter-district magnet school, to which high performing students from anywhere in Middletown could apply. Although Wesleyan was involved in the initial planning of this idea, concerns about the school curriculum have, for the time being, halted such discussions.
“Wesleyan really wanted to help us out with this idea, but the plan was thrown out,” said a parent who wished to remain anonymous. “Many of us still hope this plan might get revisited. It could be a great way to revitalize Macdonough and keep it within state compliance.”
According to Romeo and Senges, there is still a possibility that alternative plans will be considered.
“My understanding is that all options are still on the table,” Romeo said. “I don’t think the Superintendent or Board of Education closed the door on any of the options, so I think that many things could be revisited down the road.”
Despite her frustration with the way in which the issue was handled, Bachner said that the plan would ultimately benefit many minority students currently attending the Moody School, which is known to be much wealthier and less diverse. Before redistricting plans were made, the city had addressed racial imbalance problems by bussing small groups of students to different schools.
“Overall, this plan is long overdue in providing a better educational opportunity for kids in the North End,” Bachner said. “Kids shouldn’t be bussed to schools where they’re treated badly, and I’m happy to have my child go to that school.”
McKeon, whose children will also be moved to Macdonough, agreed, suggesting that some of the impressions of Macdonough may also have been based on economic inequality and racial tensions.
“When there was an announcement that a bunch of our kids were going to Macdonough, some of us brought our kids together and realized we had the wrong impression,” he said. “I think Macdonough is going to be successful, and many of those impressions are due to concerns about the North End, but I think the diverse population could be really great for an education.”