Fairfield may expand its preschool program to include Dwight School next year as a way to address the racial imbalance at McKinley School.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. David Title presented the plan to the Board of Education Tuesday. Title said state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor contacted the district over the summer to address the issue.
According to Connecticut General Statute 10-226, no school can have a nonwhite student population of more than 25 percentage points above its district's average. The average in Fairfield is 18.89 percent. McKinley's population for the 2011-2012 school year was comprised of 45.7 percent nonwhite students, which translates to a 26.81 "absolute imbalance" -- nearly 2 percentage points above the maximum.
McKinley has been on alert with the state for a racially imbalanced population since 2005, when it was designated "impending imbalance."
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Adding preschool classes to Dwight "will serve the dual purpose of bringing a high quality preschool program to an underserved population and enhancing our ability to bring McKinley School into racial balance," Title wrote in a letter explaining the plan to Pryor.
Dwight's student population -- which last year included 15.12 percent minority students -- is well under the maximum for the state's racial imbalance law.
"Dwight has a room, they're looking for kids, and the community is interested," Title said. The program would consist of two classes (one 3-year-old, one 4-year-old) of approximately 18 students each. One class would be in the mornings and the other in the afternoon.
Costs would be "modest, one-time expenses" for equipment and appropriate furniture, Title said.
The model for the Dwight program would follow Burr School's recently expanded preschool program, which is serving more low-income families. The plan includes both the option for students to stay through fifth grade (even if they don't live in the Burr neighborhood) and parents with a child in the preschool can choose to send the rest of the siblings to Burr.
Like Burr's, Dwight's program would be open to the whole district and could help bring some of McKinley's preschool population to Dwight. Since preschool classes at McKinley tended to have a larger nonwhite population than the rest of the school, moving the students helped address the balance.
Board member John Convertito questioned whether adding the preschool Dwight would actually help McKinley's imbalance -- for example, if the majority of families that applied to attend Dwight's program were white, it would "make [McKinley's] problem worse."
But the district's Elementary Education Director Anna Cutaia-Leonard told the board, "We have not had a problem diversifying Burr." She explained that the district prioritizes children who qualify for free pre-school and until this year haven't had to turn a family away. Currently, three or four families are on the waitlist for preschool programs in Fairfield.
The plan to add a preschool to Dwight, if approved by Fairfield's board and the state Board of Education, would be the third in a series of steps to address the imbalance at McKinley. The other plans to address the problem were moving McKinley's preschool program to Fairfield Warde High School's Early Childhood Center and implementing an opt-in/opt-out program for McKinley families.
Title suggested Tuesday that in addition to adding a preschool to Dwight, the "opt-out" program for McKinley be terminated because families choosing to leave for another school tended to be white. The opt-in plan -- meaning families from other schools could apply to go to McKinley -- is helping improve the ratio, Title said.
The board will vote on the plan at a later meeting (the next is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 27). Board member Sue Brand asked that the board be given the educational rationales behind the proposal -- "because that's actually what's most important."