Committee advocates school redistricting

The New Haven Board of Education’s school redistricting committee discussed strategies to boost school enrollment in grades K-8.
The New Haven Board of Education’s school redistricting committee discussed strategies to boost school enrollment in grades K-8. Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

New Haven parents will soon find out whether they will have an easier time getting their children enrolled in neighborhood public schools.

At the Wednesday night meeting of the New Haven Board of Education’s school redistricting committee, the 11 members present motioned to pass along 24 recommendations to the school board for a final vote. The recommendations — outlined in the committee’s 67-page report — advise expanding and reallocating the city’s current capacity for K-8 education and are intended to yield more enrollment openings at local schools. Redistricting consultant and former Education Board Director of Magnet Schools Ed Linehan chairs the 15-member committee, which also includes aldermen, district administrators, school board members, teachers and parents.

“I think there’s a very good chance the Board will move on many of these recommendations,” Linehan said after the meeting. “Some are short-term, such as the establishment of four city-wide zones, that will give students priority to attend schools within their designated quadrant. Others are more long-term, such as the suggestions for expanding and potentially building three new schools.”

The committee’s report is the product of a six-month-long process that started in April after Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo proposed the formation of an advisory group tasked with studying “school attendance zone and enrollment issues that have emerged as a result of the district’s transition to a predominantly K-8 school organization,” according to the committee’s mission statement.

Linehan said the central problem is a shortage of classroom space on the city’s east side.

“That’s where we really need to expand capacity. The days of kids being able to walk to the only school they’re eligible to go to are over. The draw of magnet and suburban schools now means that families have a lot more choice, but it also means that enrollment is outstripping capacity in certain parts of town,” Linehan said. “What we’ve done is suggest a number of steps to create districting zones in areas that don’t currently have them and to give families multiple options if the neighborhood school closest to them is over-enrolled.”

According to Board Chief Operating Officer Will Clark, the prospect of new school construction has raised red flags among the public about further school change.

“I’ve been stopped on the street about references to construction,” Clark said at the meeting. “There’s a perception out there that we’re spending more money. I hate for the recommendations to be lost in this idea of: ‘There they go again, asking for more money.’”

Clark underscored the advisory role of the committee, asking Linehan to make the document more explicit about the committee’s authority, which is only to recommend planning guidelines for the Board, not to make decisions for the school district. Linehan agreed, adding that he would include additional language in the document’s introduction clarifying the Board’s ultimate jurisdiction over all policy decisions.

Linehan told the committee members and guests present that after incorporating input from the meeting, he will pass the report along to the Board within three weeks. The Board will then consider the committee’s recommendations, but its timeline for adoption and implementation is uncertain.

Michele Bonanno, a committee member and teacher at the Ross Woodward Classical Studies School, stressed the importance of students having the option to attend schools close to home. With 1021 children eligible to enroll and a maximum student capacity of 421, Ross Woodward has the largest gap between enrollment eligibility and availability of all New Haven K-8 schools.

“What the recommendations will hopefully accomplish is to give every kid the opportunity to attend a school nearby. Walkability is a major issue that this committee heard about from parents at the open hearing last week,” Bonanno said. “By redrawing certain zoning lines and giving students priority not just for their neighborhood school but for a set of schools within their zone, we can help ease the enrollment issues that make kids have to travel across town for school when there’s a closer school down the block or a few minutes away.”

Upcoming Oct. 1 New Haven Public Schools enrollment figures will provide the Board of Education with updated school capacity data as it considers the redistricting committee’s recommendations.

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