Hamden’s school district is planning sweeping once-in-a generation changes, leading to intensive debate about how best to make public education racially diverse and how best to cut costs in hard fiscal times.
The town’s Board of Education (BOE) is scheduled to vote Thursday on part of a plan to restructure Hamden’s public elementary schools. The proposed changes are a response to limited public education funding, decreasing school enrollment, and a state mandate on diversity in public schools.
The school board plans to hold a final review meeting Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. at the Hamden school superintendent’s office at 60 Putnam Ave. to discuss the proposed changes. The board will then vote on the final recommendation at a meeting at the middle school Thursday beginning at 7 p.m.
If all goes as planned, Thursday’s vote will determine which elementary schools the town will close, and which schools will undergo renovations. The plans also call for moving sixth graders to Hamden Middle School, which would require an additional wing.
The deliberations raise the question of how best to address racial imbalances, a question that New Haven has grappled with as well. The town is also weighing how best to cut costs without compromising quality of education, another issue that’s been on the agenda of New Haven’s Board of Education as it continues to wrestle with multi-million-dollar deficits.
The Hamden changes will also directly affect the families of 120-odd students from New Haven who attend the regional Wintergreen Interdistrict magnet school.
As official begin making final decisions about the changes, here’s a guide through the thicket of issues at play, in a question-and-answer “explainer” format.
What brought all this about?
The plans have been in the works for years, spurred by factors ranging from money to race.
‘What we’re really talking about is race and economic inequality, and a lack of resources,” said Legislative Council member Justin Farmer, who represents southern Hamden.
Hamden’s school finances are tight. The system is projected to run a $4 million deficit in the next fiscal year growing to an $8.8 million deficit in the 2022-23 fiscal year unless it starts making structural changes, according to a report prepared for the BOE by District Management Group (Read that report here.) Even the changes on the table in the redistricting plan do not close the gap.
In addition to a tight budget, school enrollment in Hamden has decreased significantly in recent years. According to the District Management Group report, public school enrollment across the state is forecast to drop by 9 percent between 2013 and 2020. The report anticipates an 18 percent decrease in Hamden public school enrollment in that same period.
The district currently has 5,350 students. If trends continue, the number would drop to 4,358 by 2027.
Most immediately, the changes also respond to a state-mandated racial diversity quota that some of Hamden’s schools fail to meet. The state notified the Hamden BOE in June that the Church Street, Helen Street, and Shepherd Glen Schools all have imbalances.
What makes a school “imbalanced”?
The state says that any school with a minority enrollment 25 percentage points above or below the district’s overall percentage is an imbalanced school. Any school with minority enrollment between 15 and 25 percentage points above or below the district’s total minority percentage has an impending imbalance.
Hamden has 62.79 percent districtwide minority enrollment. The Church Street, Helen Street, and Shepherd Glen schools all have minority enrollments exceeding 15 percent above that level, meaning they have impending imbalances.
To the state, minority students are “those whose race is defined as other than white.” This includes African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American students.
Hamden Schools Superintendent Jody Goeler (pictured) called the state’s racial balancing statute “a bit arcane” because it “only looks at white and non-white.”
Goeler used the Shepherd Glen School to illustrate his point. The school is about one third black, one third white, and one third students of other races.
By most measures, he said, it’s a balanced, racially diverse school. Still, it doesn’t meet the state’s standards because the only metric the racial balancing statute uses is the proportion of non-white students.
What’s the solution?
With the help of consulting firms Milone and MacBroom and District Management Group, the BOE came up with several variations on a theme. The proposed changes involve shutting down two elementary schools and moving their students to other elementary schools. The BOE has narrowed down the choices to three possible scenarios. These would involve closing the Church Street and Dunbar Hill schools; Church Street and Shepherd Glen; or Dunbar Hill and Helen Street. Of the three scenarios, the board deemed unofficially that the best option will be closing the Church Street and Shepherd Glen schools.
(Click here for details of the entire proposal on a dedicated Board of Ed page.)
Officials acknowledge that shutting down schools may not be popular.
“No one likes the idea of losing a neighborhood school,” Hamden Sate Rep. Mike D’Agostino, a former BOE member who has remained involved in education issues, told the Independent. “But these things have to happen. And it’s important to note that those kids are not going to be left in the lurch.
[And they’re] not just going to lay off a bunch of teachers.” He said plans will also involve renovating and expanding some schools.
All three scenarios involve renovating the West Woods School. The school is in bad shape, with both leaky ceilings and “weepy floors,” due to ground water infiltration, and the state legislature has promised funding for their renovation, as well as for the Shepherd Glen School.
Two years ago, the town got plans approved by the state to renovate the West Woods school and the Shepherd Glen school. If the Shepherd Glen school is closed down, the town will instead renovate the Dunbar Hill School. Shepherd Glen will be renovated only if the BOE decides not to close it — which, according to Council Member Lauren Garrett, is unlikely.
The District Management Group estimated that each of the three possible scenarios could save the district around $3 million per year starting in 2021. The report does factor in that annual transportation costs would increase by $50,000 to $300,000.
Students from West Woods would go to the Wintergreen school building while the renovations are taking place. The school is currently a magnet run by Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), not by Hamden’s BOE. The town owns the property; a part of the proposed changes involves taking occupancy of the school back and possibly using the building as a transition site.
Can Hamden just do that?
The town can’t go ahead and reclaim the school until the Legislative Council reaches an agreement with ACES to do that. And ACES and Wintergreen parents and students are not happy about the prospect of the town taking back the school.
ACES is trying to figure out how it can buy the building from the town and keep the school as a magnet school. If it’s unable to come to an agreement with the town to buy the building, the school would be incorporated into Hamden public schools, and the Shepherd Glen and Church Street schools will be closed down. The Wintergreen school will then serve as a swing space for students from the West Woods school and possibly other schools during their renovations; once those renovations are done, it would become a regular district school.
If the ACES board and the Legislative Council do come to a purchasing agreement, however, ACES will keep the Wintergreen School, and the town would shut down only one school — either Shepherd Glen or Church Street. It will also have to find a swing space for students from the schools undergoing renovations. There have been discussions about using ACES property on Skiff Street that will be vacated in July.
Closing certain schools would allow the district to consolidate students into larger schools and save money, as running additional schools is costly. Consolidating students into larger schools would also make it easier to address diversity imbalances, because larger schools draw from larger areas, making it easier to control the school’s demographics.
Why take back Wintergreen if the town’s closing other schools and enrollment is down?
Because the proposal is not just about closing down schools. Its aim is a broader restructuring of the system and reallocating of resources. The Wintergreen School is in good condition, and would be able to accommodate students from schools that will be shut down, and from schools undergoing renovations.
Reclaiming the Wintergreen school will also mean the town will no longer have to pay ACES to send Hamden students there. The town estimates that 70 percent of Wintergreen students would move to Hamden public schools if the town takes back the building. Many Wintergreen parents have cast doubt on this estimate, however, saying the number would likely be far less.
“This is a really difficult situation for Wintergreen,” Lauren Garrett told the Independent. “They’re going to be displaced from their administrations, and their educational experience. I really feel for them, but from the perspective of Hamden Public Schools, Wintergreen got way too expensive for Hamden.” According to Garrett, Hamden has to pay ACES tuition for the Hamden students who go there, and tuition has increased every year in recent years. Another factor that people have not been talking about, Garrett added, is that Wintergreen has not been performing as well as Hamden’s district schools.
The town is still negotiating with ACES about the Wintergreen school. If ACES is going to keep the school, it will have to buy the property. However, if the town takes over the school, many Wintergreen students will have to be relocated to other schools.
Some residents argue that the move would be difficult for many Wintergreen students. Click here to read a New Haven Register story about pleas parents made to the BOE not to take back Wintergreen.
If the BOE can reach an agreement with ACES before Thursday night, it will be able to go ahead and vote to close the Shepherd Glen and Church Street schools. If it can’t reach an agreement on the Wintergreen School, however, that could prevent members from deciding which schools to close at this point.
What else is planned?
Finally, the BOE plans to send sixth graders to Hamden Middle School (HMS) instead of keeping them in the elementary schools. This change has become a priority for the school board, and is included in all three of the proposed scenarios.
Relocating sixth graders to the middle school will require building an additional wing at HMS. The school is built in a way that will allow that addition to take place even while the rest of the school operates normally.
Why move the sixth-graders to the middle school?
That has less to do with school funding and demographics, and more to do with the belief that sixth graders belong in middle school rather than elementary school.
According to D’Agostino, this change is mostly about pedagogical philosophy and the belief that sixth graders could benefit from being in a school with older, rather than younger, students. Officials also worry that the sixth-grade curriculum puts a strain on elementary school teachers. If placed in the middle school, sixth graders would have access to teachers who specialize, and therefore can provide their students with a deeper understanding of subjects such as foreign languages and more advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
What are the consequences of closing schools?
Council member Farmer said some of his constituents complain that closures may force some students to travel farther than they do now to get to school. These distances can perpetuate already existing inequalities, he said. Many students in Hamden already deal with difficulties that other students don’t such as poverty, disabilities, and emotional trauma. If students for whom going to school at all is especially difficult are forced to make a longer commute to school, that will simply compound the challenges they already face.
School closures may also affect property values. Some properties will decrease in value because of the increased distance to the nearest elementary school, he said.
Then there is the question of what to do with the buildings. According to Farmer, there has been discussion of turning them into community centers, using them for office space, or demolishing them.
Officials argue that closing certain schools is both necessary and beneficial, because the closures are a part of a larger initiative.
“There’s nothing positive about a school closure,” Mayor Curt Leng told the Independent, but you have to look at the whole picture to understand why the town is doing it. The town has to downsize its schools, he said, but this will also help make the schools better by implementing other changes like moving sixth grade to middle school, and introducing pre-K to all of the elementary schools.
So what happens next?
If all goes as planned, Thursday’s meeting will determine which schools will close and which construction plans the town will pursue. The board will decide on other parts of the plans, like how to redraw school attendance zones, later on in the process.
No matter what happens, Hamden’s schools have a long and difficult road ahead.
“Anytime that a town and a school district look to make major changes, it’s an enormous challenge because there isn’t one good answer because what you’re choosing from are many imperfect solutions,” said Mayor Leng. “Any decision that is made is going to upset a certain number of families that really like their schools.”
Looking on the bright side, Leng said, “this process has shown that many people in the town really like their school.”
The most difficult part is still to come. “Whatever decision we make,” said Justin Farmer, “is not the real decision ahead of us. The real decision is how we will improve equity in our school system in the future.”
For Farmer, the real questions come down to how the school system is going to address the needs of students for whom English is a second language, students with emotional trauma, students with disabilities, and students who are struggling because of other factors in their lives. “That’s part of the school, but that’s not been part of the conversation yet.” In terms of this week’s decisions, he argued, “it doesn’t make a difference until we have those harder conversations.”