Walter Livingston Morton IV knew what was at stake when Hamden tried to figure out how to bring its schools into racial “balance” — because he had walked students’ shoes himself.
Morton is the only African-American member and one of only two nonwhite members of Hamden’s nine-member Board of Education, which oversees a district with a 62 percent nonwhite student enrollment.
That board has just completed a controversial once-in-a-generation plan to reconfigure the town’s schools. It plans to close two schools, boot the Wintergreen magnet school to make way for a combination special-ed center and pre-K-5 school, and make all elementary schools in Hamden K-5 instead of K-6 by consolidating and moving all sixth grades to the middle school. (Read about that here and here.)
‘I’m optimistic,” Morton said of the plan’s potential to address a growing achievement gap in town and position the school system for the future.
The board acted in part because of financial pressures, in part because of declining student enrollment (despite a growing town population), and in part because the state ruled that some of its schools are insufficiently white.
Morton knew that the state has an “arcane” definition of “racial balance,” as he put it Thursday during an appearance on WNHH FM’s “Dateline Hamden” program: Shepherd Glen School has roughly equal percentages of white, black, Latinx, and Asian-American students, making it perhaps the ultimate “integrated”/“diverse” school. Some 27 languages are spoken there. Yet the State Board of Education declared it in violation of “racial balance” guidelines because it bases its definition purely on the percentage of nonwhite students, and Shepherd Glen had a 78.81 percent nonwhite population. That’s more than 15 percent above the Hamden school district’s nonwhite student population, and therefore past the allowable threshold.
Morton also heard from parents in southern Hamden who like Shepherd Glen and Church Street Schools, the two that will eventually close under the redistricting plan the board approved in December. Those schools have large African-American populations. The parents wanted their schools to stay open. Is it right for students of color to have to travel farther to school just to sit next to more white students? they asked him.
The board took those concerns seriously. Districts throughout Connecticut have wrestled with similar concerns since the State Supreme Court ordered Hartford schools desegregated in the landmark 1996 Sheff v O’Neill case; some proposed remedies have produced unanticipated results, like a New Haven regional magnet school that ended up discriminating against black families before having to close its doors this year.
The redistricting plan also builds on the post-Sheff approach of favoring magnet schools over geographically conscribed neighborhood schools. Eventually two of the schools will become district-wide magnets, one with an arts theme, one with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) focus.
During the redistricting debate, Morton, who is 27, thought back to his own experiences growing up in Hamden. He attended the diverse West Woods and Church Street Schools. He graduated from Hamden High in 2009, went on to Penn State and the U.S. Army, then decided to return home. (“Hamden raised me,” and he wanted to help make it a better place, he explained.)
“Diversity is important,” he said. “There are moral reasons for being racially balanced” as well as practical reasons: “I’m a better person for going to diverse schools, being able to interact with people of all walks of life.”
The board did consider following the lead of Stamford and Groton and seeking a “special diversity status” for Shepherd Glen, with the argument that an “imbalanced” designation makes no sense in that case, Morton said. But ultimately, members concluded it makes sense to close the school because it needs to be renovated and expanded. The current site doesn’t have enough room to do that, he said.
Meanwhile, the broader redistricting plan will address a growing achievement gap that leaves students of color disproportionately behind by adding universal pre-K, Morton said. By adding a sixth grade to the middle school, the plan opens up space to convert all elementary schools from K-6 to pre-K-5.
Click on the play arrow to watch the full discussion about Hamden schools with Board of Education member Walter Livingston Morton IV on WNHH FM’s “Dateline Hamden.” Note: The show does not begin until the 1:35-minute mark