World and Nation

Wealthy Conn. School District Confronts Racial Imbalance

More than half a century after the landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, this overwhelmingly white and wealthy town is beginning to confront the yawning racial imbalance in its cozy, well-groomed neighborhood schools.

Every year since 2000, the Connecticut Department of Education has sent Greenwich — along with other towns like West Hartford and, more recently, Fairfield and Groton — warning letters citing specific schools in danger of violating state laws on racial balance by having student bodies far less diverse than their districts over all.

Those districts and a dozen others are bracing for another round of warnings after the Education Department reviewed this year's list on Thursday. But little changes from year to year, and the state has rarely, if ever, followed through with sanctions like withholding money to force changes.

Greenwich's new superintendent — who until last summer was the state education commissioner, responsible for enforcing the racial balance law — has vowed to get serious about spreading minority students more equally among the district's 14 elementary and middle schools, rankling many parents for whom top-notch education without widespread busing was a major incentive to buy expensive homes here. The superintendent, Betty J. Sternberg, has convened a 44-person task force to tackle the problem, bluntly declaring, "Our schools are becoming more segregated."

Though Greenwich's population of 61,000 is 90 percent white, according to the census, nearly a quarter of the public school system's 8,800 students are black, Hispanic or Asian. Yet their representation in many elementary and middle schools is lopsided.

At the Old Greenwich School, in a neighborhood on the east side of town near Stamford where modest fixer-uppers can fetch $1 million, school officials say the student body is roughly 95 percent white. On the west side of town near Port Chester, N.Y., an increasingly Hispanic area where there is a large housing project, the Hamilton Avenue School is 59 percent minority and the New Lebanon School is 53 percent minority, according to district officials. Both are in violation of state law by being more than 25 percentage points off the district average in terms of racial mix. (Old Greenwich, meanwhile, is likely to be found in "impending" violation for deviating from the state average by at least 15 points.)

The state law mandates that a district must develop a plan to diversify any school more than 25 points off the district's average. Greenwich has committed to spend $29 million on a new building for Hamilton Avenue and has made it a magnet school in hopes of attracting white students from throughout the district.

But Sternberg said such efforts — along with past attempts to improve the heavily minority schools by reducing class sizes — did little to address the looming issue of racial isolation in a district where test scores show a significant gap between racial groups. In both elementary and middle schools, the proportion of white students meeting state goals in reading is 40 percentage points higher than the proportion of black students and 25 points higher than Hispanics. The gaps in math are even larger.