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Hamden public schools struggle with racial imbalance battle

Hamden Public Schools Superintendent Gary Highsmith stands for a portrait in the school district’s central offices on September 7, 2023.
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Hamden Public Schools Superintendent Gary Highsmith believes it's time to look at what the state is considering to be racially imbalanced.

Hamden Public Schools have been struggling with desegregating their schools ever since a report released in 2019 classified three elementary schools in town as racially imbalanced. The district requires Hamden by state law to remap its school district in order to integrate schools.

A report by State Education officials named Church Street School, located in South Hamden, as a school that needed to be desegregated. The state flagged Church Street School for having a large number of non-white students, although it is located in a neighborhood largely made up of Black and brown families. Shepherd Glen and Helen Street Schools, also located in South Hamden, were identified by the state as schools that were dealing with impending racial imbalance.

In 2018 the district planned to help resolve the issue by closing Church Street and Shepherd Glen, but families said this would perpetuate existing inequities in the community.

The district has to start its plan to integrate the schools from scratch. Gary Highsmith, superintendent of Hamden Public Schools, said the plan would’ve required more effort on the Black and brown families than it would’ve for the white families.

“Parents are saying to me, ‘No, we like the school in our neighborhood, we don’t want our kids shipped way across town.’ You don’t want to put the burden on Black and brown communities to move from one part of town to the other,” Highsmith said. “If you’re gonna do it, you have to do it in a way that’s systemic and uniform and applied evenly across town.”

This is all happening because of a state-mandated formula for schools to have balanced ratios of Black, Latino, Asian, and white students, Highsmith said.

“There are a number of school districts who are going through this, me in particular, who have a concern about the formula for determining whether a school is racially balanced,” Highsmith said. “It’s really sort of: How many white students do you have? And how many of everybody else do you have?”

The most diverse school in his district is considered to be racially imbalanced, Highsmith said. Which he believes to be counterintuitive, adding that he thinks it's time to look at what the state is considering to be racially imbalanced.

Hamden is looking to get community feedback on what parents think is best. They’ll soon start hosting public forums. It’ll likely take a couple years for a plan to come together, Highsmith said.

“This plan has the potential to challenge some thinking in this town that’s been in place for a long time,” Highsmith said. “I think you’ll have some people from communities of color who are concerned about the fact that their kids may or may not be going to schools in their neighborhood anymore, which may make accessing school more challenging for them. There are so many things to consider and so much nuance that hasn’t been taken into account.”

Lesley Cosme Torres is an Education Reporter at Connecticut Public. She reports on education inequities across the state and also focuses on Connecticut's Hispanic and Latino residents, with a particular focus on the Puerto Rican community. Her coverage spans from LGBTQ+ discrimination in K-12 schools, book ban attempts across CT, student mental health concerns, and more. She reports out of Fairfield county and Hartford.

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