GREENWICH — The future of the Western Middle School magnet theme remains murky.
School board members and Western officials are wrestling with how to develop and market a magnet theme that could attract students from Central and Eastern and balance the school’s racial makeup. Some even suggested removing the magnet classification entirely during a Board of Education retreat this week.
The principal of Western and two educators presented their latest idea for a new magnet program: AVID Schoolwide, which would imbed the strategies of the program, such as critical reading skills and organization methods, into the regular curriculum.
AVID is currently in three district schools, including Western, as an elective. The proposal would expand it to all students at the middle school.
Board members unanimously supported AVID Schoolwide as a way to improve student performance, but not necessarily as a magnet theme that would attract Eastern and Central families.
“Your team is excited, and when someone is excited, that means success,” board member Kathleen Stowe said. “If we do want to do a magnet, let that be central office’s job. I don’t think you need to work on that.”
Gordon Beinstein, the principal of Western, left the meeting with the understanding that board members wish Western to remain a magnet school, but were comfortable with the theme being one whose priority would be what is best for current Western students.
“As a building principal, it is my responsibility to do what is best for the students currently in my building, and that is the expansion of the AVID program,” Beinstein said in an email Friday morning.
The magnet theme change marks another effort by administrators to balance the racial makeup of Western, where 56 percent of students are students of color, according to district enrollment data from October. That is 17 percent higher than the district average, and nears the state definition of racial imbalance.
For many years, Greenwich Public Schools have been cited for buildings that are much more or much less diverse than the district average. In response, the district drafted a Racial Balance Plan, approved by the state, which relies on magnet schools to even out racial disparities. But schools in western Greenwich have had difficulty attracting students from other parts of town.
Western became an International Baccalaureate school in 2013 in an effort to attract incoming sixth-graders from International School at Dundee, an elementary IB school, but the magnet failed to attract ISD students.
In fact, more students, 16 in total, applied to be magnet students at Western without a specified theme this past year than during its last four years combined as an IB school. Anecdotally, many of those students came from Parkway because the families thought the school would be a better fit for their children, said Stowe, who has a child at Parkway.
A few board members questioned AVID Schoolwide as a magnet because at Greenwich High School, Central and Western, the program targets children who are typically underrepresented on college campuses.
“AVID has been promoted as for kids from families who don’t have college experience,” board member Gaetane Francis said. “How does this apply to everyone?”
The process of discussing, researching and developing a new theme did not go as Francis had anticipated, she said. She said she expected a discussion about criteria the district looks for in a magnet, the direction the district would take with a program, and a greater focus on what would draw students to Western.
Board Secretary Barbara O’Neill suggested the team of Western educators rebrand AVID Schoolwide.
“I think you need to find a new name for it,” O’Neill said. “I don’t think some middle schoolers want to go around saying, ‘I’m an AVID kid.’”
Beinstein and his team resolved to educate parents on the difference between the AVID elective program and the AVID Schoolwide system.
The elective is designed for children who are typically the first in their families headed to college. The schoolwide system, he said, is designed to fill a student’s toolbox with strategies they can use throughout their academic pursuits and in their professional lives.
“I think it was very fair of the board to raise the question about how much a draw a program like AVID would be for the community,” he said.
The Western representatives did not have data showing parents would come to Western for an AVID Schoolwide theme, board member Peter Sherr observed.
But Francis, Sherr and fellow board member Kathleen Stowe were open to taking out the magnet theme entirely.
Since the school is impending racial imbalance, but not racially imbalanced, and AVID Schoolwide is the right thing to do for the catchment, the district should “ditch the magnet discussion,” Sherr said.
But board Chair Peter Bernstein and others disagreed with moving away from keeping Western a magnet school with a theme.
“I don’t want to deprive people from the opportunity to go to Western,” Bernstein said.
The discussion will be continued in March, Beinstein said.
The board posed some questions about the system and some budgetary items, so the Western team will be back in front of the board in March to answer these questions, Beinstein said.
“I do hope that others in town not fortunate enough to feed into Western come and see what we have to offer, but it doesn’t make sense to explore other options in the hope of being more attractive to outside students at the expense of what is currently energizing staff, engaging parents and impacting kids so positively,” he said.