By ASHLEY HELMS
Newly-enacted policy changes for assigning incoming kindergarten students to classes in the Mamaroneck Union Free School District will, ideally, bring about equality in the number of non-white students in each district kindergarten class.
The Board of Education unanimously approved the policy revisions to kindergarten classroom assignments on Jan. 28, with the most notable change being the district will now consider a student’s race and economic characteristics when assigning them to classes.
In previous years, only the students’ age and social, emotional and physical maturity, along with academic achievement and where they went to preschool, were considered. Students were also allowed to be paired with a friend or sibling following a formal request by parents, which remains intact.
The policy changes stem from the district coming under investigation in August 2012 by the U.S Department of Education Office for Civil Rights following a complaint submitted to the office by Larchmont resident and Central School parent Rina Jimenez.
Jimenez alleged that non-white students in Central School kindergarten classes were disproportionately assigned to one of four classes. Jimenez also pointed out that the teacher assigned to the class with mostly non-white students was black while the other three teachers were white. Jimenez’s son was in the class with non-white students.
Central School staff maintained that the teachers for each kindergarten class were selected randomly by writing a teacher’s name at the top of each class list.
Geography seemed to play a role in which class students were assigned.
In one instance, students living in Larchmont Acres East, an apartment complex with predominantly non-white residents, were all assigned to the same class. In the Lachmont Acres West cooperative, one Hispanic student from the complex was assigned to the same class as the non-white students and the three white students from the same complex were assigned to other sections.
While the addresses of students were provided before class assignments were made, Central School staff denied using this information during class assignments.
The Office for Civil Rights determined in late August 2012 that the district applied its criteria for assigning classes inconsistently and, though its placement policies were race-neutral on their face, they had a significantly disproportionate impact based on race or national origin.
After signing a resolution with the office in August 2012, the district was ordered to provide the office with data regarding the number of students assigned to each class for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years based on race and national origin to ensure application of uniform criteria.
The investigation concluded in September 2013.
The district maintained it did not have knowledge of the students’ race when assigning them and did not intentionally segregate classes, but they did have the names of the incoming students.
Debbie Manetta, public relations officer for the school district, said the policy changes will ensure that criteria for assigning the students will be applied consistently. Manetta pointed to an extraordinarily high number of parental requests for specific classes for their children, including many sets of twins who wanted to be placed together, in the 2012-2013 school year. The new policies are intended to also formalize the procedures for special class requests, Manetta said.
“[Parental requests] may be considered as one factor in the placement process if it doesn’t produce disparities in classes. I think overall there’s a heightened sense of awareness,” Manetta said.
According to documents from the August 2012 Office of Civil Rights investigation, the office found nine parents that identified a friend with whom their child wanted to be in class on the required parental forms. Of those, seven were granted their requests all or in part. Six of those students were white and one was Hispanic. OCR determined that of the two requests that weren’t granted, one was Hispanic and one was biracial.
Manetta said the district has put a considerable amount of thought and effort into revisiting the policies since the Office of Civil Rights initiated its investigation. The district will continue to make sure honoring a large number of classroom requests won’t create an imbalance.
“The district has worked in conjunction with OCR, which has signed off on the efforts,” Manetta said.
Jimenez declined to comment on the policy changes or the investigation.
Superintendent Dr. Robert Shaps could not be reached for comment as of press time.