Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Hartford Magnet Schools: A Beneficial Burden

Karen Taylor, Second Vice-Chair, Hartford Public Schools

Hartford Magnet Schools: A Beneficial Burden
By Mitchell Pfaff, Anna Barry, and Jack Ricciuti, Trinity College

Mitchell Pfaff (Trinity College ’21) is from Westwood Massachusetts and has a growing interest in politics. 
Anna Barry (Trinity College ’21) is from Sutton, Massachusetts, and attended Worcester Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts. At Trinity, she is a member of the Equestrian Team and a writer for Trinity's chapter of HerCampus, which is an online magazine for college women.
Jack Ricciuti (Roxbury Latin ’17, Trinity College ’21) is a member of the varsity Trinity men’s lacrosse team and intends to major in political science or economics.

Karen Taylor doesn’t ever shy away from a debate. When she engaged the mayor of Hartford in a heated conversation about problems with the city’s schools, he walked away so impressed that, soon after, he appointed her to the School Board.

In all of her other projects, Karen is equally as focused and energetic about her impact on the Hartford community. Aside from being a Member of the Hartford School Board (and a Trinity College alumna), Karen is the Program Director of the Consortium on Higher Achievement and Success, a board member at the Hartford Public Library, and a supporter of the Capital Region Education Council (CREC). A devoted mother, Karen wants to see a better future for the city that she grew up in.[1]

In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court found that Hartford schools were illegally segregated along racial and economic lines in the Sheff v. O’Neill case. The state was ordered to desegregate schools in the greater Hartford area. The implementation and funding of CREC magnet schools was the State of Connecticut’s response to the landmark decision.[2]

Today, however, the citizens of Hartford remain divided when it comes to the CREC magnet schools. By attending a meeting of the Hartford Board of Education and speaking with Karen Taylor we were able to see these stark divisions. At the Board of Education meeting, we witnessed passionate parents speak out against injustices as they voiced their opinions on ways in which the Hartford school system needs to be improved.

These parents’ comments suggest that some in Hartford believe that magnet schools are nothing but a drain on the local school system. Karen Taylor provides another outlook – she sees magnet schools as a way to bring the greater Hartford area together. By integrating the schools in the greater Hartford area, Karen believes that the people of the region will form connections that allow them to work together to solve shared problems. In other words, magnet schools promote building what Harvard Professor Robert Putnam calls social capital. Social capital refers to the value of social interaction and trusting relationships.[3] If the greater Hartford area is able to increase its levels of social capital, then Hartford will marshal its resources collectively to become a more prosperous city.

Benefits of Magnet Schools in Hartford
           Even two decades following the Sheff ruling, Hartford schools remain not only under-funded but also extremely segregated. While the Hartford region covers 87 square miles, the city itself is only about 18 square miles today, surrounded by more than two dozen suburban towns.[4]  In Hartford, Latinos and African-Americans comprise more than three-quarters of the population. In comparison, surrounding towns are predominantly white, as the table below comparing Hartford, West Hartford, and East Hartford indicates.

Table: Racial and Ethnic Composition of Hartford and Neighboring Cities

East Hartford
West Hartford
Total population
Percent White (non-Hispanic)
Percent Black (non-Hispanic)
Percent Asian (non-Hispanic)
Percent Hispanic
Source: U.S. Census, American Community Survey 5-year estimates, 2011-2014

The CREC magnet schools offer some children in Hartford an escape from the relatively low performing district schools in the city. CREC advertises that, in contrast to the city’s schools, a majority of CREC graduates attend post-secondary education programs.[5] By providing students from lower income areas with the tools to succeed, magnet schools facilitate the lessening of socio-economic inequality. Moreover, by drawing children from across district lines, magnet schools bring together children and parents from different backgrounds, who may have never met otherwise. This creates a form of social capital known as bridging, which describes the growth of relationships between diverse groups of people.[6]

People like Karen Taylor hope that by bringing together people from the many different communities in the greater Hartford area, they can facilitate the creation of a more unified Hartford region. If they are able to break down the strong ethnic and socioeconomic divisions that plague the region, they will form a more cohesive community, perhaps even leading to a more even distribution of wealth.

Challenges with Magnet Schools in Hartford
While there are a great deal of positive effects from magnet schools within Hartford, there are also a few negatives in the way the system currently is implemented. One issue is the potential damage to bonding social capital. Bonding is a form of social capital that is created by forming deeper and more meaningful relationships among people within a specific group.[7] Though magnet schools have been able to successfully break down divisions along ethnic and economic lines and across towns in greater Hartford, they have also divided neighbors within Hartford. This division is the result of the lottery system used to determine which children can go to a magnet school. To ensure integration, placement through the lottery system factors in a student’s race or ethnicity. Magnet schools admit no more than 75% students that are Black and Latino, while Whites and Asians, referred to as “reduced isolation” students, must make up the remaining 25% of each school.[8]

         This 75-25 ratio in magnet schools was mandated as a way to desegregate schools. Meanwhile, segregation persists because many Blacks and Latinos within Hartford are eager to enroll in these schools, but Whites and Asians who primarily live in the suburbs have been less interested. Blacks and Latinos are forced to wait in line for a seat, unable to enroll until more reduced isolation students decide to join them. Currently half of Hartford’s youth are in CREC schools, but some observers suggest that interest from White and Asian students may have “maxed out.”[9] Therefore, those Black and Latino students who want a seat, but are unable to get one, are forced to go to segregated Hartford public schools.

As a result of these pressures, Karen Taylor has experienced Hartford parents complaining that the system is rigged if their child is not picked by the lottery. This anger can divide neighbors along the lines of those who attend magnet schools and those who attend regular public schools.

Hartford’s Road to Recovery
Despite these challenges, Karen Taylor sees magnet schools as an effective long-term solution to undo extreme segregation and socioeconomic disparity in greater Hartford. Magnet schools do have short-term consequences that can lead to more localized divisions among neighbors and anger from those who are unable to benefit from the lottery system. These smaller fractures within neighborhoods will slowly be healed as the greater Hartford area becomes more unified and equal. Through the early stages of the unification of Hartford, it will be rough and divisive. Having only begun to receive attention and funding as recently as 2003, the CREC schools are very much in their infancy.[10] The process of undoing decades of segregation is a long and grueling one. While the people of Hartford will continue to try to repair bonding social capital, the responsibility for mending divides is not theirs alone. Those who live in the suburbs of Hartford should work to benefit the greater Hartford area as a whole by sending their kids to magnet schools. When more suburban students attend CREC magnet schools, it allows more children from Hartford to attend those same magnet schools.

As Karen Taylor remarked, “the future is integrated.” All parts of the region will need to come together, especially the suburbs, in order for the Hartford region to create opportunities for the next generation that allow it to achieve its full potential.

This article is the third in a series of four student blog posts featured from Trinity Assistant Professor Abigail Williamson's first-year seminar Civic Engagement and Community as described in my blog post Classroom to Community at Trinity.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photo of Karen Taylor from the Hartford Public Schools' website

[1] Karen T. Taylor, “40 Under Forty 2017” Hartford Business.com, (July 14, 2017) http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/article/20170714/PRINTEDITION/307129855
[2] NAACP. "NAACP Legal Defense Fund : Defend, Educate, Empower." Sheff v. O'Neill | NAACP LDF. 2014. Accessed December 10, 2017. http://www.naacpldf.org/case-issue/sheff-v-oneill.
[3] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
[4] Chen, Xiangming, and Nick Bacon. Confronting urban legacy: rediscovering Hartford and New England’s forgotten cities. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015.
[5] CREC Foundation. "Open Choice Registration." CREC. 2017. Accessed November 05, 2017.
[6] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
[7] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
[8] Torre, Vanessa de la, and Matthew Kauffman. “As Sheff V. O'Neill Case Persists, Frustrations Grow Over Minority Students Left Out Of Magnet Schools.” Courant Community, Hartford Courant, 23 Sept. 2017, www.courant.com/community/hartford/hc-hartford-sheff-case-discrimination-claim-20170912-story.html.
[9] Joffe-Walt, Chana. WBEZ. 2015, August 7. 563: The Problem We All Live With- Part Two. This American Life. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/563/the-problem-we-all-live-with-part-two?act=1 
[10] Kennedy, Tim. "Hartford: Integrating Schools in a Segregated Place." Teach For America. June 29, 2016. Accessed November 20, 2017. https://www.teachforamerica.org/one-day-magazine/hartford-integrating-schools-segregated-place.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very eye-opening piece, thank you! Hartford is so lucky to have Karen Taylor - her dedication and passion is an inspiration for a bright and integrated future.