School desegregation under-enforced

In a report released earlier this month, the Connecticut State Department of Education found that Hartford students enrolled in desegregated magnet and suburban schools performed substantially better than their peers in neighborhood Hartford schools.

The data are the first published by the state after years of working to give Hartford Public Schools students access to more diverse school environments as part of the settlement of the Sheff v. O’Neill case, which was decided in 1996. In the case, the Connecticut State Supreme Court ruled that it was the responsibility of the state to combat racially segregated educational environments regardless of how the condition of segregation came to exist. Currently, 37 percent of Hartford students attend desegregated schools, despite the fact that the most recent settlement of the case mandated that the state have 41 percent of students in such schools by this year.

“The data indicate that Hartford-resident students enrolled in choice programming opportunities perform at higher levels than those who are enrolled in the city public schools,” Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education, told The CT Mirror. “In terms of change in performance at the goal level from 2012 to 2013, the results were mixed. … We’re in the process of looking at these and other data in a variety of additional ways that have the potential to shed further light on results in the Sheff region and beyond.”

Still, Connecticut legislators like State Sen. Toni Boucher and State Rep. Douglas McCrory are heartened by the data, and both hope it will create an impetus in the state legislature and in cities around Connecticut to take further action towards integrating schools and closing the state’s achievement gap.

“There are a number of school districts that are majority-minority in the state of Connecticut … they don’t benefit from this stuff because they are not in Hartford,” McCrory said.

Elizabeth Carroll, director of Education Studies at Yale, said that the phenomenon illustrated by the data out of Hartford is not new. The state Department of Education report indicating higher test scores and graduations rates for students at integrated schools fits a pattern seen in other urban metro areas around the country, she added.

Carroll added that in some cases there can be unintended consequences for neighborhood schools in situations like Hartford’s.

“For students to attend these kind of programs or to get into those external other district schools, it requires on the part of those students and parents the initiative to put your name on a list, sign up for a lottery or express preferences,” said. “By definition, the students who end up in those schools have either in themselves or in their families advocates for their education. I’m not saying that kids who end up in community schools are kids with no one who cares about them, but there is a degree of social capital that moves with those students from wherever they live in Hartford into those other schools.”

Boucher also indicated that exploring other models for improving the quality of schools in Hartford may be necessary.

“Let’s face it — it’s not feasible to turn every Hartford school into a magnet school,” Boucher said. “So then what happens to those 50 percent of students that are not in one because they didn’t happen to get the lottery?”

Connecticut’s achievement gap, or the disparity in measures of academic success between white students and black and Latino students, and between students in different income groups, is “infamous in certain circles,” according to Carroll. Such gaps are widely recognized to be the product of de facto segregation in urban areas, a phenomenon which is particularly prevalent in Connecticut cities like Hartford and New Haven, where blacks and Latinos are represented proportionally much higher than they are in the state as a whole. It was this type of segregation-related education deficit that Sheff v. O’Neill sought to address.

Elijah Anderson, professor of sociology at Yale, explained that this kind of segregation has come to exist over a long period of time, but was particularly accelerated during the civil rights movement.

“In the onslaught of the militancy of these black citizens who wanted their rights, who wanted to be first class citizens, the white people began to flee from the city, and this created a greater concentration of black people in these places,” Anderson said.

Anderson said while desegregation efforts like those in Hartford are not adequate to address the problem, he recognized that there is no easy solution.

“One of the remedies is to encourage the process of education — to educate people about the historical dynamics,” Anderson said.

To date, Hartford Public Schools has opened 12 magnet schools in the city with financial help from the state.

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