Schools of Choice

Every morning, two kinds of students file into New Haven public high schools. One group is spread among the city’s magnet schools, where the first class of the day is boat building, or interpretive dancing, or organismal biology. At the seven interdistrict magnet schools — the largest of which has 400 students — New Haven natives and North Haven commuters can investigate salt-water filtration, or soil science, or the ethics of entrepreneurship. The magnet schools reel in the most passionate students from other districts, who may travel up to an hour to reach school.

The other group of New Haven students, who are all from local neighborhoods, heads to the two “comprehensive high schools,” where up to 50% of a class may drop out by graduation. Wilbur Cross and James Hillhouse high schools, each overcrowded with more than a thousand students, were labeled “dropout factories” in a Johns Hopkins study released late in October. The most inspiring part of the day, for many students, is athletics practice. Wilbur Cross boasts a championship football team. It boasts little else.

Administrators warn against thinking about the two schools as neglected, but it’s impossible to ignore the gap in resources between magnets and their traditional counterparts. Issues of funding and achievement are not the only problems — there is a racial rift between the magnet schools and the comprehensives, and a socioeconomic one as well. At Hillhouse 70.1% of students receive free and reduced lunches; at Wilbur Cross, 73.5%. The highest percentage of students who receive free or reduced lunch at an interdistrict magnet is 61.1%, and even that is an anomaly. As for race, the Cooperative Arts and Humanities magnet, for instance, is diverse, with 27.8% white students, 22.5% Hispanic students, and 49% black students (all numbers from 2005-2006 Connecticut State Department of Education school profiles). Wilbur Cross, in contrast, is 10.6% white, 44% Hispanic, and 43.9% black. Hillhouse: 1.6% white, 9.1% Hispanic, 89% black.

These numbers are troubling. They are also ironic given the history of magnets in New Haven and their current aim to alleviate segregation. The magnets may be succeeding, but they are leaving the comprehensive schools in a diversity backwater.

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Magnet schools first sprang up in the United States following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to overturn “separate but equal” public schooling. As schools across the nation struggled to adjust — and race riots exploded in response — New Haven faced its own racial problems. The threat of artificially desegregated schools, with white kids bussed from the suburbs to predominantly black neighborhoods, loomed on the horizon.

By the 1960s, the Elm City was a hotbed of racial activism, and the controversial busing system was not an acceptable solution to desegregation. The 1968 Kerner Report, a federal government commission that investigated urban riots, revealed deeply embedded racism that shocked many Americans. In New Haven, the public school system was already in crisis. Busing would have been such a strain that policymakers feared the collapse of the entire system. It was on this backdrop that public “schools of choice” emerged.

Ed Linehan, the recently retired supervisor of New Haven Magnet Schools, began working at New Haven “schools of choice” — magnets — in 1971. Their creation, he recalls, was the public education system’s response to high dropout rates and school violence. Their original purpose, however, was not desegregation per se.

“What emerged as the failure of forced busing was the notion of diversifying by attracting kids through specialized themes,” Linehan says. “That is where the notion of magnet schools emerged.” Bypassing forced desegregation, magnet schools allowed parents to make individual choices. This alternative made magnet schools more appealing — not to mention more successful — than the area’s conventional schools.

Twenty years after magnet schools were inaugurated in New Haven, a landmark civil rights case shattered the status quo. Sheff v. O’Neill, as the 1989 case is known, probed educational inequalities in Hartford and re-ignited disputes about school integration. In Hartford, distraught parents of students at all-black high schools took matters into their own hands and brought stories of distressingly low achievement to the court. The case was resolved 14 years later, with a settlement that called for the creation of eight interdistrict magnet schools in Hartford and provisions to increase seats for Hartford students in suburban schools.

Elizabeth Horton Sheff — who spearheaded the case — insisted on reducing isolation to achieve equal education. A study performed by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard underscored her argument, revealing the benefits of racial diversity and the harms of racial isolation. Greg Baldwin, principal of the New Haven Academy magnet school, considers the 1995 funding of the interdistrict magnet schools to have been a direct response to the Sheff case. These seven schools, in contrast to the earlier magnets, took students from the suburbs.

“When the program started in the mid-nineties, New Haven was getting bad press about education,” Baldwin explains. “Magnet schools offered a special focus that had unique opportunities. Size is a real factor in kids’ decisions and the special opportunities — certain arts, business approaches to teaching — became a real draw to kids from other towns, instead of going to the one big high school.”

The interdistrict magnets solve a particular problem caused by Connecticut’s demographics. In Connecticut, 166 school districts are comprised of about 575,000 students, 170,000 of which are minorities, according to Linehan. One third of all the minority students attend school in three districts: Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven. The sheer proportion of minority students in these areas thwarts attempts at diversity in New Haven’s schools. Baldwin asserts that “the public school population in most suburban towns are 80 to 90 percent white students and 10 to 16 percent black and Latino. In New Haven it is almost the reverse.”

In 2003, as the Connecticut Supreme Court reached its decision in Sheff v. O’Neill, the founding of interdistrict magnet schools gained momentum across Connecticut, and today, New Haven is one of the most successful operators of magnet schools in the state. The Cooperative Arts and Humanities magnet boasts a performing arts emphasis; the High School in the Community, an emphasis on desegregation and democratic administration. Hill Regional Career High School focuses on health, business, and computer technology. Hyde Leadership — a character development initiative. Metropolitan Business Academy — an entrepreneurial curriculum. New Haven Academy specializes in history, and the Sound School has an aquaculture theme.

Anyone can apply to these schools, but lottery-style selections admit only a fraction of those who apply. This year, about 6,000 students applied to New Haven magnet schools. About 2,700 students were turned away.

Magnets, for all their exclusivity, have a lot to offer. It is not clear if the benefits they provide to the few justify the neglect of many. But a deeper look into the facilities of one school may provide insight into the situation.

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The success story of New Haven magnets is the Sound School. It is so successful it is technically no longer a magnet — much of its funding now comes from vocational state funding for agriculture. The Sound Regional Vocation Aquaculture Center, as it’s formally known, has an extremely diverse student body and routinely scores well on Connecticut standardized tests. But, Bob Canelli, the recently appointed supervisor of the Magnet Schools, still considers The Sound School a part of the magnet program. For all intents and purposes, he explains, Sound is a magnet — themes, diversity and achievement are still the focus.

Situated on Long Island Sound, the school, from afar, could be mistaken for a boathouse encircled by sea-washed docks and nautical paraphernalia. Sailboats and rowboats fastened to buoys bob up and down, waiting for students to begin after-school sports. A few hundred feet to the left, the façade conceals a marine haven: myriad fish tanks and a fully functioning greenhouse.

The Sound School’s students are split equally between residents of New Haven and its suburbs. With more racial and socioeconomic balance than New Haven’s standard public schools — and even most interdistrict magnets — the Sound School is an argument for even more diversity at other schools, says former magnet school supervisor Linehan. Canelli, Linehan’s successor, agrees, noting that the Sound School is “fabulous.”

Students at the Sound School flock from near and far to pursue an interest in aquaculture studies and take advantage of small class sizes. Alex Chavez, a student in the school’s homework mentoring program, plots his home on MapQuest to illustrate his daily commute. “Wow, I didn’t realize it was forty-two minutes away,” he admits with a tinge of shock in his tone. “And that’s if there is no traffic.”

Chavez is the type of student who benefits most from small student-teacher ratios. He constantly shocks his teachers and peers with an impressive vocabulary – using words like “lethargic” and “disenchanted” – but his behavioral issues are a daily problem. At the Sound School, Chavez’s issues receive much-needed attention, which might not have been the case at a large comprehensive high school.

Another student at the tutoring station this afternoon, a girl who chose the Sound School for its maritime theme, is struggling with a linear optimization problem on her algebra 2 homework. Though she finds the math difficult, her plan to become a boat-builder means she has to put in the extra time to understand these ideas. The Sound School’s resources, such as after-school tutoring, make this dream a reality.

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The Sound School is thriving, but others have not been nearly as successful. The six standard interdistrict magnets suffer from less diversity and lower achievement.

Typically, interdistrict magnet schools aim for sixty-five percent New Haven students and thirty-five percent suburban, Linehan says. With these ratios, schools attempt to break the geographic racial and socioeconomic barriers — assuming the students from the suburbs will bring diversity above and beyond that which exists in New Haven.

Bringing students from the suburbs has been moderately successful in increasing diversity. According to the Connecticut State Department of Education’s school profiles, the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School and the High School in the Community contain integrated populations: about 25 percent white students. But the Hyde Leadership Academy and Metropolitan Business Academy still suffer from racial homogeneity. In 2005-2006, data reveal, Hyde had 10.8% white students, and Metropolitan only 5.2%.

One perk that remains intact is the ability for students to choose their course of study. Linehan notes that choosing a school “is what middle class and wealthy people have always done. They do it by where they choose to buy or rent their home. They have the option of living where they like or shopping for a private school.” He claims that a public system that allows school choice offers poor citizens more flexibility. But the magnet schools do not have room for everyone. What happens to students in comprehensive high schools who remain excluded from “superior” magnet educations?

Claudia Merson, public school partnerships coordinator for New Haven and State Affairs at Yale, boasts the success of magnet schools, but recognizes that “not having all magnet schools does leave the schools that are non-magnets in a curious place.” New Haven Academy principal Baldwin proposes that “it might be accurate to say some of the neighborhoods that have more white students have tried to find other alternatives to Hillhouse.” In other words, bright students who can’t get into magnet schools may abandon the public school system altogether.

Magnet schools, by trying to promote diversity and achievement for themselves, may have hindered progress toward these goals at comprehensive high schools. Solving the problem may mean rethinking some of the assumptions implicit in the system. The ruling mantra is choice, but choices are, by their nature, segregating. How does one reconcile the fact that choice is not readily available to a large part of the population with a system that assumes that it is?

Researchers at the Gates Foundation have explored this question, and according to Tom Vander Ark, who previously served as executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, magnet schools have their pros and cons. “Magnets can have a positive effect of showcasing best practices and introducing competition. But if there are not complementary efforts to improve offerings and outcomes at existing schools, magnets can increase inequities,” he wrote via e-mail.

“Connecticut has the largest [achievement gap] in the country,” says Alex Johnston, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), a public school advocacy group. “We are focused on examining the schools that are closing the achievement gap and telling those stories and making people understand what is working. We focus on identifying levels of success and going into some detail to understand why it’s successful.” But ConnCAN dedicates its resources to successful schools, not failing ones. This inadvertently marginalizes the comprehensive high schools that are failing to escape their de facto “dropout factory” status.

This dilemma of resource allocation leads to the issue of funding, another factor that contributes to educational inequalities. How does one allocate resources to sustain improvement? If the magnet schools are flush with money, their comprehensive counterparts will suffer, and vice versa. Faced with this choice, where does the government allocate funding? To failing schools? To successful ones?

A bill passed last summer will displace the financial burden from the state government back to individual school districts. Effective in 2008, New Haven Magnet schools will, if protest efforts fail, lose 12 million dollars in funding. Linehan criticizes this legislation as a “short-sighted and cynical” example of how saving money trumps relative success in urban education policy.

On the other end of the spectrum, flooding public schools with money may inundate school structures unequipped to use it effectively. It is this mentality, it seems, that the government adopts in education policy. The recent bill bears evidence of why New Haven’s public schools suffer. “It is a never-ending struggle,” Linehan says referring to this cyclical financial plague.

Gauging schools’ success is complicated because magnet schools are money-intensive endeavors and school funding is erratic. Magnets leave some students, parents, and teachers happy, but many others are neglected. It would, however, be financially impossible to convert all schools to magnet schools.

It is a serious problem that magnet schools draw resources and students away from comprehensive schools, but the value that magnet schools provide is hard to deny. The intellectual curiosity that drives many Yale students, for instance, is encouraged in magnets in a way that it is not in comprehensive schools. Magnets nourish a flame that would otherwise languish. Sometimes the flame burns so bright that it is easy to forget the consequences.

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