Five months ago, Zuhah Syed, a sophomore at Cortlandt V.R. Creed Health & Sports Sciences High School, harbored dreams of becoming an emergency medical technician and saving lives around the New Haven community. From shadowing firefighters on their medical emergency missions to participating in medical science fairs, Syed sought all opportunities that would help him achieve his goal.
Creed, a magnet high school where most classes and extracurricular activities have a focus on health science, is where Syed discovered and cultivated this interest. But by May, when the New Haven Board of Education voted to shut down Creed for failing to meet the racial quotas set by the Connecticut State Department for Education, Syed had stopped “thinking about medicine all together.”
In Connecticut, interdistrict magnet schools are required to integrate white and Asian students to at least 25 percent of the student body. However, the percentage of African-American and Hispanic students has increased over the years, and 91.2 percent of Creed’s student body said they identified as black or brown last October. After years of threatening to close Creed, the Board of Education decided that it was “done kicking the can down the road,” as its Vice President Jamell Cotto said during a budget meeting last February. Faced with a 6.58 million-dollar deficit last year and an even bigger shortfall of at least $14.35 million this year, the board decided that Creed would be the first to go.
For his junior year, Syed has transferred to High School in the Community, a magnet school with a focus on social justice and law. Nevertheless, Syed said he is “not interested in the law at the slightest.” No longer able to pursue medicine without paying extra money or taking extra time out of his day, at his new school, Syed will focus on completing the requirements he needs to graduate.
“I’ve lost all my trust and hopes in the New Haven public school system,” Syed explained. “I just want to survive high school at this point.”
According to Syed, he isn’t the only Creed student being forced into a new school where his needs won’t be met. While some are “trying to stay positive” about exploring something new, many are disappointed that they won’t be able to gear their studies around medicine, he explained.
Years ago, a racial integration policy was instituted to provide a better education for minorities. But Syed’s story raises the question: How did a policy intended to give better opportunities for black and brown students come to interfere with their educational future?
In 1989, 18 school-age students from Hartford sued the state for violating their rights to education and equal protection under the law in the case Sheff v. O’Neill. According to the Sheff plaintiffs, Hartford schools’ high concentration of poor African-Americans and Latinos, children from single-parent homes and immigrants still learning English overburdened the public school system and shortchanged all students. Citing low test scores as evidence, the plaintiffs asked the city officials to testify about outdated textbooks and poor school conditions.
After a loss in the Hartford Superior Court, the plaintiffs took the case to the Connecticut supreme court, winning in a split 4–3 decision in 1996. Ruling segregated schools unconstitutional, the court ordered the state legislature to find remedial measures for the public school system.
After the supreme court decision, in 1997, state representatives announced a new statewide, interdistrict public school program to “reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation.” Under the new legislation, interdistrict magnet schools and cooperative programs that successfully “[reduced] isolation of students” were eligible for new state funding. In other words, magnet schools were to attract more white suburbanites to study with black and brown students in the city.
A year after the act was announced, New Haven tapped into the pool of money to revamp its public school system. In fact, all but two high schools and some elementary schools were built with some funding from the state. Over the years, the new flow of cash helped the city spend $1.7 billion to build or rebuild almost every school in town.
Last year, however, the state Department of Education increased the required percentage of white and Asian students in New Haven magnet schools to match its counterparts in Hartford. Under the new law, schools do not qualify for state funding if more than 75 percent of the student body is African-American or Hispanic, as opposed to the previous 80 percent. Meanwhile, as white populations in the suburbs surrounding New Haven shrink, it remains difficult to recruit a sufficient number of white students to urban schools.
According to Ariana Buckley, Creed’s magnet resource teacher in charge of recruiting suburban students, the changing demographics in the towns surrounding New Haven make it challenging to reach that benchmark. Although Hamden, Ansonia and West Haven residents generally think highly of Creed, these residents are mostly black or Hispanic, Buckley explained in an interview with the New Haven Independent. Because of the longer bus ride, efforts to bring in students from white-dominated suburbs of Cheshire, Orange and Guilford have also been unsuccessful, she added.
Citing the new administration’s “strict policies about teachers speaking with the press about controversial issues,” Buckley declined to be interviewed for this story.
Further complicating the issue, Caltha Benitex, a junior who transferred from Creed to New Haven Academy this year, pointed out that under the current law, students who are half white and half black are classified as African-American and excluded from the white category. Noting that the school had many half-white and half-black students, Benitex added that the state department’s system was “too simplistic” and “didn’t allow students to exist as both.”
When asked about the state department’s racial quotas, President of the New Haven Board of Education Darnell Goldson and Chief Operating Officer of New Haven Public Schools William Clark declined to comment. Laurence Grotheer, director of communications at the mayor’s office, also didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Last year, with 91.2 percent of the school identifying as black or brown, Creed far surpassed the state department’s 75 percent cutoff. Had the school not shut down, Creed was at a risk of facing a $121,000 penalty this year for noncompliance to the state’s racial quota and could have lost all of its magnet funding of around $738,000 in two years.
Like Creed, many of New Haven’s interdistrict schools are struggling to recruit enough white and Asian students. In fact, only two of 16 magnet schools — Betsy Ross Arts and Engineering & Science University — are keeping up with the state’s integration guidelines. In May, the state department notified four schools that they may face financial penalties if their racial demographics don’t change.
New Haven public schools rely heavily on the state, expecting to receive $35.31 million — or around one-sixth of the system’s budget — from the Connecticut interdistrict magnet program this year. Already struggling to remediate a budget deficit, the Board of Education announced early this summer that Superintendent Carol Birks is considering closing or consolidating six other schools.
“While unfortunately today it’s Creed, it may be another school next year if we don’t fix this broken magnet system,” Mayor Toni Harp said last May, when the board of education voted to shut down Creed. “It’s really time to get the rules changed.”
On May 17th — three days after the vote to shut down Creed and exactly 64 years after the Supreme Court ruled that separate cannot be made equal in Brown v. Board of Education — Creed students walked out in protest, holding signs that read, “education should see no color.”
In pouring rain, students stood outside for 26 minutes, a symbol for Creed’s time in operation. For 26 years, the school “provided students from different backgrounds with the opportunity to have an education, and have another place to call home,” wrote Creed junior Aurea Orencia in an op-ed published in the New Haven Independent.
Darius Burgess, a graduate who led the walkout, said Creed was “one of the most diverse places [he] has ever experienced.” While the majority of the students were black and brown, they represented many different cultures, he said, which was clear in the school’s potluck parties, where one could find any cuisine they desired. In fact, all seven students interviewed said Creed’s student body was diverse, despite failing to meet the racial quotas mandated by the state department.
“With our debacle with the Board of Education, we began to feel like statistics,” Burgess said. “You ask how we got here. They were telling us about ourselves – that we aren’t meeting the quota and that we don’t deserve to be here. But we aren’t numbers. We are people. And at the end of the day, black and brown kids are the ones getting sacrificed.”