HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT — The students of the Academy of Engineering & Green Technologies at Hartford High School are already giving serious thought to the kinds of careers they want to prepare for — not just four or six years down the road, but decades into the future.
Shyesha Washington has had several internship experiences, in offices, churches, and schools. She said she most enjoyed assisting a kindergarten teacher with special needs students.
“This one kid loved to climb up the teacher and he tried to climb up me and he’s already up to here on me,” she said, motioning to her waist and chuckling. “And it wasn’t really working!”
When asked if she thought about teaching in the future, she said she had it all worked out.
“After I take off from my business career, I’ll go back to teaching. That’s the plan.”
When you walk into Hartford High School, you immediately see school resource officers chatting by the entrance and posters reminding you how many absences are too many. Chronic absenteeism is a problem for Hartford schools, one that the district is trying to work on through awareness campaigns. The large high school building divides into three schools, a Nursing Academy, The Academy of Engineering & Green Technologies, and the Law and Government Academy. By having these different areas of focus, the high school provides a magnet-like appeal.
But students like Washington are up against the odds — and for a reason that may initially seem unconnected to their future professional success. Hartford High School is not desegregated. Only 6 percent of students who attend the school are white or Asian.
CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
The importance of integration
None of Hartford’s neighborhood schools are fully desegregated, according to compliance standards set by the Sheff v. O’Neill court case, which stipulates that at least 25 percent of a school’s population should be white and Asian, although one school comes very close. The lawsuit began in 1989, when 18 students brought a case against the state of Connecticut for failing to provide them with their right to an education and equal protection under the law, arguing that public schools with mostly black and Hispanic populations receive less funding. In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the state’s current desegregation plan was initiated.
Under that plan, there has been a serious expansion of magnet schools in Hartford and the creation of the “open choice” program, which allows students to attend schools outside district boundaries. Magnet schools are specifically intended to spur desegregation in schools by attracting white suburban families to attend schools in the city.
But there are still thousands of Hartford students unable to attend high-quality schools. In order to get selected for a magnet school, parents must go through the lottery process. Only about half of Hartford students get selected. The other half of them have to attend neighborhood schools that vary in quality, but that are mostly segregated.
One school, the James H. Naylor School, is almost fully integrated at 23 percent, but the majority of neighborhood schools are under 10 percent. Those schools have received the same amount of funding from the state for the past five years — funding that neighborhood school principals say doesn’t cut it for the needs of their students.
Typically, schools that are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic often have fewer resources and attract less experienced teachers, putting students of color at a disadvantage. Students in segregated schools tend to make smaller gains in reading, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. This isolation of minority students is only one piece among other social and economic barriers children of color face, but the goal is that desegregation of schools could help bridge the racial achievement gap.
“It’s not just that math scores are low. It’s a life sentence to poverty,” said Bruce Douglas, executive director for CREC. “Because if a child doesn’t get that good quality education in preschool and those first five years of education, you’re destined to live a life of poverty unless you’re the extraordinary one or the lucky one.”
Advocates for a higher quality, desegregated school system say that the state has dragged their feet since the lawsuit began and could do more to expand “high quality seats” for Hartford children.
“The challenge right now is the failure of the state of fully implement the Sheff ruling. There are still about 55 percent of Hartford kids who are still in in a position of separate and unequal schools,” said Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. “The schools are much better than they were at the time of the ruling, but they are still high-poverty, racially isolated schools that don’t have the resources to meet the needs of students.”
Tegeler said both economic and racial integration have been key to implementing the Sheff ruling.
“The Hartford kids in the magnets don’t look that much different from the Hartford kids in the regular schools and that’s an important part of the process. The general goal goal is to have 50 percent urban and 50 percent suburban kids and that has generally gotten us both the economic and racial integration we’re looking for.”
The problem is that not enough students are able to attend those high-quality schools, and some neighborhood schools are in serious need of repair, Douglas said. Douglas visited the Clark School as part of CREC’s turnaround program for the school that wold have lasted three to five years, to increase achievement. He found that it was uninhabitable.
“We went into the school and the school was in such disrepair,” Douglas said. “There was mildew, no toilet paper dispensers, not the absence of toilet paper, but no dispensers, OK? The sinks in the bathroom did not work, you could not see outside of any of the windows in the school, and had it been an apartment house, it would have been condemned and this is 20 years after the court case.”
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are hazardous chemicals, were found at the school. Around 500 students were distributed across three schools in Hartford and the turnaround effort never happened, due to a cut in funding, the Hartford Courant reported.
“it could be a lack of willingness. I call it institutional racism,” Douglas said. “In Connecticut, we’re just not appalled by the condition in which our disenfranchised children live. We’re just not appalled. To the people in the state, it’s just the natural order of things. They don’t even see it.”
CREDIT: Courtesy of Dirk Olmstead
Neighborhood school principals want to offer more to students
Hartford magnet schools still generally report lower academic performance than suburban schools. But neighborhood schools’ performance is generally worse. At The Academy of Engineering & Green Technologies, only 18.6 percent of students meet or exceed English Language Arts standards in 11th grade. Fewer than 5 percent of students meet or exceed standards in 11th grade math at The Academy of Engineering & Green Technologies. In fact, all of the neighborhood schools in Hartford with enough data to report score below 5 percent in meeting math standards.
Principal Michael Maziarz admits the school has a long way to go in raising its math and reading scores. He hopes that an improvement in school climate, a willingness to adapt classroom instruction to fit students’ needs, more cultural competency training, and hands-on workforce experience will be a recipe for success.
“I have kids that are easily getting into college and I have kids coming into high school reading at a fourth-grade level. You have to give them the option and say I know you have this intelligence in you and it’s on us then to provide the options, to provide multiple means of expression,” Maziarz said.
CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
A big focus for Maziarz is making sure that students feel a sense of ownership of the school. Although the students have uniforms, every year, seniors make T-shirts specifically for their class and wear them to school to celebrate their last year. According to one teacher, Maziarz is also very involved with students on a personal level — he gives out his cell phone number.
“I say to our teachers all the time, it’s not enough to like our kids. Our kids need to be loved and they need to feel that, and once they feel that and they feel safe, it’s amazing what our kids are capable of doing,” Maziarz said.
Walking the halls of the school, it’s clear that Maziarz isn’t the type of authority figure whom students avoid. Students either simply smiled and said “Hey” as they passed him, or approached him to ask questions about classes.
CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Part of what has worked well for teachers is having students lay out what kind of classroom environment they need in order to be successful. That often lets teachers know things about a student’s personal life, like what a student’s family environment is like.
“Kids say this is the environment I work best in and that helped teachers, because I didn’t know this was going on at home or that this was your cultural background or that this was what you’re feeling and if I don’t have that open conversation we’re never going to break down those barriers,” he said.
Regular cultural competency training is also very important to the effort to build a safe environment for students at the school. The principals at the neighborhood schools I visited — The Academy of Engineering & Green Technologies, James H. Naylor School, and Parkville Community School — were all focused on making sure cultural competency training was an important part of professional development, as an ongoing part of their training as teachers.
The principals were also dedicated to differentiated instruction for students who have unique educational needs, whether they’re English Language Learners, they have a learning disability, or they struggle with schoolwork for any reason. Parkville Community School has a room full of bins identifying instruction materials for different grade levels that teachers can pick from at any time to match students’ needs. Teachers at James H. Naylor were learning to accept that some students should present what they know through their verbal skills while others are more likely to express what they know through an essay.
“If the written form is not their forte, we’re going to target that skill and develop that skill but we’re not going to shut down the other one,” said Guillaume Gendre, principal of the James H. Naylor School. “There’s more noise in the classroom, but guess what? There’s more learning too.”
CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Despite these principals’ efforts to make neighborhood schools as desirable as magnet schools, they still have challenges. Most of them are unable to hire more teachers and struggling to prepare for major changes in student population from year to year, depending on how many children are accepted into magnet schools in Hartford.
For example, Gendre has only has two and a half teachers assigned to help all of the school’s English language learner students. He also needs more teachers in general, because parents will complain that 31 third-grade students are being taught a single teacher — but he can’t easily hire them.
Parkville Community School Principal Dirk Olmstead also needs more more tutors for the school’s after-school program. The school once had a Boys and Girls Club — but the organization lost its grant, and the school would have had to pay $10,000 a month to receive the same service. After different efforts to provide an after-school program failed, Olmstead decided to hire retired teachers to tutor students. Unlike some magnet schools, such as Classical Magnet School, which offers after-school enrichment programs, the school has only a couple after-school activities, such as chorus and student council. Parkville Community School only has 8 percent white and Asian or “reduced isolation” students.
Things are harder for smaller neighborhood schools, Olmstead said.
“What is frustrating for smaller schools is that every kid walks in with a dollar sign on his forehead and for these smaller schools, they have a hard time offering support because they don’t have the money,” Olmstead said. “For us, we’re at 538, and if you’re over 300 kids, you can have those different services, but if you’re under that, you have to receive some help from other people. We’re self-sufficient where we can make strategic choices.”
James H. Naylor and Parkville Community School are either above or near the Hartford average of 24.1 percent of students meeting and exceeding ELA standards in third grade. Parkville is making progress on math and reading, with 66 percent of students who took the Northwest Evaluation Association Measure of Academic Progress test making 100 percent growth from fall 2014 to spring 2015 in math and 67 percent of students making said progress on English Language Arts. However, all but one Hartford school, including magnets and neighborhood schools, had scores above the state average of 53 percent. Magnet schools dominated the list of schools scoring higher and neighborhood schools dominated the lower scores.The numbers were similar for fourth grade ELA standards.
When looking at surrounding towns, only 14.2 percent of Hartford students met or exceeded math standards, compared to 54.7 percent of West Hartford students, 67 percent of Glastonbury students, and 63.9 percent of Farmington students, though it did outperform New Haven, Bridgeport, and Waterbury. Its scores for ELA standards painted a similar picture.
CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Getting to the root of the problem
Education advocates say that funding issues are getting in the way of a quality education for not just Hartford students, but Connecticut students in general.
“One of the dilemmas that Connecticut has that creates this inequitable funding and ‘More money, please” dilemma is 169 towns in the size of a state where half of it is a ranch in Oklahoma, so you’ve got 169 towns that are vying for some kind of equity and some of those towns are extraordinary wealthy,” Douglas said. “Some of them are the wealthiest towns in the United States, and then right next to them you have some of the poorest cities in the United States.”
CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
The perception that neighborhood schools, open choice suburban schools, and magnet schools have different resources and quality of education persists. A October 2014 report that was conducted during a transition between superintendents asked whether all students have access to high quality facilities, whether a child attends a magnet, a choice school or a neighborhood school. Only 18.5 percent of magnet school employees agreed or strongly agreed. The percentage of neighborhood school employees who agreed was even lower, at 10 percent. There were high rates of disagreement among both parents and school employees that quality of education was the same regardless of school.
Douglas said he would like to see the state and city acknowledge that the root of the education issue is a broader economic problem that needs to be addressed through revitalization efforts that would bring a more racially and economically diverse population into the city to spend money and send their children to Hartford schools. He said that a short-term, emergency plan would be to send more Hartford children to the suburbs while revitalizing the city and desegregating the region rather than attempting to desegregate schools one by one.
“On any given day in West Hartford, the restaurants are open and people are in the streets. Three miles down in Hartford, it’s dark and nobody is in the streets,” Douglas said.
Tegeler, who has worked on creating fair housing policies in Connecticut, said that there are three major things the state needs to do to ensure the city itself becomes desegregated.
“It would be easy to help low-income families with children move out to low poverty, high-performing school districts, sort of like the Open Choice Program for housing, by empowering families to move to school districts so they’re actually living in the district where their kids are going to school. Connecticut has a pretty weak housing mobility program,” Tegeler explained.
Teleger said the state’s low-income tax housing program is very segregated and is in need of reform if it is going to provide better access for low-income families to move into areas with better school districts. He said the state also needs to crack down on exclusionary zoning.
“We have appeals process here in Connecticut that lets developers appeal denial of affordable housing, but its not as strong as it coud be and the state has to take back some of the powers given to municipalities for zoning and land use and require certain affordable housing targets for suburbs,” Tegeler said.
Colin Gordon, an expert on discriminatory housing policies and a history professor at the University of Iowa, says that although most people don’t think current zoning policies are explicitly or even intentionally racist, that’s the origin.
“If you chop up a metropolitan area, as is the case in St. Louis, into little municipal fragments and then you let each one of them decide the rules for local development such as lot size, house size, etc… you can’t help but in meticulous and damaging and dysfunctional ways sort your local population by income,” he said. “Thirty and 40 years ago that was much more explicitly seen as a sort of racial project when municipalities were starting to zone … Engineers trying to solve a problem would say, ‘Well, you know we no longer have access to explicit forms of restriction, but if you say every lot has to be 30,000 feet and every house needs to be this big, you’ll keep them out.'”
Jeron Campbell, data and accountability officer at the Hartford Open Choice Program, said he hopes that the city will naturally integrate — but it will take a long time to do so.
“It’s funny because you used to have policies and laws that supported separatism, but we don’t have laws to force people to come together. Somehow that’s the wrong thing to do,” Campbell said. “It seems like it’s going to take a long time for this country to really heal. You just look at so many different things that go on that are legal and in every major area, you find huge race-related issues, access to quality health care, access to quality housing, access to quality education, insurance rates, hiring rates, wealth opportunities, and attainment, the largest single factor continues to be race.”