HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT — “That is not gonna work. Strong Spanish Castilian accent? No way. And even the one that they have, they need to find someone who is a native U.S. Spanish speaker. Wrong inflection. Wrong accent.”
Enid Rey, the executive director of the Office of School Choice for Hartford Public Schools, is assessing a rough cut of a Spanish-language advertisement promoting magnet schools in Connecticut. In the video, several students walk around to different doors presenting different focuses of study such as STEM, the performing arts, and journalism. The Spanish doesn’t sound natural enough for Rey; she says it seems “highfalutin.”
Rey, donned in the orange shade that represents the Hartford Region Open Choice Program — a color you see in all of the photos and marketing materials in her office — needs to get this right. She’s trying to convince more families to enroll their kids in Hartford schools. Her office is a major part of the school desegregation effort in Hartford.
Connecticut has been grappling with these issues for years. In 1989, a group of 18 students sued the state over the issue of racial separation in schools. Their parents said that Connecticut and its political leaders, such as then Gov. William O’Neill, denied their right to an education and equal protection under the law because public schools with mostly black and Hispanic populations received so much less funding than schools with a majority white student population.
Although the Hartford Superior Court ruled in the state’s favor, the plaintiff appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, and the previous decision was overturned in 1996. After additional political and legal wrangling, a second round of negotiations in 2008 laid the groundwork for the current magnet school system.
Magnet schools are public schools that enroll students from across district boundaries or only enroll students in a certain district. They often have “themes” like STEM and the performing arts. After political opposition to involuntary busing in the 1970s, magnet schools were offered as a voluntary alternative to school desegregation. In Hartford, students who want to attend magnet schools participate in a lottery.
There’s a lot at stake in the effort to figure out how to effectively desegregate schools — namely, the racial achievement gap. A 2014 study conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute found that African American students in segregated schools tend to make smaller gains in reading. And according to data from the Department of Education, black and Hispanic children rank poorly in other areas as well. They’re less likely to be taught by an experienced teacher and less likely to be offered classes in subjects like chemistry and calculus.
Ultimately, that’s because schools with a majority black and Hispanic population tend to have fewer resources — which ensures that experienced teachers, who may have more career options, will probably choose a different school. These problems compound on each other and leave segregated black and Hispanic students in lower quality schools, especially because poor schools require more resources than the average school. This lack of resources is a problem advocates for equity in education argue won’t be solved quickly by policymakers.
I never had a conversation with a white person until I went to college.
What is rarely mentioned is that segregation isn’t good for white students either. A report released this year from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences shows that white parents’ fears that their children’s academic success will be hindered in an overwhelmingly black school were unfounded — there wasn’t a substantial difference in white students’ test scores when they went to a school with mostly black students versus a school with mostly white students. White students are also more likely to form cross-racial friendships in a diverse school, which likely makes white students less prejudiced in the long run, and they may work harder and focus more.
“I never had a conversation with a white person until I went to college,” said Jeron Campbell, chief data and accountability officer for Hartford Public Schools, who grew up in Detroit. “I knew white people. I saw white people. I never played with a white kid ever in my life. So if you don’t expose people when they’re young, it only strengthens the stereotype, so I agree with a lot of folks who say that integration is positive because you won’t learn to live together in the long term if you don’t teach kids to live together when they’re young.”
The struggle to attract white suburban families
In order to be considered fully integrated, schools have to reach a population that includes 25 percent white and Asian students — or “reduced isolation” students, as they are called. Only one neighborhood school in Hartford, the Dr. James H. Naylor School, comes close to meeting that threshold at 23 percent reduced isolation students.
Hartford Public Schools overall student population is 32 percent black, 49.7 percent Hispanic, 11.1 percent white, and 1.4 percent two or more races. So getting the right mix of students in magnet schools requires drawing on the families who live outside of the city.
But it’s difficult to motivate white suburban families to send their kids to Hartford schools because they already have quality schools in their own neighborhoods.
“In many places, they have a pretty good school system. There may be two elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools, so you don’t get a lot of choice, but those choices tend to be good so that’s something a parent has to consider,” Campbell said. “Why not just go down the street as opposed to going into Hartford?”
As it becomes harder to engage and retain white suburban families, it becomes harder for magnet schools to meet compliance. That’s where marketing comes in.
Why not just go down the street as opposed to going into Hartford?
“We have some schools that are under the cusp, and many schools that are no more than 5 percent above and they could potentially become noncompliant in the next few years if you don’t maintain these marketing efforts,” Campbell said.
The school district is given a certain amount of money for marketing efforts from the state. Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez is grateful to have that money, but she says it simply isn’t enough to reach the suburban families she’s trying to recruit.
“I would say it’s not enough in terms of the people power. We get money to work with marketing firms and consultants and we have a very lean choice office. A lot falls on this small office,” Schiavino-Narvaez said. “In terms of that true engagement, to reach white families you need to go out further. It’s just that we don’t have the people power we need.”
According to Rey, the office’s marketing contract is funded for up to $350,000 to market all 53 schools in the Hartford Public School District. The funding is a mix from both the state department of education’s Sheff agreement and the district budget. That money is spent mainly on radio, social media, and television ads to target suburban families and on Spanish-language advertising for Hartford families. It also helps fund materials and fairs featuring information on different schools.
The new facilities at magnet schools can help attract some white families who are deciding where to enroll their kids. But the initial “wow factor” isn’t enough, according to Peter Dart, the executive director of performance management for Hartford Public Schools.
Dart has been a principal for both a neighborhood school and a magnet school. At the Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker, his students enjoyed a buttery vivarium, a planetarium, and resident scientists, among other attractive features.
That waterfall gets really old really quick.
“The school I worked at had a waterfall in its entrance. That’s the wow factor. That brought people in. It was jaw dropping and people thought, ‘Oh wow, I want to go here,’” Dart said. “But that’s not what keeps them there. That waterfall gets really old really quick.”
Administrators ultimately need parents to be activists for the schools in order to attract more families through word of mouth. Dart said the Environmental Sciences Magnet School found a way to simultaneously build a community for families and advertise the school. For instance, there’s an annual lawn sign contest for teachers and families where they take election-style signs for the school and take a picture of themselves in the most unique place to put that sign.
“It was an advertisement for the school, so it was a marketing ploy to get these signs out, but it was more about celebrating who we were,” Dart said. “So an outsider comes in and sees the bulletin board of all these teachers and families advertising the school. That’s pretty powerful.”
What school desegregation looks like in Hartford
Rey and her efforts to attract white suburban families to Hartford schools were recently featured on This American Life’s blockbuster series on school desegregation. The subsequent attention has been mostly positive — and has resulted in more calls from school districts, charter schools, and magnet partners to discuss options for school integration — although Rey said she thinks the press focuses too much on the marketing aspect of her job.
Still, it’s true that Rey has made a huge difference in making the program’s marketing approach more focused. She showed me a handful of glossy guides for parents, or “Future Guides,” throughout the years. They have two sides in Spanish and English and have become thinner throughout the years as the office has tried to make the explanation of the lottery process more straightforward. Rey chose “Tennessee Orange” as the program’s color because it wasn’t as likely to be associated with sports teams and would help brand the program, just as customers know that red and black signals they’re getting communication from Verizon.
Rey’s parents emigrated from Puerto Rico to Hartford in the 1970s. Her mother worked in a factory and her father worked as an electrician. She has five children — three teenagers, a 9-year-old, and a 6-year-old — four of whom have attended magnet schools since their pre-K years. Her eldest son just graduated from a neighborhood school, Nursing Academy at Hartford Public High School.
Now, Rey knows every street of the city and how they mark differences in waves of immigration in Hartford. She points to the Bosnian neighborhood, Latino neighborhood, and Italian neighborhood in the South End and Little Italy, as well as the West Indian neighborhood in Clay-Arsenal and Upper Albany. It’s this personal level of understanding of the neighborhoods around each school and the economic conditions of the city that makes Rey look at critically at all of the options that would foster integration.
“It seems like the job of integrating schools is always put on the black and brown kids,” Rey said. “I am often asked over and over why can’t have quality and integration — right here where we live. So who bears the burden of making integration work? It should be everyone in our community.”
Rey is talking about the fact that black and Hispanic students are the ones who are expected to travel to mostly white schools. White students are not expected to give anything up in the effort to desegregate, such as proximity to their own neighborhood and the comfort and convenience that comes with that.
The job of integrating schools is always put on the black and brown kids.
That point is especially relevant to parents who can’t successfully get their children into magnet schools where they live. Even though the magnet schools are mostly integrated, parents are frustrated at what they see as inequities between the resources of magnet schools and neighborhood schools.
According to an October 2014 report that was conducted during a transition between superintendents, a survey of parents mostly disagreed or strongly disagreed that the quality of education is the same whether a child is enrolled in a magnet, choice, or neighborhood school, and that opinion was consistent across most racial groups. Employees of the district also disagreed or strongly disagreed, with 85.8 percent of magnet employees disagreeing and 82.9 percent of neighborhood school employees disagreeing.
What Hartford and suburban families are looking for
Teachers, administrators, and students have the ability to sell their school to prospective families at several school fairs. The first fair of the year was held earlier this month at the Prince Technical High School. The technical high schools, which are funded by the state, are part of a separate non-lottery application process, and are becoming a source of competition for Hartford magnet schools.
The fair, held on a Saturday from the morning to early afternoon, hosted tables for neighborhood schools, magnet schools, colleges, and the limited number of charter schools in the area. This year, coordinators decided to provide enough space between rows of tables so that parents with strollers could easily walk by the tables. The group of parents who attended were fairly diverse, by ethnicity, by race, and by residence. And they were mostly looking for the same things.
One Hartford-based white father, a man who works in the financial services industry and whose wife works in media, said he’s looking for cultural diversity. He said he’s fine with a preschool that has a theme, but he’s more interested in making sure his son, who is turning two soon, gets a well-rounded education that includes Spanish instruction. He wants his son’s “curiosity and natural passions to really flourish.”
“We have the resources to afford a number of schools but to me I feel like there’s enough variety here to get something similar but with that truly culturally diverse enrichment,” the father, who did not agree to provide his name, said.
He said he would prefer to find a school in Hartford. “It’s not fun having your kid shipped out, you know,” he said.
It’s not fun having your kid shipped out, you know.
Like all of the parents I spoke to, he’s also looking for a school with civic values that teaches “character-building skills.” Most of the parents were also looking for more hands-on work and less time spent sitting in desks and passively absorbing information, and said they believed some of the magnet schools would offer more of that.
Ruhina Parveen, whose daughter is two years old, lives in downtown Hartford and was considering sending her daughter to a STEM-focused school. She’s already thinking far ahead. “She should have things like music and dance, lots of things for her to put in her college application,” Parveen said.
A white family from Granby who did not want to provide their names were considering the STEM Magnet School at Annie Fisher for their children, one who’s in elementary school and one who’s just three years old. They weren’t aware of magnet schools until of very recently.
“There are great schools [in Granby], just not any that are right for him,” he said of his older son. “We’re looking for a hands-on approach, where they’re not just sitting and taking tests all day.”
An African American Hartford mother with twins who are going into high school said her children have the ultimate decision to attend whichever schools best fit their abilities and interests. But she said a STEM school, such as the STEM Magnet School at Annie Fisher, would prepare them best for the workforce.
“Engineering and science — that’s the future. There won’t be any more of these customer service jobs. A lot of these jobs that are just sitting behind a desk aren’t going to exist anymore,” she said.
All of these parents will have to simply hope their child gets into the school of their choice.
The lottery system means that there’s a lot riding on this for neighborhood schools as well. If parents were hoping to have their child attend a magnet school but they end up having to attend a neighborhood school instead, that school has to adjust to the influx of students coming in during transitional grades. This is a source of instability for neighborhood schools.
“You can’t add more kids to those schools because what about the wait list and what about compliance numbers? So we have thousands of students who come in after the lottery is run and it adds a lot of churn to certain schools,” Schiavino-Narvaez said. “How do we help to stabilize and boost with resources what goes on in the neighborhood schools while we continue to grow integrated quality opportunities for students? It’s really a parallel path.”
Riding through Hartford and surrounding municipalities, it’s easy to notice the stark differences between neighborhoods and nearby towns. As Enid showed me the West End of Hartford, she pointed to governor’s mansion and the mayor’s house. Other residences were equally impressive, featuring massive Ionic pillars and Victorian architecture painted in vibrant colors and framed by sweeping autumn leaves of very old, very tall trees. Meanwhile, just a few streets over, you could easily find boarded-up structures covered in graffiti and local businesses that look like they’re on their last leg. You’ll also find middle-class homes straight out out of a John Hughes movie in neighborhoods deemed “unsafe” by suburban families.
“The burden of integration is….feet. They’re not losing anything here,” Rey said as we passed by West Hartford’s expansive lawns and hills overlooking the city skyline.
That’s one of the major challenges Hartford students face. Even though families in the West End of Hartford could easily send their children to magnet schools in Hartford, there aren’t enough of them are willing to do so. Hartford’s homicide rate has also recently gone up, leaving many families with a perception that all of Hartford is dangerous, despite the variety and diversity of its neighborhoods.
But Rey is determined to improve desegregaton efforts, whether that means tweaking the current approach or overhauling it completely. Soon, she’s planning to travel to New London with Dr. Campbell to check out its transition to an all-magnet school system.
This story has been updated to make an additional member of a family anonymous.