Magnet Schools Take On Segregation By Bringing White Students To Non-White Schools


HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT — “How about the ‘I’ in BRICK?” asked Julie Goldstein, principal of Breakthrough Magnet school to an auditorium full of students.

“Integrity,” answers a female student, who looks around the age of 6 or 7.

Goldstein then asks what integrity means. When she doesn’t get an answer besides “confidence,” she explains further.

“Integrity is a big word. It’s about having your actions match your words,” she said.

Students at an assembly at Breakthrough South.
Students at an assembly at Breakthrough South.

The lesson that Goldstein is teaching her students is part of her school’s character curriculum. It’s these kinds of lessons, along with multi-age classrooms, an appreciation for differentiated instruction, and beautiful facilities that make her school a sought after magnet school for white suburban families. In Hartford, Connecticut, where Goldstein’s school is located, magnet schools have been designed to desegregate schools by offering white suburban families the ability to cross district lines and enroll their children in mostly black and Hispanic schools in urban areas. In other words, it’s schools like this that are hoping to reverse a long-running trend of mostly white suburban schools and mostly minority urban schools.

In order to attract those families, who may have to travel an hour or more to attend the schools, magnets have to offer something special. For Hartford magnet schools, students who want to attend participate in a lottery. The hope is that black and Hispanic students will have more opportunities to attend high-quality schools. 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.

The current magnet school system in Hartford is the result of a decades-long effort to desegregate Hartford’s public schools. In 1989, a group of 18 students sued the state over the right to an education and equal protection under the law because public schools with mostly black and Hispanic populations received less funding. After years of negotiations for the Sheff v. O’Neill case, a serious expansion of magnet schools began in 2008, although many magnet schools such as Breakthrough existed before the expansion.

Breakthrough, through lessons like the character building, emphasizes the importance of students being compassionate to one another and participating in community projects. A group of older students went on stage during the school’s weekly meeting to make other students aware of a community food drive.

The character lesson ended with a “mindfulness moment” during which Maritza Soto-Gomez, the theme facilitator and mindfulness director, played the sounds of a waterfall as students sat quietly and closed their eyes. A staff member quickly quieted a couple of younger children who moved in their seats and giggled, but the auditorium was overwhelmingly quiet for a gymnasium full of students.

What makes magnet schools magnetic

Suburban families might be willing to send their child to a school further away from their home for a more unique learning experience like the one Breakthrough offers. Breakthrough has many perks: a mindfulness room with a hammock, a large gymnasium with floors that sparkle, and a rooftop garden. It has existed as a magnet school since 2002, allowing the school to develop its reputation — it was named the top magnet school at the national Magnet Schools of America conference this year. It has a solid reputation, nice facilities, a staff that is dedicated to thoughtful differentiated instruction, and a more visual and hands-on approach to learning. The BRICK philosophy — which stands for “breakthrough,” “responsibility,” “integrity,” “contributing,” and “knowledge” — also provides the “social-emotional” learning component that many parents are looking for, made popular by Paul Tough’s 2012 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

As far as academic success, fourth graders at Breakthrough Magnet School scored above the state average for meeting or exceeding the English Language Arts standard, at 59.4 percent versus the state’s 55 percent. It also succeeds at doing what magnet schools are intended to do — desegregate. It not only meets compliance with Sheff v. O’Neill’s most recent agreement to reach 25 percent white and Asian students — but exceeds it, at 26. 2 percent white and Asian students. Most of the magnet schools in Hartford are compliant with Sheff. All of the magnet schools offered by Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), an organization focused on improvement of educational quality in the area, which is funded by local, state, federal, and private funds, are compliant, according to CREC Executive Director Bruce Douglas.

According to a 2014 Center on Reinvesting Public Education report, about 5,000 Hartford families have applied to attend schools in the open choice program every year for the past four years. Last fall, almost half of black and Hispanic students in Hartford, at 47.5 percent, were attending schools that have at least a 25 percent white and Asian student population. However, the CERPE report points out that the increasing population of black and Hispanic residents in Hartford’s outlying suburbs makes the integration plan more challenging. Magnet schools have to attract white families from further out in the suburbs to reach compliance.

At a school choice fair earlier this month, many of the parents I spoke with said they were looking for schools that went beyond traditional teaching methods of students sitting in chairs and listening to teachers lecture, that offered cultural diversity, and a variety of after-school activities that would make students look well-rounded when they applied for college. Although a strong academic record may be important to parents, it isn’t necessarily what will draw them to magnet schools, since magnet schools typically underperform their suburban counterparts.

An eighth grade student, Mariela, greets a classroom. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
An eighth grade student, Mariela, greets a classroom. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

Mariela, the most responsible and polite eighth grader I’ve ever met, led me through Breakthrough South, where students know her as a mentor and seemed completely unfazed by a reporter’s presence, probably because the school has been covered widely in both local and national media.

But other magnet schools don’t have the qualities of Breakthrough South working in their favor. Some magnet schools have only been around for a few years or don’t have considerable funding and lack shiny new facilities, or both, which hampers their ability to attract white families from the suburbs and meet compliance under the Sheff agreement.

What happens when you don’t have a mindfulness room

Breakthrough Magnet School, or Breakthrough South, is quite different from Breakthrough North, or Breakthrough II. Breakthrough North has only been operating for a few years compared to Breakthrough South and only recently expanded to become a pre-K through eighth grade school like its sister school. Breakthrough North has a very small gymnasium that looks as if it hasn’t been refurbished in decades, a problem Principal Katie Leonard is trying to fix. Its hallways aren’t brightly lit by hallway windows and skylights as some parts of Breakthrough South are, but Leonard is trying to bring color to the school with student drawings and a map showing all of the countries Breakthrough North students and their ancestors have emigrated from.

Although magnet schools are often portrayed as having everything a school would need to be successful, many magnet schools don’t have the same advantages as Breakthrough South. Norma Neumann-Johnson, who founded the Breakthrough Magnet Schools, said Breakthrough North was supposed to start out as a magnet school. Instead, the then superintendent decided it would be established as a regular Hartford district school. Eventually, the school district recognized that it should be a magnet school like Breakthrough South. Breakthrough North has lived at different locations, starting out in an older building and then moving to its current building, which it shared with a charter school in the past. It’s fallen short of that 25 percent goal of white and Asian students, coming in at 18.9 percent.

“They’re still at the beginning of their road to being magnetic to the suburban families and being able to pull people across district lines,” Neumann-Johnson said. “So that in and of itself makes a big difference in attraction ability. This building has been able to be refurbished but it’s a slow process because you don’t have the same attractibility and don’t have as much of the funding you could use.”

Students at Breakthrough North. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
Students at Breakthrough North. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

Breakthrough North teachers say it can be difficult to retain new staff because the philosophy of the school is very specific and you have to be willing to work for little money, which is why it’s easier to bring on staff after an internship when they really get to know the school and its approach. Aston Gilyard, a fourth and fifth grade teacher who has taught at Breakthrough North for seven years, said that because Breakthrough had to convince the school district to allow it be a magnet school, they didn’t get a new building as many other magnet schools did. The lack of a “spiffy new building” just makes it harder to meet compliance and desegregate.

“We finally convinced them we’ve always been a magnet. Please let us be a magnet. It’s been an uphill climb to attract and use the money as wisely as possible to advertise and when they created the magnet status they gave us this probationary status where we didn’t even get the full per child allotment that other magnet schools were getting,” Gilyard said. “So we were being told you have to meet compliance or you will lose the money you have, but you’re not giving us the same amount of money and resources to compete. You’re putting a Band-Aid on a larger problem. This building is 50 years old.”

Schools that have the bells and whistles can’t always expand

The Journalism and Media Academy Magnet School, which serves grades nine through 12, has a lot going for it. It has a new modern building that gleams like the headquarters of a corporate media company and a cafeteria with high ceilings and skylights. There are plenty of places for students to conduct radio interviews and produce videos. There is a screening room. School announcements are even made from a news crawler. The school moved from its own building at Weaver High School to the renovated former Barbour School building in 2013. According to the Hartford Courant, it cost $37.45 million to renovate and expand the building.

The cafeteria at the Journalism and Media Academy Magnet School. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
The cafeteria at the Journalism and Media Academy Magnet School. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

The small school only has 200 students and 17 teachers, and only about 10 percent of its students are white and Asian. Each year, the school expands on those numbers, but it is still far from meeting compliance with the Sheff agreement. Because of the small student population and limited budget, the guidance counselor, gym teacher, a teacher, and school social worker are all part time. Principal Leonard Epps said that he starts with retaining the families the school does have so they can spread the word. One major advantage the school has over other schools is its ability to use media projects and internships the students are already participating in to attract attention to the school.

“When we win awards or win the Hartford film contest, that information spreads to the larger community … I think there are a lot of things that we can do for the program that doesn’t cost money and relying on things that are here and getting them to spread the word,” Epps said. “So that is a challenge because if we don’t get the funding then the expansion piece becomes more challenging and one of the things we struggle with is not letting that demoralize us because the staff grapples with that. If you don’t get the kids, you don’t get the funding and if you don’t get the funding, the school suffers.”

Tiffany Blanchett, who teaches civics, geography, and international studies for ninth and 10th grades, said she incorporates the theme into class by discussing topics they’re likely to be interested in, such as gun rights and U.S. Supreme Court cases about student speech. She asks students to look at media sources and evaluate them for evidence of bias or instructs students to look at how a politicians’ campaign donors may affect what he or she said on a given policy.

“I say to the kids who say ‘I don’t want to get into journalism,’ ‘Most of what you’re learning is how to gather information, evaluate it critically, repackage it, and persuade, and these are skills you can use almost anywhere. You can use them in marketing, business, obviously writing, communications, and it’s even a good skill set if you’re in [science, technology, education, and math] because you still have to be able to evaluate and share information. You don’t want to be like some of the engineers I’ve met, where they’re great but god forbid you ask them to explain something simply.”

This is the school’s radio room. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
This is the school’s radio room. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

Blanchett said interested parents are generally wowed by the multimedia pieces students produce with the equipment they have available at the school. But the white suburban students who are interested in coming to the school often live fairly far away, a trend that Blanchett thinks will continue.

“Many of the white students who are coming here are from very far away, so they’re on a bus for an hour and a half to get here and that’s asking a lot. The transportation is a definite challenge. But I do notice the suburban white kids who come tend to be very interested in writing and media and they want to know how to make game apps and learn video production. I guess if youre going to get on a bus for 90 minutes, you have to be pretty motivated,” Blanchett said.

One of the less expected draws of the school is exactly what the principal hopes to change — its size. Because the school is small, faculty say it’s easier for students to connect with staff, and it often means there are fewer problems for students who have been bullied or may be a little offbeat.

The outside of the Journalism and Media Academy Magnet school. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
The outside of the Journalism and Media Academy Magnet school. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

“We’re a small school, so they’ve all found different staff members they can connect with. A lot of them have also had different issues in their former districts so maybe they were bullied or they were quirky and different. I know I was certainly was,” Blanchett said.

Tracy Weisel, special education teacher, says about 27 percent of students have special education needs. She said the strengths of the school were its size and ability to pay close attention to individual students.

“What makes our school a special place ad a great place for identified learners is that we’re smaller and we have good positive relationships with our students, so the fact that a student comes in as a freshman and everyone knows them creates a safe kind of learning community that our kids flourish in,” Weisel said.

Can enrichment convince white suburban families to integrate?

Principal Dr. Zandralyn Gordon
Principal Dr. Zandralyn Gordon

Dr. Zandralyn Gordon runs a tight ship at Classical Magnet School. As we walk through the halls, she asks students why they’re not in a classroom, and they don’t hesitate to take her seriously when she tells them to go to their classes. Gordon became principal after working at the school for several years. After principals came and went, Gordon said the school’s focus, a Paideia, a term from an approach to creating the perfect member of the polis in Ancient Greece, and essentially means providing a well-rounded education of liberal arts and the sciences, which includes seminars, faded in recent years. She has fought to bring back that focus this year, and teachers appear to be embracing that return to the school’s original focus.

The school, which serves sixth through 12th grade, has strong music and theater programs but one of the things that really makes the school stand out is its after-school enrichment program, which allows students to take on whatever activity they want outside of class, simply because they’re interested in it, such as fixing bicycles or jewelry design or creative writing that, unlike some after-school activities, teachers take a more active role in.

John Hill, a 10th grade English teacher at Classical Magnet, said the enrichment offerings made a great difference to one of his students.

“The philosophy is that students get to develop part of their lives that the school day doesn’t allow them to do much, and this helps create that Paideia ‘whole child’ idea that our school is very committed too and centered around,” Hill said, giving an example of a student in his advisory who applied to Wesleyan University. Although the family couldn’t arrange an interview at the college, the admissions officer spoke to the student for a few minutes when he visited the school as part of program the guidance department runs.

A poster Classical Magnet School students made to show how their confidence has grown through the year.
A poster Classical Magnet School students made to show how their confidence has grown through the year.

“If she had her way, that would have been the only school she applied to because that was the only school she wanted to go to … And she applied and got accepted because she had a small relationship with that admissions officer who was here. She asked him once she was accepted ‘Why did I get in? What worked?’ He said ‘enrichment,’” Hill said.

Despite the strong programs for students interested in the performing arts, a governance structure that allows high parental involvement, and a good after-school enrichment program, Gordon is worried. The school is slipping under the 25 percent threshold and is now at 23 percent reduced isolation students. Many of the students who helped the school meet compliance graduated last year. The night before our interview, Gordon was encouraging parents to attend the fair at Prince Technical High School to convince other families that the school was worth attending.

“I think the problem is that we have so many magnet schools so we’re competing with all of these schools with scarce resources. That’s the bottom line,” Gordon said. “Last night I was trying to get parents to sign up because I think people will listen better to parents when they say why their kid is in this school. They will listen to students who say, ‘I’m in the school because …’ and they might think the principal is just saying that because she wants more people in her school.”

An art classroom at Classical Magnet. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan
An art classroom at Classical Magnet. CREDIT: Casey Quinlan

One of the problems with ensuring that magnet schools reach compliance is that every magnet school’s reasons for falling below compliance are different. Some magnet schools may have problems attracting families with old facilities, while some schools have the resources, but still find that demographics are working against them. There are also doubts as to whether the current funding system is the wisest way to ensure compliance, since schools that continue to lose resources lose their ability to be magnetic and ensure further noncompliance in the effort to desegregate.

During my visit, Jeron Campbell, chief data and accountability officer for Hartford Public Schools, suggested the idea of moving white students up in the waitlist for magnet schools, that way schools can reach and remain at compliance much easier than if the standard procedures were followed. The problem, obviously, is that waitlisted students of color would be brought further down the waitlist. Although the number of seats for Hartford students in suburban schools was expanded for this academic year, Hartford families have expressed frustration with their inability to get lottery seats for magnet schools in their own neighborhoods.

Because the plaintiffs and the state are the two parties involved in the court case that put the desegregation plan in place, the city only has an intervening status. A Hartford judge can listen to negotiations until there is an impasse, and then it is brought to the Connecticut Supreme Court, but the final decision has to come from the state legislature. In the meantime, Principals Gordon, Leonard, and Epps have to make do with what they have, despite the fact that noncompliance means losing the very money that will save their schools.

It’s a challenge Gordon talked about. “Unfortunately this year we did not get the numbers that we wanted and it’s a little sad for me because if you don’t have the money you can’t keep your programs going and if you’re not careful you’re going to start deteriorating. And that bothers me a lot,” she said.

This is a second in an ongoing series from ThinkProgress on efforts to desegregate schools. Read the first part of the series here.