Bridging the Divide:

Hartford, Conn., experiment shows challenges, rewards of diversity in schools

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Twenty years ago, public education in Baltimore and this New England capital had much in common.

Tens of thousands of minority students, living in pockets of poverty, attended schools that weren't preparing them to graduate.

But after a lawsuit, Hartford took a different path. The city and state committed to take apart the system of de facto segregation in its public schools and institute voluntary integration.

Today half of Hartford's public school children are in integrated schools. Of those, the vast majority — about 8,000 — attend gleaming new magnet schools with themes and resources so intriguing that white and Asian students from the suburbs are willing to cross school district lines to get to them. Achievement and graduation rates are up.

"For the students who have the opportunity, it has been an unparalleled experience," said Martha Stone, one of the original attorneys in the suit.

These magnet schools —vastly different from most magnet schools in Maryland —offer students creative, immersive learning in topics that are popular with families and relevant to the workplace. They range from environmental sciences to sports and medicine and aerospace engineering. Because the city and nearby suburban districts offer families a choice of their neighborhood school or one of the magnets, they have drawn a mix of students, enough to achieve the racial and socioeconomic balance so elusive in many urban districts.

It's a model that many across the country, including former President Barack Obama's education secretary and some Maryland education leaders, have singled out.

"In order to achieve the results that ... are possible given the amazing assets that the state of Maryland has, we have to set a clear vision about what we want schools to accomplish," said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who has visited Hartford and believes it holds lessons for Maryland.

Now, after a decade of failed attempts to improve the lowest-performing schools, Maryland and many other states are at an educational crossroads.

Some are looking at integration as a way to address the stubborn achievement gap between white and black students, and wealthy and poor. Researchers believe segregation is linked with this gap: Black achievement improved most dramatically during the 1980s, when the nation's schools were at their most integrated.

The number of districts nationwide trying to integrate their schools has grown from two in 1996 to more than 100 today, the liberal Century Foundation reports.

Some are under court order; others are pursuing integration voluntarily. Louisville, Ky., and Cambridge, Mass., are pointed to as success stories. Officials in Kentucky merged the school districts of Louisville and the surrounding, predominantly white Jefferson County. Assignment to a school is based both on parental choice and ensuring that student populations are mixed by income and race.

In Cambridge, more than 80 percent of students attend integrated schools, and black achievement has risen under a decades-old program that allows parents to rank schools they want their children to attend, while also giving preference to socioeconomic backgrounds.

Still, in Maryland, as in places around the country, schools are growing more segregated, with poor and minority students concentrated in schools without white, affluent students. Recent efforts in the Baltimore area to voluntarily integrate schools, including redistricting in Baltimore County and a new school in East Baltimore, have proved to be complex, emotionally charged struggles.

Maryland was the third-most-segregated state in the nation for black students in 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles reported last year. More than one-quarter of its public schools were considered racially isolated, a designation that means 90 percent or more of their students are minority, according to the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland.

Many academics and others say that's not good for the children, or society, especially with research showing that all children benefit when learning in a diverse classroom.

"We create schools where the scope of need is so enormous, without ever having the public will to put in the resources to give students a real chance," Ferguson said. "There is an inherent lowering of expectations in schools where there are exclusively low-income students."

And on the other side, Ferguson said, "we create these enclaves of white and wealthy schools where the skills that kids need are not able to be acquired. You can't teach cultural competency out of a book."

The Hartford model

Hartford's approach has been in the works for decades. City parents sued the state in 1989, arguing that city schools were separate and unequal to their suburban neighbors.

Seven years later, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed. The state's highest court found that the racial and socioeconomic isolation of the Hartford schools violated the Connecticut Constitution, and it ordered officials to find regional, coordinated solutions to end segregation.

In the Hartford area, the Capitol Region Education Council, or CREC, the coalition of city and suburban school districts, helped create a regional magnet system for elementary, middle and high schools. Officials also put together Open Choice, a transfer program that allowed a limited number of Hartford students to cross district lines to suburban schools when there was space.

Together, these two options mean that nearly half of Hartford's 21,000 students are leaving their neighborhoods for schools they have chosen. Buses transport about 14,000 children a day from the city and suburban counties to magnet schools at a cost of $50 million a year, according to CREC.

Hartford's 42 magnet schools have striking spaces — dramatic architecture and creative interior designs. The lobby of an environmental sciences elementary/middle school welcomes students with a pond and waterfall. A sports-themed high school has a soaring central entrance with bright colors, as well as three gymnasiums that can be converted to larger or smaller spaces.

The aerospace and engineering school has an unusual outside design. On one side, the building is shaped like the cross section of an airplane wing. On another side, a brightly colored, tiled mosaic of the stars, as seen through the Hubble Telescope, covers the walls. An elementary school has a warm, dimly lit room for students to practice meditation.

The teaching and learning are different as well.

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering in Windsor, Conn., are constructing the wing of a two-person airplane in a classroom of high ceilings and garage doors. When they complete the plane, they'll roll it out the garage doors and watch it take off and fly from a local airport.

"When a sixth-grader sees the plane fly by, they will think of their rivets," said Jeff Moore, the school's assistant principal.

The school, which serves students in grades six through 12th, moved recently to its new building near the region's international airport and several aerospace businesses. It emphasizes hands-on, collaborative, high-level learning. Students travel from all over the state to attend, but about half come from the neighboring city of Hartford.

In teacher Josh Madore's classroom, the shiny metal wing of an airplane sits on a table, half finished. With a wind turbine in the corner, and half-completed rockets on shelves, Madore's classroom looks a bit like the laboratory of a mad professor.

"We launch a lot of rockets," Madore said.

After a visit to the airport to examine the design of some planes, his students will build another wing, then test it for lift, strength and stress.

Down the hall, a group of three students — one black, one Latino and one Asian — work intently in a corner to solve a mathematical and electrical engineering problem. In other classrooms, students are learning to build satellites and program drones. And in a lab, students are incubating butterflies to see if they can change the color pattern on the butterfly wings.

"The work may be hard, but there are experiences to fill up your bucket," Moore said. "We look for motivating experiences that will keep you going even if you are a struggling student."

They build underwater robots, catapults and drones. It isn't unusual, teachers say, to be walking down the hall when a robot whizzes by. There are labs devoted to cell growth and bio-diesel fuel.

Students at Aerospace can take an array of classes, from nuclear physics and botanical studies to molecular genetics. Ten percent take multivariable calculus — a college subject.

Connecticut, like Maryland, uses the Common Core curriculum. It administers tests that are nearly the same as Maryland's tests. But teachers at the Aerospace Academy say they are encouraged to be creative, move beyond traditional teaching and try new approaches. Several have Ph.D's in science or engineering.

So far, test data from the magnets is promising — but incomplete.

"On average, Hartford kids of color … are doing better than their peers left behind in neighborhood schools," said Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford!, a business coalition that advocates for Hartford schools. But the "burning question," he said, is how they are doing compared with their suburban classmates. His group is still waiting for the release of data to allow that analysis.

The Aerospace school has no entrance requirements. Students are chosen out of a lottery. Yet it has some of the highest SAT scores of any school in the state.

Gary Collier, 17, attended a Hartford public school where, he said, the expectation was that many students would drop out. It took him three tries in the lottery before he got to Aerospace. The adjustment hasn't been easy. However, he found many teachers who are helping him navigate.

"They always make you strive to be better, so I feel I am always going to feel a little behind," said Gary, who is black.

His mother, Helena Swain, says the magnet schools have transformed the educational landscape in Hartford. "It is completely better than it was 20 years ago," she said. "They have so many opportunities now."

All of her children are attending or will attend magnets, she says, because they offer a top-notch education that she never had access to when she was growing up in the city.

She thinks Hartford students do better than they would in their city schools, in part because they become interested in a particular subject area, understand how it relates to a job, and see a future for themselves by the time they graduate from high school. Gary, a senior, has been accepted to his top-choice college, and her daughter, a magnet school graduate, is already attending college.

Coming from a city that is mostly black and Hispanic, Gary said he is acutely aware of the mix of races at Aerospace. But he says his classmates fall into groups around what interests them — not by race.

"Race doesn't define you at this school," said Gary. Without his experience at Aerospace, he said, he would never have had a chance to interact with Asian and white people.

"I feel like going into a career, it would have felt weird," he said. "Because of the school, I am not going to have culture shock."

Darien Pinto, who is Latino, is another Hartford student who said transferring to a magnet school changed his life.

Back in his Hartford elementary school, Darien took science, his favorite subject, just once a week, and he longed for more. At the Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker, which is located inside the city limits in a renovated neighborhood school, the round-faced, bubbly student has science 90 minutes a day.

With three resident scientists in the building — each with a specialty — students can explore everything from the planets to plant diseases. The scientists are known as the bug guy, the fish lady and the master gardener. Like Aerospace, the school was built with spaces that allow for hands-on, project-based learning, combined with sophisticated science that stretches students.

The aquatics laboratory is full of tanks with fish and other organisms, and students are conducting experiments. There's also a greenhouse and a butterfly vivarium, a large, light-filled space with terrariums of turtles, spiders and snakes surrounded by large tropical plants. The recent addition of a chicken coop outside will allow students to take care of the chickens, as well as study genetics.

In the greenhouse, Darien describes how he can grab a leaf and look at it under a microscope for minute bugs that are attacking the plant. While he hasn't decided on a specialty, he already knows that he will have a career in science. He is 12.

Many left behind

For all the Hartford students who have gotten into the magnet schools, just as many are left in schools with insufficient resources.

Gary believes his old neighborhood friends back in Hartford are clearly on a different path than he is. He said he can tell by looking at their social media posts. Their schools have concentrated groups of poor children, and tend to have less-experienced teachers, lower expectations and lower test scores.

"Those are the kids that I worry about all the time," said Enid Rey, who is in charge of the magnet programs the Hartford school system has set up. "Those are the kids who break my heart."

Rey said the students left behind are no different from the students who won a lottery and a place in the magnet schools. "We think that it is a moral failure of these kids that they are not learning," she said. "And it is not that. They are not deficient. They are not 'less than.' They just haven't had the same options to perform as other kids."

The Hartford integration experiment has also been limited by a mandate to balance the enrollment of city students with those from surrounding towns. If there aren't enough white or Asian students from the suburbs who want to attend a particular school, the state caps the enrollment of black and Latino students from Hartford.

That means there are empty seats in some of the magnet schools, even as black and Latino children in the city try for years to get in a situation that has grown more controversial in recent months.

The path forward

While the nation focused on the segregation of black children 60 years ago, today educators believe that any renewed integration effort needs to based on children's socioeconomic backgrounds. Court rulings in 2007 said that schools can no longer assign students based on race. And researchers say that the gap in achievement between rich and poor children has grown larger than the gap between races.

The recent focus on integration as a way to improve struggling schools was gaining headway before the election of President Donald Trump, who now supports Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' view that parents should be given public money in the form of vouchers to attend private schools.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has pushed legislation that would allow more charter schools, and he has put funding for vouchers in the state budget. Maryland State Board of Education President Andrew Smarick said the board has not discussed any efforts to integrate schools, although it has been looking at various options to improve failing schools.

Laura Weeldreyer, a state school board member from Baltimore, believes the two policy initiatives —integration and charters — can be combined. "I think charter schools can be used to accomplish big strategic goals that school systems want to do."

Baltimore has examples of charter schools that were started on the edge of affluent or low-income neighborhoods with the intention of drawing students of mixed backgrounds, Weeldreyer said, and they have been successful. They include Midtown Academy in Bolton Hill and Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School on Guilford Avenue.

Ferguson, the state senator, has spent a good portion of his adult life struggling to help city kids get a better education, first as a teacher with Teach for America and then as a city school administrator. Now, as a legislator, he's looking for new solutions.

He says districts aren't sharing innovative ideas. Just as Google has a research arm, so should the state's public school systems, he says. He has introduced legislation that would create an innovation hub for Maryland's public school system.

The quasi-public Education Development Collaborative would foster research and development for best practices in schools. It would work with school systems to design new schools, perhaps integrated schools like those in Hartford. The bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House.

Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance, who has been known for rolling out ideas quickly — with varying results — has similar interests. He wants to start a regional magnet school that would attract students from several counties.

The demographics might be right: Baltimore County's enrollment is increasing by 1,000 students a year, while city enrollment is dropping and some of its schools are being closed. Dance has spoken with Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises about the possibility of using one of those empty school buildings for a magnet program. He would seek funding from philanthropic organizations and could attempt to open a school as early as the 2018-2019 school year.

Others are focused on trying to integrate existing schools. Karl Alexander, the John Dewey Professor Emeritus in Sociology at the Johns Hopkins University, has set up a new initiative to help already solid city schools with high poverty populations become stronger, so they will draw in more middle-income families who live nearby.

"The single best thing you can do to help poor children is to get them into schools with a majority middle-class enrollment," Alexander said.

His new project, the Thurgood Marshall Alliance, will focus on several schools where the percentage of students living in poverty is greater than in the surrounding neighborhood. They could include Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School in Bolton Hill and Federal Hill Preparatory.

Alexander proposes providing additional expertise to support such schools. The alliance could provide health and mental health services, after-school programs or training for teachers. In addition, he hopes to reach out to communities where parents often leave the city, or send their children to private schools when they reach school age. He wants to get those parents to at least consider their neighborhood school.

Live Baltimore, a nonprofit group that advocates city living, is also pushing to get more middle-class families to send their children to public schools. Research by the organization shows that middle-class families with children from kindergarten to fifth grade leave the city schools at a rate of about 20 percent a year — often because they believe the schools are inadequate. Families that stayed after the elementary grades tended to remain in the city.

Annie Milli, marketing director for Live Baltimore, said her organization has been creating marketing materials to encourage families to consider their local neighborhood school before they decide to move.

In some cases, she said, middle-class families aren't even giving schools a look. Govans Elementary School, for instance, is a well-regarded school with few students from nearby Homeland.

Whether the public — or state and local leaders — are ready to embrace voluntary plans to diversify schools is unclear. Dance questions whether there is enough public interest or political will to integrate schools without a court order.

Researchers who have studied the data look at the current political climate and say that more than ever, integrated schools are crucial for the country.

"The election of Donald Trump revealed these deep divisions based on race and class. Public schools are the place where students of all backgrounds learn what they have in common," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an expert on education, civil rights and equal opportunity. "If our public schools are going to begin a healing process in this country, then the public schools cannot be segregated or they would not serve that function."

Hartford believers see their magnet schools as doing more than fixing the achievement gap. Rey said the schools have become spaces where a cross section of students — who wouldn't otherwise have come into contact —can learn and grow together.

"It is what I would wish for our country," Rey said, reflecting on the times she's seen black, Latino, Asian and white kids, poor and wealthy kids, connecting.

"It is about fellowship and creating community. It is magical. And I live for those moments."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

@lizbowie

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