Racial Quotas for Connecticut's Magnet School Seats Keep Many Black, Latino Students Out
As the new school year approached for Hartford magnet schools, seats opened up at popular Capital Prep north of downtown—a boon for some of the hundreds of wait-listed students eager to attend the school that pledges to shepherd every graduating senior into a four-year college.
But that good news would never trickle down to the students. The next in line on Capital Preparatory's waitlist were minority students. And enrolling more black or Latino students, officials concluded, would jeopardize efforts to meet integration standards created under Connecticut's historic Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation case.
And so—in a practice that has quietly taken place at Hartford's award-winning magnet schools for years—the open seats at Capital Prep were left empty, and those minority students on the waitlist were rejected because of their race.
"That breaks my heart," said Capital Prep Principal Kitsia Hughey Ferguson, who had to shut out scores of students this school year, despite having ample space in her school. "And I know that's not the spirit of Sheff. That's not what they intended 20 years ago—that we would be turning students away, and more importantly: That we would be turning Hartford students away."
The civil rights trailblazers who brought the Sheff suit concluded long ago that the only politically feasible way to desegregate was a voluntary approach, built on a vast network of magnet schools that would need to attract enough white suburbanites to achieve racial integration. But two decades after the Sheff ruling ushered in a billion-dollar magnet-school construction spree across Greater Hartford, the numbers still aren't there at many schools. And that has compelled the state to manipulate the enrollment process in ways that inevitably leave minority children behind, a Courant analysis has found.
Checking the race and ethnicity of students at the front of waitlists—welcoming them if they are white; denying them seats if they are black or Latino—may be the most startling piece of the magnet-school selection process. But it is not the only way the system suppresses minority enrollment in high-performing Sheff schools.
The state-run school choice lottery, often described as a random, roll-of-the-dice operation, is in fact a carefully engineered process designed to push white and Asian students toward the front of the line at magnet schools that still attract too few non-minority applicants.
And when that doesn't tilt the playing field enough, some schools have no choice but to ignore all Hartford students on the waitlist for certain grades, filling open seats with only suburban children—who are more often white—and leaving Hartford children in neighborhood schools that remain illegally segregated.
It is the nature of Hartford's voluntary desegregation efforts that schools must attract white and Asian families to make the region's interdistrict magnet schools racially diverse. But while there is broad support for the quest to desegregate Hartford schools, many who support integration can't fathom turning away minority children from the schoolhouse steps as desks remain empty inside.
"It makes us nuts. It's horrible," said Lynn Cochrane, an attorney with Greater Hartford Legal Aid who has seen firsthand the frustration of parents trying year-after-year to get their children into a better-resourced magnet school. "It's like the kids are on the Titanic and the lucky ones get into the lifeboats and the rest are sinking."
Even one of the original Sheff plaintiffs can't endorse shutting out students. Given the failure to attract enough suburban white families to the magnet schools, Denise Best now says she is willing to compromise on integration—the very point of the lawsuit a generation ago—to give more Hartford students a chance at a better education.
"I do not think that a child has to sit next to any specific type of child or race of child or religion of child to get a good education. So those seats are empty? Fill them up!" said Best, who was a young mother when she and her daughter Neiima signed on as plaintiffs. "Let's think out of the box and let's just say, 'OK, we tried this. We offered this. Now who wants to come here?' And fill up the seats."
Too Many Minority Students
State officials say they have no choice but to open the doors wider for white and Asian children—and sometimes shut the door on minorities. Under the Sheff mandate, schools are deemed integrated only if no more than 75 percent of the students are black or Latino. But for some magnet schools, particularly those in Hartford, too few white and Asian families are willing to leave their home districts. So those who do choose to enter the lottery are given preference over black and Latino applicants to help meet the integration goals.
And at schools that still fall short of the integration goal, principals with open seats in a particular grade are forced to count how many minority students would have to be admitted to get to a white or Asian student farther down the list. If the count is too high—if a school's waitlist is front-loaded with minority students—those minority children may end up as lottery losers while seats are intentionally left empty.
Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School in Hartford eliminated an entire sixth grade class because the applicant pool for that grade included too many minority children. It is the sort of decision Principal Jay Mihalko says is difficult for any educator to make.
"My core value is that every child deserves an excellent education," he said. "And therefore I don't want anyone to miss the opportunity for that."
State officials confirmed that Classical Magnet in Hartford also suppressed minority enrollment to avoid pushing the school further out of compliance with the Sheff integration standard. Classical, a grade 6-to-12 school where 77 percent of the students are black or Latino, this year enrolled about 100 fewer students than last year, although it's unclear how much of that drop was due to racial suppression. School leaders won't say.
But the exasperation of Principal Zandralyn Gordon is evident in the "Enrollment Management Plan" that non-compliant schools are required to submit to the state, listing strategies they will pursue to recruit or retain more "reduced-isolation" students—the state's term for white and Asian children. Principals also must consider their efforts to date, and answer the question: "What significant lessons about compliance did you learn?"
"I have learned that a program whose primary function is to make sure that the constitutional rights of Hartford students is not violated is now denying Hartford students their right to high quality education by maintaining what has now become an unsustainable reduced isolation quota," Gordon wrote.
Meeting the 'White Quota'
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, who for a generation has been the face of the lawsuit brought in her son's name, knows that critics seize on the lottery's impact on black and Latino students. But while she is frustrated that there are not more high-quality Sheff schools offering more seats to more students, she is not backing away from her commitment to integration, and has made peace with how the system works to maximize white and Asian enrollment.
"Here in Hartford, because we're so brown, in order to find diversity in this town, in our schools, then you have to talk about bringing in people who are not brown," Horton Sheff said. "So I don't want us to fall into this trap about, 'Oh we're just trying to educate white kids' or 'We're just trying to attract white kids.'"
But that effort to attract white kids pervades the magnet system. Long before principals count off minority students on waitlists, and before the lottery drawing is tilted to favor white applicants, a state-funded marketing blitz is crafted to appeal to suburban families. There are magazine ads, radio spots, promotional videos—a Hartford Public Schools' commercial features a white family expressing amazement at magnet school options—highway billboards, open houses, car magnets and lawn signs strategically placed in white neighborhoods. A state employee even travels to predominantly white suburban towns, tacking up fliers in supermarkets and laundromats.
Come fall, parents descend on crowded, carnival-like magnet school fairs, where school principals and teachers hand out candy, rubber bracelets, tiny globes and school-branded notebooks as they compete for students. With colorful tri-fold boards and honed elevator pitches, they extol their programs and amenities—a robotics lab at one school, laptops for kindergarteners at another. "Are you looking for a middle school?" "Are you looking for Pre-K?" they ask, hoping to lure an applicant to their tables.
The school representatives are selling hard to every parent. But with the Sheff settlement hanging over them, some admit it's impossible not to fixate on the race of those passing by.
Breakthrough II Magnet School, housed in a former neighborhood school in north Hartford, has struggled to reach the 25-percent target for non-minority students since it opened in 2008. So, as Katelin Jacobs, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher, scanned the crowd at a magnet-school fair in November, she couldn't help but notice the race and ethnicity of the families who seemed interested in Breakthrough II.
"Unfortunately, we need more students from the suburban towns to help our white quota," Jacobs said. "It's not something that we want to look at, but it's always something that we need to have in the back of our minds because it's what keeps us open and what keeps us going. ... You are thinking those things constantly."
Paul Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford!, an education advocacy group, said the systematic quest for white families is the inevitable result of an arrangement that penalizes a school that attracts too many black and Latino families.
"In the paradigm they've created, the suburban families are the customers," he said, "because Hartford families are already buying."
When the Sheff suit was filed in 1989, the concept of integrating schools was as simple as pairing students from Hartford—nearly all of whom were black or Latino—with students from the predominantly white towns surrounding the city. But as the suburbs have grown more diverse, so has the applicant pool from suburban towns, making it harder to meet the 25-percent standard. At the same time, white suburban families who value integrated schools no longer necessarily need to leave their home districts to expose their children to other races and ethnicities.
Attracting—and keeping—students from the predominantly white towns around Hartford is also difficult simply because many of those suburbs already have high-performing schools within their borders. When Irena Amisano decided to try the lottery for Mary Hooker Environmental Sciences Magnet School in south Hartford, which her son and daughter now attend, it was with the comfort that they could always return to their quality schools in the suburbs if it didn't work out.
A friend at Mary Hooker had recommended the magnet school, which boasts an indoor waterfall, and "we really liked it. The facility's beautiful," Amisano said. The environmental-science focus and hands-on approach to learning appealed to her and her husband. So did the butterfly vivarium.
As Amisano put it: "We didn't have anything to lose."
Education advocates say magnet schools within Hartford's boundaries face a special challenge persuading suburban white families to attend their schools, often pointing to the Journalism & Media Academy in a working-class neighborhood of north Hartford. It is the least-integrated of all magnets in the system, and after years of trying to attract whites, the Hartford school board gave up last August and voted to "demagnetize" the academy, saying that their attempts to integrate the school were futile and harming Hartford students.
"A brand new, modern, up-to-date school," said Muhammad Ansari, president of the NAACP's Greater Hartford branch. "But they can't get white students to come in there, because they don't want to come to Hartford."
Sharon Wright of East Hartford came to a school choice fair last fall with a mix of enthusiasm and dread. "I think the schools are offering a lot of stuff that kids really want to do," she said while comparing options with her 10-year-old daughter, Sharika Lewis.
Sharika, a fifth-grader, wants to be a doctor, and was drawn to Hartford's Sport and Medical Sciences Academy. She also liked the Global Experience Magnet School in Bloomfield, and Wright was determined to have a third-, fourth- and fifth-place option to add to her daughter's application.
"I'm very excited. Very excited," Wright said. "I really appreciate the schools, the direction they're going in."
But then Wright remembered Sharika's experience last year, when she applied to multiple schools—and was wait-listed at every one. At one school she was more than 100 seats deep in the waitlist.
"I don't understand why some people have such opportunity to get in, and some don't," Wright said.
Tipping the Scales
The Hartford region's massive annual lottery can mean the difference between attending a gleaming, award-winning magnet school—with a specialty theme and perhaps a planetarium—and languishing in a segregated, under-resourced neighborhood school populated in part by other students who were also hoping to go somewhere else.
The state has long declared that the fate of those applicants is determined by a "random lottery process." And if each of the magnet schools appealed to enough white and Asian applicants, picking names randomly would be sufficient to create integrated schools. But with those students underrepresented in the applicant pool for some schools, seats instead are doled out according to a complex algorithm that officials test and tweak in order to tip the scales in favor of white and Asian students.
And on lottery day, while families nervously await the results, school and state officials already know exactly what the outcome will be. That's because the formal run of the lottery merely locks in the last of what can be many simulations that are run—and then scrutinized by state and local officials to make sure that white and Asian students rank high in the ordering.
And if those officials don't like what they see, they tinker with the algorithm and run it again.
Even as magnet applications are coming in, schools and the state are studying the racial and ethnic makeup of the evolving applicant pool, determining whether adjustments to the lottery algorithm are needed, or if academic offerings need to be changed to maximize the enrollment of coveted white applicants.
"We've been doing this for so long that all the schools really know where they need to be in terms of racial compliance," said Glen Peterson, director of the Regional School Choice Office at the state Department of Education. State officials, he said, "will have meetings with individual operators and talk about certain schools, and say: 'Oh my goodness, this school's really close to the edge. What can we do to make the school more compliant?'"
One thing they can do is consolidate or expand classes to maximize openings in grades that drew the most white and Asian applicants. Schools also can adjust preferences in the lottery algorithm that benefit "reduced-isolation" students—the term the state uses for those who are not black or Latino. Some preferences are publicized and well-known to parents: those that favor siblings of enrolled students, or the children of staff members, who are often white, or the boost for students attending a designated feeder school.
But magnet schools also can apply a lottery "protocol"—not mentioned in the state's catalog or promotional material—to draw students first from towns that simply have the largest concentration of white and Asian applicants.
Another lesser-known preference is a town participation rate, which gives the edge to students from towns with few lottery applications, which tend to have large white populations. "If you have a community like Cromwell, for example, that has a lower participation rate in magnet school opportunities, they will go higher in the order," said Robin Cecere, a state Department of Education lawyer who has worked on school-choice issues for a decade.
So students applying from Cromwell—where 85 percent of the population is white or Asian—will win seats before students from a high-participation town such as Bloomfield, where most residents are black or Latino.
That was news to Vanessa Harris, who recently moved to Bloomfield and attended the November magnet fair looking for a Pre-K program for her daughter. "Oh boy," she fretted. "This is going to be my first time. So, fingers crossed."
Bruce Douglas, who oversaw the development of 17 Sheff-related magnet schools as executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, now has misgivings about the admissions process, calling the lottery "immoral."
"The fact that your future was determined by a lottery was unconscionable," said Douglas, who retired more than a year ago. "It was not in the spirit or the morality of what Sheff was supposed to be all about. It was supposed to be about equity, equal opportunities for children to get a great education, as opposed to a life sentence."
Luck of the Draw
Last May, when local and state officials were satisfied with the results of the lottery algorithm, a state Department of Education employee launched the lottery program on her computer and clicked a button that asked if she was "ready to run the luck of the draw" for the 19,000 students seeking a spot in one the region's magnet schools.
"When you hit the button," Peterson said, "what we're essentially doing is turning a simulation, that's all been approved, live."
Parents are notified almost immediately, with emails and automated phone calls, telling them whether their children were offered a space in that first allocation of seats, or placed on a waitlist. Meanwhile, in neighborhood schools, teachers brace for the fallout from students consigned to remain in under-resourced schools, including the city's large high schools, Weaver and Bulkeley.
"My kids would cry, bawling, when they didn't get into the arts academy, or to Classical Magnet, and they were like: 'I'm going to Weaver, miss, I might as well drop out,' or 'I have to go to Bulkeley,'" said Estefania Rodriguez, a former middle-school social studies teacher at Milner School in Hartford.
Rodriguez, who graduated from Bulkeley, would gauge the prospects for her students who were placed on waiting lists. "You can cut the tension with a knife when the kids start getting these numbers. 'I have spot No. 8 to the arts academy,' and I can be like: 'Yes! ... You're going to the arts academy! No. 8 is a great number, give it the summer, kids move,'" she said. "And then you get another student whose dream school is Sport and [Medical] Sciences and they have No. 67, and having that conversation of: 'No, you can't go to that school'—because whoever decided this lottery set it up so that you can't attend the school you think is best for you.
"But it's 'choice,'" Rodriguez said. "I don't understand how that's choice, because, ultimately, it's not up to the families."
Holzer, with Achieve Hartford!, said anxiety over the lottery has come to define the desegregation effort. "I think more people associate the word 'Sheff' with the concept of a lottery winner and loser than they do with the original intent of the case," he said.
Holzer said his group has helped hundreds of families complete the magnet-school application. One constant, he said, was "a real sense of desperation, where people thought: 'If I don't get my kid into this school, I don't know what I'm going to do.'
"That desperation always reminds us that the Sheff v. O'Neill case has resulted in thousands upon thousands of different and better futures for so many Hartford kids. But it also reminds us of how broken our community is when people feel so beholden to chance."
After last spring's lottery, three quarters of the applicants were placed on waitlists, hoping to capture one of the thousands of additional seats that open up over the summer as students move away or schools adjust their class sizes.
But the odds can be slim at schools with large numbers of black and Latino children on the waitlist, even when there's room. Sometimes, school leaders don't even try.
During two lottery rounds for this school year, Hughey Ferguson said she didn't bother seeking to fill any of her available seats because Capital Prep's long waitlist was crowded with black and Latino children at the front of the line. "There were no reduced-isolated students that we could grab without having to take so many minority students that it's still impacting compliance in a negative way," she said.
Other times, it is the state that instructs schools to leave seats empty. "In one of the iterations of the lottery, we attempted to take in sixth- and ninth-graders from Hartford," Hughey Ferguson said. " And the state said no, that would have a negative impact on your compliance."
So those seats were left empty to avoid enrolling black and Latino students—at a school with a social justice theme and a library named in honor of Elizabeth Horton Sheff, who sued to give minority schoolchildren a fair shake.
"It does take an emotional toll," Hughey Ferguson said. "I'm an educator. We're in the business of educating kids. To know that kids want to come, and can't come, is very discouraging."
Hartford school board Chairman Richard Wareing said he has trouble reconciling the suppressed enrollment and its impact on the very students the Sheff lawsuit was meant to help.
"They are being kept out of those seats because they are the 'wrong' color—as a result of a lawsuit that was fighting against racial segregation. It's very, very hard to piece that together," Wareing said. "We really need to rethink what we're doing at kind of a fundamental level because if our ends are what we say they are, which is helping Hartford's children, our means do not seem all that well calculated."
If not for race-based enrollment decisions, Xiomara Rivera believes her younger son, Isaiah, would be attending the same Hartford school as his older brother. Rivera entered the 5-year-old's name in the lottery for a kindergarten spot last fall at Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School, three blocks from their home in the city's West End. While the school gives preferences to students' siblings, Isaiah was not offered a seat after the initial run of the spring lottery and was placed 3rd on the kindergarten waiting list.
But new seats typically open up throughout the summer, and later when an email arrived indicating Isaiah had received a placement through the lottery, Rivera assumed it was at Noah Webster. Instead, the state placed Isaiah in the Open Choice program that buses Hartford students to predominantly white suburban schools.
"He ended up getting placed in Granby, in a school in Granby," Rivera said, instantly rejecting the idea of her 5-year-old riding a school bus nearly to the Massachusetts border. "It sounds ridiculous that my son is in Hartford and he has to go to a school in Granby. That does not make any sense."
There would have been a seat in one of Noah Webster's three kindergarten classes. But when school leaders examined the racial and ethnic makeup of early-grade applicants, they found that those seeking kindergarten spots were primarily black and Latino, while those seeking pre-kindergarten seats included far more white students.
The result: "We had to convert one kindergarten class into a PreK-4 classroom," said Mihalko, the school principal.
Shutting out black and Latino city children looking for kindergarten in favor of suburban white children whose parents are seeking free pre-kindergarten allowed the school to get closer to the 25-percent Sheff standard. But that is little solace to Isaiah's mother.
Rivera declined the Granby spot and told education officials she wanted to take her chances that a seat would open up at Noah Webster. But under the lottery's rules, once she was offered the out-of-town spot, Isaiah's name was pulled off all of the magnet school waiting lists—an action Rivera didn't know was possible.
Hartford school board Vice Chairwoman Tiffany Glanville criticized a system that would keep a Hartford sibling out of a quality school blocks away in favor of a distant option that will require expensive transportation and make it difficult for the parents to become active and engaged.
"We would count that in Sheff as an equitable result, because that kid got a spot in an Open Choice school," Glanville said. "But it's actually not anywhere close to equitable."
A Huge Price to Pay
Hughey Ferguson argued that suppressing enrollment hurts not only the wait-listed students left behind, but also those who do gain admission to her school. With money following the student, every seat left open at Capital Prep is as much as $13,000 that must be cut from the school's budget.
This year, that meant losing a music teacher and a sixth-grade math teacher, consolidating two kindergarten classes and dropping tennis and skiing from a school so athletically oriented that all students are required to participate in two sports. Hughey Ferguson said she is committed to maintaining her high school program, leading to serious discussions about whether Capital Prep's lower school is sustainable. And she fears that each new cut threatens to put the school into a tailspin.
"The suburban families are attracted to magnets because of the programming," she said. "If you don't have the funding for the programming, then you have magnet status, but I'm not sure what it means anymore."
Capital Prep met the integration standard during the 2013-14 school year, then fell dramatically. Last school year, 15.4 percent of the school's students were white or Asian. This year, the number inched up to 16.6 percent.
"We've lost over 100 seats. And we've lost over $1 million," Hughey Ferguson said. "So that's a huge price to pay for one percentage point in compliance."
State education officials said they don't know the exact number of students who were left on waitlists this year due to their race and ethnicity.
Whatever the number, they say it used to be far higher.
"Let me tell you, that problem was very prevalent," said Cecere, the education department lawyer. "And it's gone down like crazy, because this is what we're fighting for every day, to get in a position where this is about filling seats and getting opportunities for kids."
The state, the schools and the Sheff plaintiffs all want to provide as much opportunity to Hartford students as possible, Cecere said. "It's a balancing of challenges. And one of our challenges is that we have to reduce the isolation of Hartford-resident students," she said. "I mean, the Supreme Court said we had to do it."
But the parties are engaged in another round of negotiations over how that court order is carried out. And representatives for the state are pressing to broaden the definition of "reduced-isolation" students—perhaps to include those who bring socioeconomic diversity to an interdistrict school, even if they don't provide racial or ethnic diversity.
A change like that could mean fewer black and Latino students turned away when there are open seats, and the idea has been endorsed by multiple magnet-school principals and is gaining traction among others working to improve education in Hartford.
But it would also make some schools less racially and ethnically integrated, and some of those same advocates warn that schools seen as too racially identifiable can become undesirable to both minority and non-minority families.
Others have suggested more-direct routes to meeting the integration goal. Some suggest scrapping the use of hometown as a substitute for race and either allowing schools to skip over black and Latino children on the waitlist in order to enroll enough white students, or placing minority and non-minority students in separate applicant pools and offering seats in the proportion mandated by the courts. Either method would assure that seats are filled.
But Trinity Professor Jack Dougherty, who has studied the Sheff remedy for years, said the state's approach is no surprise, as it avoids the potential legal pitfalls of race-based decisions. "Why did Connecticut love using the town as a proxy? Because it was so far away from race, they were never going to get sued," he said. "So I think Connecticut held on to this because it was legally defensible—though not a very good idea."
Now, however, even some who have dedicated their lives to racial justice are willing to test the limits of what is permissible under the law. Leapfrogging over minority students at the front of waitlists? "I'd have to check to see if that's legal or not," said Elizabeth Horton Sheff. "But personally, I wouldn't have a problem with it, as long as there was a balance in that, so that that admission was paired with an admission of a Hartford kid."
Hughey Ferguson said she reluctantly could support such a seemingly discriminatory process as well, if that's what it took to keep her school filled and funded.
"On a conscious level, no. On a pragmatic level, yes," she said. "Because I have 500-and-something kids here depending on this as their gateway to the next level. And so, yes, I would."
In the meantime, Hartford magnet school leaders describe pressure-packed months reviewing—sometimes daily—data showing exactly how many children have applied to their schools, and whether too many of them are black or Latino.
Julie Goldstein, principal of Breakthrough Magnet School, a 2015 national magnet school of the year, likens the anxiety to unexpected turbulence on a flight, "where I think the plane is very secure up in the air and it's hit some bumpy air," she said. "That kind of unease that you have ... about how it's going to work out."
Racial suppression of enrollment typically isn't an issue in her school—she thought there may have been one time when middle school seats were left empty—but the thought that any students are purposely locked out is "very uncomfortable," she said.
"All of the magnet principals, we just want to have our schools filled with great kids who want to be in our themed schools," Goldstein said. "And it's definitely an emotional thing to think about students not being able to come in because of those parameters.
"You just have to have faith that it works out for everybody," she said.
Does she have that faith?
Goldstein pauses. Eleven seconds of silence ticks by. Finally, she answers: "Yes."