Equity & Diversity

Hartford Sweetens Deal to Draw Suburban Students to City

By Catherine Gewertz — March 06, 2002 5 min read
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Under legal pressure to better integrate its schools, the Hartford, Conn., school district is making neighboring suburbs an offer it hopes they can’t refuse: Send your children to our magnet schools, and we will foot the bill.

Many districts nationwide operate magnet schools, but only a fraction draw students from across district lines. Those that do serve out-of-district students normally charge tuition, and often transportation costs, to the sending districts.

In contrast, Hartford would allow other districts to send students to three of its new magnet schools, without losing state aid, as soon as next fall.

The 21,000-student system in the state capital is taking the unusual step of shouldering all the costs to heighten its appeal to the largely white, middle- and upper-middle-class families in the Hartford suburbs. Attracting students from those areas would help the district comply with a 1996 mandate from the state supreme court to achieve a better racial balance in Hartford’s predominantly Hispanic and African-American schools.

Seeking Diversity

The court order stemmed from a 1989 desegregation case known as Sheff v. O’Neill. The case prompted the Connecticut legislature to create a funding stream and a package of financial incentives to spur districts to open magnet schools, which are built around academic themes, in an attempt to foster more diverse enrollments.

New Haven, which enrolls 19,500 students, was the first district to use Connecticut’s new incentives for magnets. In 1997-98, it opened the first of what is now a thriving group of nine, and operates them at no cost to the sending districts, said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the state department of education.

The New Haven magnets have drawn about a third of their students from predominantly white communities outside the district, Mr. Murphy said. Hartford used New Haven as a model in launching its plan.

“When we saw how well New Haven has done in bringing in suburban students, and how much the infusion of money is supporting their programs and facilities and technology, we decided to try that,” said Gail Rowe, the assistant director of magnet schools for the Hartford district.

Connecticut’s magnet school law encourages the operating district to open magnets by promising that, in addition to basic, per-pupil state aid, the district will receive at least $1,300 for each student it enrolls from within the district and $5,300 for each student from outside its borders, Mr. Murphy said.

In addition, the law grants the operating district $1,200 per pupil in transportation costs, and the state shoulders 100 percent of any facilities costs associated with opening a magnet, he added.

“Clearly, it’s a win-win for the receiving district and the sending district,” he said.

‘Connecticut Marvel’

Judith S. Stein, the executive director of Magnet Schools of America, a Washington-based advocacy group, said Connecticut’s approach is unusual at a time when districts are moving away from using race-based methods such as busing to ensure equal access to good schools, and turning instead to alternatives such as student assignment plans based on socioeconomic status. “It’s very, very unusual. It’s a Connecticut marvel,” she said. “It’s a wonderful plan to get suburban children back into the city schools.”

But she cautioned that a district undertaking such a plan must know not only how to draw magnet school students, but also how to keep them. That, she added, requires high-quality curricula and instruction.

Ms. Stein cited the example of Kansas City, Mo., which built the nation’s most expensive network of magnet schools to comply with a desegregation order, but didn’t find the success it had hoped for. Many observers believe the Kansas City plan invested too much in facilities and too little in the classroom. (“A Hard Lesson for Kansas City’s Troubled Schools,” April 26, 2000.) As one way of seeking a better racial balance, Hartford already operates a voluntary-busing program. The program allows students to cross district lines to attend school. But currently, 900 students leave Hartford to go to suburban schools, and only about 100 children from other districts attend Hartford schools, Ms. Rowe said, so the program doesn’t go far toward integrating city schools.

While three interdistrict magnet schools already operate in Hartford, only one has drawn a substantial portion—25 percent—of its students from outside the district, Ms. Rowe said. The other two draw only 9 percent and 11 percent of their students from outside the district, Ms. Rowe added.

Those three schools are operated by a nonprofit regional education service center, the Capitol Region Education Council, or CREC, at the request of the state-appointed board of trustees that has been running the Hartford district since 1997.

Because CREC is not a school district, it is not entitled under state law to the extra state funding for the Hartford pupils it serves at its magnets, so it has less money to work with, and must charge sending districts between $2,000 and $3,500 tuition, said Diane Ullman, CREC’s assistant executive director.

Dennis Parker, one of the lawyers representing plaintiffs in the Sheff case, said he endorses expansion of magnet school programs, but believes the state needs to do more to erase racial isolation in schools. The Sheff lawyers are crafting a list of suggested state actions, which they plan to present in court April 16.

Recruitment Under Way

Under Hartford’s new plan, two of its proposed magnets would be converted from existing charter schools and be run by the district. The third, a regular public middle school, is now run by CREC, and would be converted to a magnet jointly run by CREC and the district.

The three schools now serve a total of 850 students, and hope to expand to 1, 400 or more.

To win permission from the Connecticut Department of Education to convert the sites into magnets, the district must be able to show that it would draw at least 20 percent of each of the magnet’s students from outside the district, Mr. Murphy said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Hartford Sweetens Deal to Draw Suburban Students to City

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