New federal rule complicates desegregation efforts

On an enrollment form at Hartford’s Classical Magnet School, seventh-grader Elisa Laureano’s mother lists Elisa’s race as white but also checks a box categorizing her ethnicity as “Hispanic.” So is Elisa white? Hispanic? Both?

For Classical Magnet, it’s a $4 million question.

Under a federal rule that takes effect this year, students can identify themselves in multiple racial and ethnic categories. Critics say the rule could upset a variety of race-related programs, from measuring academic achievement to ensuring civil rights compliance.

Deschines, Alexis 9-7-10 3x2

Alexis Deschenes: ‘It feels good to identify myself as both races’

One immediate impact in Connecticut is that the rule complicates the process of determining whether schools such as Classical meet the racial balance standards in the court-supervised desegregation settlement of the Sheff vs. O’Neill desegregation case.

Schools throughout the region take their official census on Oct. 1, and depending on how the question is resolved, some could lose their magnet status – and a financial lifeline from the state.

“We have a problem,” said Classical Principal Tim Sullivan. “It could be a game-breaker for us.”

If Classical–hailed as a model in the regional desegregation effort–were to fall below the required quota of white students, it could lose up to $4 million in state magnet school grants and be forced to send suburban students such as Elisa, who is from West Hartford, back to schools in their hometowns, Sullivan said.

The state could wind up back in court if it fails to meet the standards established in the desegregation settlement. That settlement grew out of a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling ordering Connecticut to desegregate Hartford’s mostly black and Hispanic public schools.

Classical is one of about two dozen magnet schools in the Hartford region created to help meet the court order. The schools, featuring specialty themes, are designed to draw racially mixed student bodies from Hartford and the city’s predominantly white suburbs.

Under the Sheff agreement, white students must make up at least 25 percent of a magnet school’s enrollment. (The minimum is 20 percent for some newer magnet schools that have been granted a grace period to meet the goal.)

But, under the new federal regulation, who counts as white?

Seventeen-year-old Alexis Deschenes, a senior at Classical Magnet, checked two boxes on her enrollment form this year.

“I listed myself as white and black,” said Alexis, whose father is white and mother is black. “It feels good to identify myself as both races rather than just choosing one,” she said.

Alexis lives in East Hartford and has attended Classical since seventh grade. “I love it here,” she said. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” Until now, she had been classified as white on the school rolls.

As America grows increasingly diverse, many people – among them President Obama – can claim mixed ethnic or racial heritage. At schools such as Classical, multiracial students are common.

“On the surface, Classical looks like it’s a diverse school,” Sullivan said. But depending on how strictly or loosely the state categorizes students, Classical’s white population could be as low as 21 percent or as high as 44 percent, he said. Last year, while Classical was still in a grace period under the Sheff agreement, the official percentage was just under 24 percent.

For the first time this year, students across the state are being asked  to identify themselves in one or more of five racial groups: Black, white, Asian, American Indian or Alaskan native, and Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. In a separate question, they are asked whether or not they are Hispanic, considered an ethnic but not a racial category.

The new rule allows students “to more accurately reflect their racial and ethnic background by not limiting responses to only one racial or ethnic category,” the U.S. Department of Education says in a policy memo.

The regulation could have far-reaching implications beyond those in the Sheff case.

“It’s going to produce all kinds of chaos. This is just one of the examples,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and a nationally recognized proponent of school desegregation. Orfield and other civil rights leaders have opposed the rule, saying it will make it difficult or impossible to conduct research or monitor civil rights compliance.

“It’s going to make data impossible to compare,” he said. “It doesn’t relate very well to actual social reality. . . . It’s a terrible mistake.”

The identification of students in multiple racial categories could require schools to rethink the reporting of racial data on matters such as graduation rates, test performance, and college attendance rates, for example.

“All of those things have traditionally been reported with a simple definition. That all can change,” said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. “It’s really going to be an interesting challenge.”

Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, oversees several magnet schools, most of them in suburban towns near Hartford. The CREC-operated schools have been able to meet the quotas under the Sheff plan, and Douglas said he has no problem with the new federal rule.

“This allows families to identify every aspect of who they are,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing.”

However, at Classical and several other magnet schools located in Hartford and operated by Hartford Public Schools, officials have had to scramble to attract enough white students.

Lawyers for the Sheff plaintiffs said they have discussed the new racial classification rules among themselves but have not yet met with state officials to establish guidelines for measuring compliance with the Sheff settlement.

If the two sides cannot agree, the matter could wind up before a judge.

Sullivan, the Classical principal, applauds the intent of the new federal rule. “It allows students not to have to deny part of their heritage,” he said. “They can acknowledge what they really are.”

But, he wonders, how will the state decide who they really are?

“This is a tough one,” he said.