It took more than just luck in the school choice lottery for 11th-grader Safiya Francis to leave one of the lowest-performing schools in the state and land a seat in Newington High School.
It took a huge boost in financial incentives for Newington, a high-performing district, to be able to afford to enroll Francis and other Hartford students. Twenty-five city students attend Newington High School.
"The issue has always been money for why we couldn't offer more children [from Hartford] enrollment in our schools," said Newington's Superintendent William Collins, whose district doubled the number of Hartford students it enrolled this school year through the state's Open Choice program.
But these significantly increased reimbursements approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy earlier this year were not simply just an act of altruism to get students into better schools, they are up against an October 2012 deadline to comply with a state Supreme Court order to reduce the racial isolation in Hartford schools.
Until now, suburban schools said that money is why they have accepted only a trickle of students from Hartford. This has typically left thousands of students like Francis on a waiting list.
That's no longer the case for many students thanks to a sudden influx of new seats being offered by school districts this year.
"I got in the first time" I applied, Francis said while sitting in study hall doing homework with a other students who also all got in the first time they applied. "I'm glad I got in. I wasn't learning anything at my old school (an institute at Weaver High). They rarely assigned homework and when they did they wouldn't even collect it."
The State Department of Education reports it has added 134 seats so far this school year through Open Choice, which is the largest increase in several years. Districts may also offer additional seats until January, so participation is expected to increase even more. So far, five suburban districts each added more than 10 seats for Hartford students this year. That includes Newington, which will now be reimbursed $6,000 per student versus the $2,500 they previously received.
"A whopping $2,500 is what they were giving us," Collins said, explaining that the district's costs per student were "easily" double that.
But even with this increased participation, the state is still a long way from the finish line in complying with the agreement reached to desegregate the schools, which requires that 41 percent of Hartford students be attending an integrated school or that 80 percent of those who wish to leave their neighborhood school be provided the opportunity to do so.
To reach these benchmarks, the agreement calls for 2,500 students from Hartford to be enrolled in suburban schools through Open Choice. The state is still 1,000 students shy of reaching that goal.
Bumps in the road
Joan'ay Rhodes, an 11th-grader at Newington High School from the North End of Hartford, wakes up around 5:30 a.m. to get ready and catch a city bus so she can get to school by 7:40.
The problem is sometimes that bus doesn't even show up, so she is forced to catch a bus that will get her as close as possible to her new school.
"It was raining. I had no umbrella, and I had to walk from the hospital to get here," she said of a recent experience.
"Some of our students aren't getting here until 10 a.m. That's a problem," Collins said of these students who are oftentimes significantly behind their peers academically. "Missing school is not helping them catch up."
Because so many of the 25 students attending the high school are routinely tardy, the state paid for a bus -- which starts running Monday -- for them to get to school so they no longer have to rely on city transportation.
"They had more than enough students to fill a bus," said Kathy Demsey, who runs the education department's efforts to comply with the court settlement, explaining why the decision was made to begin offering transportation.
But what happens when just five students from Hartford are attending a school, like in Windsor?
"In communities that abut Hartford, they get a (city) bus pass so we can contain the costs," said Demsey.
Transportation for students wanting to participate in afterschool activities is also a point of concern. While Demsey said students are guaranteed a late bus so they can participate, Newington students are still waiting.
"I'm excited. I'm going to join the wrestling, swimming and soccer teams," said Resheem Barnaby, a freshman at Newington who also lives in the North End of Hartford.
Terra Piela, an assistant principal in Newington who is in charge of coordinating the Open Choice process, said besides waiting for adequate transportation for her students, she is also waiting for the state to send her more students from Hartford.
Almost halfway through the school year, three seats Newington High School offered remain vacant.
"We're ready for them, we're just waiting," Piela said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Sheff vs. O'Neil desegregation order have said this delay in filling empty seats is systemwide.
"Many of the new suburban openings were offered to Hartford families after their children had already started attending school in the fall. This is unacceptable," Philip Tegeler, one of the original lawyers who filed the class-action lawsuit, wrote in an email newsletter to those in the Sheff Movement Wednesday.
This was the case for Barnaby and Francis, who were both offered enrollment at Newington a few weeks into the school year.
The SDE does not have an estimate of how many seats still have yet to be filled, but Demsey estimates that it is fewer than 100.
She makes no excuses for this delay.
"After the school year starts it depends on a parent's willingness to remove a child from where they are. We're taking steps to improve the process" so all the seats are filled before the start of the school year, she said.
Of the more than 3,000 students who apply to Open Choice, only one out of three accept their placement. This process to find out that a student has rejected the offer takes a few weeks and delays the state finding someone to fill that seat.
To remedy this low-acceptance rate, the department has decided to give preference in the annual lottery to students who only apply to Open Choice, and not the other magnet and charter school options.
"Hopefully this will push that acceptance rate up" and free up the lag time, she said.
The state has also pushed up by one month the application deadline for students to apply so the lottery can begin earlier. They also have a new $1 million pot to divide among the districts that let the state know by March 1 how many seats they will be offering. Demsey says oftentimes they aren't even informed until late into the summer how many seats districts will provide.
Delays in the suburban districts' obtaining the records of Hartford students headed their way are also proving to be an obstacle, says Newington officials.
"The records are hard to get. They're either incomplete or not accurate. There is definitely a disconnect there," said Sue Hayes, who tutors the Open Choice students at Newington.
By law, Hartford Public Schools has 10 calendar days to transfer student records.
Demsey agrees these records need to be transferred more quickly.
"At times, we have had to go and drive them from school to school," she said.