During the long effort to desegregate Hartford’s schools, state officials helped create and support more than 20 magnet schools they hoped would attract minority children from the city and whites from nearby suburbs.
They weren’t counting on suburban students like Brandon Rothschild.
“I thought this would be the best fit for me,” said Rothschild, 17, of Windsor, a black senior at Hartford’s Capital Preparatory Magnet School, a successful and popular college-prep school where nearly 90 percent of the students are members of minority groups.
The specialized open-enrollment magnets have proven to be popular choices for minority families, including many from suburbs that have undergone dramatic population shifts since a landmark school desegregation court ruling more than a decade ago.
The influx of minority children under a color-blind lottery selection process has made it increasingly challenging for some magnet schools to enroll enough white students to meet racial integration goals under a court-approved settlement of the Sheff vs. O’Neill desegregation lawsuit.
Magnet Schools with specialty themes such as mathematics, science and the arts are designed to draw racially mixed enrollments and are the centerpiece of Connecticut’s strategy to comply with the Sheff ruling.
In 1996, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sheff plaintiffs and ordered Connecticut to desegregate Hartford’s public schools. Following the ruling, the number of magnet schools in the Hartford region grew rapidly, with many of the schools opening in new multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art buildings.
Although most magnets had enough white students this year to meet the goals in a court-approved settlement of the Sheff case, two schools, Capital Prep and Pathways to Technology, did not. State officials say the state has met its overall targets for racial balance under the settlement, but the Sheff plaintiffs are disputing the state’s numbers. Some magnet schools have had to scramble to get enough white students, often reaching beyond Hartford’s closest suburbs to find them.
Nowhere is the issue more obvious than at Capital in downtown Hartford, where students like Rothschild wear blazers and ties, perform well on statewide tests and routinely graduate and go on to four-year colleges. Of 135 suburban students this year, just 25 are white.
“It’s tough for us. We’re the blackest and brownest school among the magnet schools,” said Capital Prep’s principal, Stephen Perry.
Perry said Capital’s appeal, particularly among black students, is tied into the difficulty many blacks experience in suburban schools, where lagging achievement among minority students remains a problem, particularly at high schools. He said Capital’s college preparatory focus and the school’s track record in sending graduates to college are strong selling points for minority families. The school features a longer school day, an 11-month school year and an opportunity to take courses at Capital Community College, which shares the same building.
“Here at Capital [Prep] they challenge you,” said Rothschild, the senior from Windsor, who plans to be the first in his family to attend college. “It’s a struggle being a student here. The workload is intense. It’s already like you’re in college.”
Kairon Barrett, a black 9th-grader from Bloomfield, said, “I don’t want to be another black male who attends school and just has a high school diploma. I want to go to college and get my master’s degree.”
The handful of white students at Capital are bused in from towns such as Manchester, New Britain and Bristol, sometimes on bus rides lasting an hour or more, Perry said.
In recent years, bus routes have extended farther and farther from Hartford.
Gianna DiMaiolo, a white 12-year-old from Tolland, is awake early to catch her 6:32 a.m. bus to Hartford’s Classical Magnet School. The ride takes about “an hour and 20 minutes, maybe longer, depending on traffic,” said Gianna’s mother, Kate Kimmerle.
“I was impressed with [Classical’s] curriculum,” Kimmerle said. “I like the fact you can have six years of Latin and a year of Greek.” Her daughter also enjoys the school’s active theater program. “That was kind of a bonus for us,” she said.
Another daughter, Clare, 10, rides nearly an hour to Hartford’s Montessori Magnet School.
Although the magnets have been especially popular among minority students, many white children also remain on lengthy waiting lists. However, because of legal prohibitions against racial quotas, the schools have established random color-blind lotteries for admission.
“There are white students out there who want to be part of this, and they can’t get in,” said Norma Neumann-Johnson, principal of Hartford’s Breakthrough Magnet School.
One possible solution would be to establish geographical quotas, limiting the number of magnet seats available to towns such as Bloomfield, East Hartford, Manchester and Windsor, said Richard Kisiel, a former school superintendent in Avon now acting as a liaison between the Sheff plaintiffs and the Regional School Choice Office. Those towns all have undergone dramatic population shifts. In 1989, when the Sheff lawsuit was filed, minority students accounted for 33 percent of Windsor’s public school enrollment. Today they make up 69 percent. In Bloomfield, 95 percent of public school enrollment is from minority groups.
In Windsor, Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth Feser says the public school system will pay $695,000 in tuition this year to regional magnet schools, sending about 9 percent of its students to magnets. Like Brandon Rothschild, many of those students are black.
“I do believe there is tremendous merit to integration,” Feser said, “but I have to say I began to become disillusioned with magnet schools as a solution for Sheff because that goal is not being achieved.”