State auditors: Rogue magnet school lacked state oversight

Lax oversight by the Connecticut State Department of Education of the school choice lottery and enrollment in Hartford regional magnet schools opened the door for the most sought-after magnet school to fill 44 percent of its 161 seats outside the blind lottery for the 2013-14 school year.

The next year, 28 percent of the school’s new students were enrolled outside the lottery.

Hartford Public Schools

Capital Preparatory Magnet School

The randomized lottery was set up years ago to fairly award seats in dozens of magnet schools opened after the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered the state to desegregate Hartford schools in the landmark Sheff vs. O’Neill case.

“The Department of Education should comply with the Sheff agreement and ensure a fair process for admitting students to magnet schools,” Democratic auditor John Geragosian and Republican auditor Rob Kane wrote in the report. “We noted a lack of administrative oversight.”

The school in question, Capital Preparatory Magnet School, is run by Hartford Public Schools. A contract between the school district and the state governs operation of the school and requires that it “utilize the common application and unified lottery as the sole tools for application … in accordance with the preferences and policies adopted and approved by” the state’s Regional School Choice Office.

However, the auditors found that the state office does not have cohesive written policies and procedures for the lottery. Instead, multiple documents dictate how students land seats, including each school’s operational plans.

For Capital Prep, that plan included allowing the school’s board and principal to award seats “in special circumstances.” Of the 18 magnet-school plans reviewed by the state auditors, Capital Prep was the only school to have such a provision.

This provision was never flagged by the state’s school choice office because it does not review magnet schools’ operational plans, but the plan was approved by another office at the state education department, the Bureau of Choice Programs.

The Hartford Courant said in a story Wednesday it had found evidence of students enrolling outside the lottery at Capital Prep as early as 2010.

“We were unable to determine why the Capital Prep operational plan included language that appeared to give them a unique opportunity to place students outside the lottery,” the auditors wrote. “The language is in violation of the Sheff agreement and annual contracts between SDE and HPS.”

Pedro Zayas, a spokesman for the Hartford Public Schools, said the district is unable to confirm the auditors’ finding or determine why students were enrolled outside the lottery because the principal and other staff who may have been involved no longer work for the district.

Steve Perry, who has branded himself as “America’s Most Trusted Educator,” was the principal during the audited years. He left in 2015 to open a charter school in Bridgeport and another in New York City with rapper Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs.

After finding nearly half of the new students in the 2013-14 school year were admitted outside the lottery, the auditors decided to expand their review and look at three other schools operated by Hartford Public Schools. No schools operated by other magnet operators were reviewed by the auditors. The auditors found a handful of students enrolled outside the lottery in those schools.

Students enrolled in magnets outside the state-run lottery
No lottery application on file for student Student placed on the waitlist but no state record of an offer Student received offer to a magnet schools, but not the one he or she enrolled in Student received an offer, but the family did not respond to it by the deadline % of all new students
Captial Prep 2013-14 38 28 1 4 44%
Captial Prep 2014-15 17 20 7 1 28%
Breakthrough II 2014-15 4 1* 3%
Betances Early Reading 2014-15 5 4%
Betances STEM 2014-15 2 1%
*Student’s sibling was accepted to this school through the lottery the same year

State education department spokeswoman Abbe Smith said Thursday that the state has been working to address the issue and noted that the audit’s findings were from two years ago.

“As part of our focus on increased accountability, we have also taken steps in recent years to strengthen oversight of charter schools, including implementing new policies to improve governance and transparency,” Smith said. The department started verifying this school year that only applicants selected through the Regional School Choice Office lottery are admitted to magnet schools, she said.

In the department’s review of how widespread the problem was, it found 33 suburban and city students were admitted outside the lottery for the current school year. (Read that story here.) Those students attended 15 different magnet schools, seven run by Hartford Public Schools, four run by Capital Region Education Council, two by East Hartford Public Schools, and two by Bloomfield Public Schools.   The state said it will withhold payment of state aid for those students and has withheld nearly $200,000 in payments for Capital Prep for the 15 students the state determined were enrolled outside the lottery in 2015-16.

A spokesman for Hartford Public Schools said an initial review of the 33 students enrolled outside the lottery found that most either had a sibling in the school, were in state custody because they had been abused or neglected, were refuges, were the children of school staff members or had special education needs.

In their response to the auditors, the department wrote, “Since 2009, SDE has included specific provisions regarding enrollment policies within its contracts with…HPS that require HPS to use the uniform lottery system as the exclusive means of enrolling students into Sheff interdistrict magnet schools. The contractual requirement is unambiguous.”

How the state let Capital Prep enrollment escape oversight has puzzled observers  since the school has failed for years to meet state diversity standards by having at least one-quarter of its students be white or Asian. The school-choice lottery is designed to produce integrated schools.

The Sheff Coalition, an advocacy group of Hartford parents and other desegregation advocates, released a statement saying they were “alarmed to learn of reported irregularities in the magnet school lottery — such actions run contrary to the values of equity and opportunity for all children upon which the magnet school system was founded, and placement outside of its lottery guidelines is unacceptable.

“Thousands of Hartford and suburban families rely on the fundamental fairness of the lottery process, and all parties should do everything possible to ensure its integrity,” the coalition said.

List of Schools CT Department of Education found enrolled a student outside the lottery for the current school year
Capitol Region Education Council
Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts [Full-Day]
Metropolitan Learning Center
Museum Academy
Public Safety Academy
Hartford Public Schools
Breakthrough Magnet
Hartford PK Magnet
Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy
Noah Webster Micro-Society Magnet
Pathways Academy of Technology & Design
Sport and Medical Sciences
University High School of Science and Engineering
East Hartford Public Schools
East Hartford magnet
Connecticut IB Academy
Bloomfield Public Schools
Bloomfield magnet
The Global Experience

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