The percentage of Hartford students in racially integrated schools dropped significantly this academic year amid the challenge of the COVID pandemic and a major change in the operation of the regional school choice lottery, according to figures provided by the state Department of Education.
Last year, 43.9% of Hartford students were enrolled in a school that was considered integrated, while this year only 36.9% are in integrated settings under the policies in place to comply with the Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case.
The last time the percentage was that low was in the 2012-13 school year when it was 37%; the highest it’s been was two years ago, when it reached 49.1%.
Martha Stone, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, said the drop in the level of integration appears to have been related to the pandemic as well as the switch to a new lottery system that is based solely on a family’s socioeconomic status, rather than any race or ethnicity factors.
“We switched to this socioeconomic lottery system,” Stone said. “It still needs some tweaking. It has not produced the racial integration numbers that we had hoped. COVID has also definitely impacted this year’s lottery results, and so we are working with the state to look at the data very carefully and see what changes need to be made.”
Under the longstanding terms of the Sheff settlement, at least a quarter of a school’s population must be white or Asian. In recent years, close to half of Hartford students have been enrolled in an integrated school -- whether a magnet, technical or agricultural school, or a suburban school through the Open Choice program.
In January 2020, the plaintiffs in the Sheff case reached a milestone agreement that among many other measures added 1,000 magnet seats -- 600 reserved for students from Hartford -- over a two-and-a-half year period as well as adopting a new lottery system based only on a student’s socioeconomic status.
For years, the lottery used towns as a proxy for race and ethnicity as it sought to create schools with a diversity of students that met the 25% goal for white and Asian students.
The change in criteria for the lottery system was designed to head off a federal suit filed on behalf of Hartford parents who charged that the lottery was discriminatory because it limited enrollment of Black and Latino students. The federal suit was dropped soon after the settlement was announced last year.
Robin Cecere, who directs the Sheff Regional School Choice Office for the state Department of Education, said that last year’s settlement did not set a target for a percentage of Hartford students who would be in integrated settings this year.
“The parties specifically set this year as an off year for standards,” Cecere wrote in an email, “because we knew the state would have to make adjustments based on what we learn from this first application and placement cycle.”
Still, schools with fewer than 25% white or Asian students had to file corrective action reports with the state last month. In those reports, COVID was mentioned in some cases as a reason for a decline in the white and Asian population.
Some schools wrote of plans to target upscale suburban towns where more of the students are white or Asian.
At Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford, one of those schools that will reach out to more towns, a team of staff members wrote that “one of our barriers is due to some suburban parents who are surprised when they see the demographic makeup of our school. Some have made comments that are not aligned with … CREC values, or in other words simply racist.”
“We are a magnet school that is also an urban school,” the report said, adding that the staff team believes “that some parents are not fully prepared or completely aware of our commitment to equity.”
The report said the team’s plan is “to better communicate our mission more clearly by changing …recruiting materials to reflect our commitment to equity and better opportunities for our students of color, as well as their white counterparts. We have always discussed it, but parents need to understand that this is why we are here.”
The stipulation does set a goal for 2021-22, calling for 47.5% of Hartford students to be in integrated schools by then.
“We are engaged in the work right now to meet the myriad of important goals and priorities in the stipulation,” Cecere said, “including the percentage goal for 2021-22.”
Of the 39 full-time Sheff magnet schools, 20 have fewer than 25% white or Asian students this year, compared to 15 last year.
Cecere said, however, that all of the Sheff magnet schools met the settlement standard for having a socioeconomically diverse student body.
She also noted that there are 300 more Hartford students enrolled in a Sheff magnet this school year than last and that magnet school enrollment is up by 401 students this year.
“We achieved more than we expected with regard to increasing opportunities for Hartford students,” Cecere said.
Enrollment in Open Choice programs, which enable Hartford students to attend schools in the suburbs, is slightly down this year to 2,204, compared to 2,217 last year, Cecere said.
Tim Sullivan, superintendent of the 16 magnet schools operated by the Capitol Region Education Council, said the number of Hartford students in CREC magnets is up this year, but more of CREC’s schools failed to meet the 25% goal this year, in some cases by only a percentage point or two.
Last year, four CREC schools didn’t make the 25% goal; this year the number was eight.
“Technically they don’t meet the standard,” Sullivan said of the schools that slipped below the 25%, “but if you ask parents, does their child attend a diverse school, the answer is yes. And the key thing for us is that enrollment is up … We have more Hartford students in our schools and we are still what I would define as diverse.”
Sullivan said that “generally I think it’s a thumbs-up” for the new lottery system.
As for what caused the decline in schools meeting the 25% standard, Sullivan said “we will leave it to the lawyers and the experts to determine where we fall on that.”
However, he said that CREC did experience a slightly lower rate of students accepting offers to attend the magnets.
“We haven’t disaggregated by town or by race and ethnicity or by socioeconomic status or by all the different things that are in play, but we definitely know that the number of offers that were accepted is down slightly,” he said.”
Sullivan conjectured, “If a family lives in a town that has a very low incidence of infection, are families from that town less likely to put their kids on a bus and send them to another town right now? I would guess that the answer is yes, and that will be lifted once the virus is gone. So, I think the lottery did a good job, especially given the context of the pandemic because who are those kids from towns with low incidence rates?”
Those students tend to be “reduced isolation kids,” Sullivan said -- a Sheff settlement term for white and Asian kids.