Report: Segregation levels differ at magnet, charter schools

Hartford — A Connecticut advocacy organization found that the majority of interdistrict magnet schools are racially integrated while the majority of charter schools are highly segregated, even though both types of schools are required by state law to reduce racial and ethnic segregation.

Connecticut Voices for Children released a report Wednesday morning that examined whether Connecticut's "school choice programs" are meeting the state's goals of providing every child an equal educational opportunity. Jeremiah Grace, Connecticut state director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, said in a news release that the report was "puzzling" because charter schools are bringing educational opportunity to every child and are working to close the achievement gap.

"I think our schools are offering the opportunity, and it's up to folks to apply or not," Grace said.

Some of the charter schools have neighborhood preferences. A charter school in Hartford that has a neighborhood preference for the north end of Hartford will reflect the population in that neighborhood, he said.

Proponents of the report said the state should create clear, quantifiable and enforceable integration standards, with funding, for all school choice programs including charter schools. They said that state law requires magnet schools to meet more stringent racial integration requirements than charter schools and that the state provides additional grants to magnet schools to support integration.

However, in New London, which is headed toward an all-magnet school district, the existing charter and magnet schools are each reaching diversity goals. Other schools in southeastern Connecticut also stood out as successes, according to the report.

New London's Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC) and Norwich's Integrated Day Charter School were two of only three charter schools across the state that were meeting the highest desegregation standards, said Robert Cotto, co-author of the report. The third school was the Odyssey Community School in Manchester. New London's Regional Multicultural Magnet School and Waterford's Dual Language Arts Academy were also two of four charter, magnet and technical schools to do a "good job" of enrolling English language learners. Statewide, emerging bilingual students were underrepresented in the majority of all charter, magnet and technical schools compared to local public schools of the towns in which they were located, the report said.

"They (ISAAC) are making an effort to be a diverse school," Cotto said. "And that is commendable."

Migdalia Salas, director of development and community relations for ISAAC, said that when they applied to be a charter school they specifically included a requirement that 50 percent of students be from New London, the host community, and 50 percent come from the surrounding communities.

"We really recruit and only accept a certain number of students from each town that, in itself, creates that mix," Salas said. "But we don't do it by 'you can only allow this person; we don't do it by race; we don't focus on that."

According to the 2011-12 report, 73 percent of ISAAC's student body were minority students whereas 83 percent of New London's traditional public schools' student body were minority students.

According to state law, magnet schools that began operating on or after July 1, 2005, can't have more than 75 percent of its students be from a single participating district. Magnet schools' enrollment must also be at least 25 percent minority students but no more than 75 percent minority students.

Connecticut Voices for Children found that 62 percent of interdistrict magnet schools had a student body of 25 percent to 75 percent students of color.

Steven Adamowski, special master for the New London School District, said he wasn't surprised that New London's charter and interdistrict magnet schools were doing well because of the state law regarding magnet schools and the specific regulations that ISAAC had designed for itself.

The report deserves consideration, he said, because Connecticut is very segregated.

"One of the reasons why our achievement gap is so big in Connecticut is we are slicing and dicing too finely," Adamowski said. "We need to provide our students opportunities with students other than themselves, than their immediate neighborhood and circumstance."

On July 9, 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs in Sheff v. O'Neill and decided that students in Hartford's public schools were racially, ethnically and economically isolated and therefore were not provided an equal education opportunity under the state constitution.

In response, the state enacted legislation that allowed local or regional boards of education to offer school choice options such as interdistrict magnet school programs and charter schools.

But each charter school sets up its own way of monitoring and evaluating whether it is implementing state law that requires charter schools to "promote a diverse student body." Charter schools can also be placed on probation if they don't "achieve measurable progress in reducing racial, ethnic, or economic isolation," according to state law.

"This goal is not clear and evenly enforced across the state," Cotto said.

Connecticut Voices for Children found that at 65 percent of charter schools 90 percent of the students were minority.

Grace, the Northeast Charter Schools Network director, said that in districts where there are limited spaces at top schools parents should seize the opportunity when a new charter school opens, despite criticism about diversity.

"We are attempting to provide our students with a world-class education and they deserve that," Grace said.

Paul Carolan, director of the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, said that if the charter schools aren't turning out to be diverse there should be state standards to enforce integration.

"One of the main reasons for magnet and charter (schools) is to have a better diversity, a more open door," he said. If the data is showing that 90 percent of one group is the majority at a particular school, then those needs are not being met, Carolan said.

Kelly Donnelly, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said that the state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improve schools to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education.

"Public schools of choice have created high-quality options for thousands of Connecticut families," she said. "These choices can and do take multiple forms. Such schools are part of the solution - and are just one part of our larger, comprehensive education reform efforts."

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