The Unspoken Demographics of Hartford-Area Magnet Schools

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In a seminar at Wesleyan University called “Choice: A Case Study in Education and Entrepreneurship,” students visited various “choice” school fairs and open houses. Choice schools in Connecticut are part of a movement to allow parents and students to choose their school, rather than the only option being the traditional neighborhood public school, and include district-wide open choice programs, interdistrict city-suburban transfer, charter schools, and interdistrict magnet schools. 1 In Connecticut, the choice movement exploded after the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill ruling in 1996, in which the State Supreme Court ruled that the racial and socioeconomic segregation of Hartford’s school children violated the Connecticut Constitution. However, from the field notes collected at the school fairs and open houses we visited, racial and socioeconomic integration were rarely mentioned by school representatives, parents, or students.

This is not because race and socioeconomic status don’t matter anymore; on the contrary, there is still a great deal of variation in racial balance even in Connecticut choice schools. In this paper, I will examine how racial balance plays out in Hartford-area interdistrict magnet schools based on school theme and school location. I am focusing on magnet schools because these schools are designed to have a specific racial balance in order to achieve the goal of desegregating Connecticut’s public schools, yet demographics play out differently depending on the school, and some schools are struggling to maintain their required desegregation standards.

Desegregating Hartford’s schools: The controversy and the lack of transparency

Why does integration matter? In Connecticut today, there are 40,000 children attending chronically failing schools where most students are far below grade level. At these schools, nearly 90% of students are African American or Hispanic/Latino and come from low-income households, on average. 2 Students of color bear the burden of Connecticut’s failing schools, in spite of the American ideal in which all children should have equal opportunity to learn and grow together.

In education reform, integration is a debated concept. Now, charter schools, which do not focus on integration and tend to be very segregated in order to give spots to the children who are most in need. Kahlenberg and Potter critique the devolution of the charter school movement away from founder Albert Shanker’s initial vision to create racially and economically integrated alternatives to traditional public schools; they quote Shanker saying, “children from socioeconomically deprived families do better academically when they are integrated with children of higher socioeconomic status and better-educated families,” and “when children converse, they learn from each other. Placing a child with a large vocabulary next to one with a smaller vocabulary can provide a gain to one without a loss to the other.” 3

On the other hand, frustrated parents argue that the focus on integration forces schools to put their resources into attracting students from whiter, wealthier towns. 4 Darien Franco, 2011 graduate of Capital Preparatory Magnet School told me, “I think that the desegregation goal is a bit superficial because what I assume is the whole point is part of an effort to make sure everyone’s getting a similar, quality education. I think whoever wants/needs a spot the most should get it. Of course Hartford schools are going to have a high percentage of black/Latino kids, because that’s who lives in Hartford. I don’t see exactly how sending in non-black/Latino children to a school alleviates any particular issue, other than they’ll be more used to seeing them in everyday life.” 5

As a result of Sheff v. O’Neill, in the past ten years, the state has spent $1.4 billion to renovate and build new magnet schools, which are designed as reduced isolation schools that draw students from the city and suburbs. 6 Magnet schools in the Hartford area have special themes designed to draw in students from both the city and suburbs, and they are required to have a student body that is 25%-75% racial minority students (newly defined as African American or Hispanic/Latino). While magnet schools are public schools open to all residents of Connecticut and appear to select students randomly based on a lottery, in truth, there are many subtle factors determining which students end up at different schools. Magnet schools have incentives to be academically successful and are required to maintain a racial balance, so they are never truly random their selection of students.

 One important factor in attracting a certain student body is the way schools communicate with parents and prospective students. Our class observed many schools present themselves to parents and children in order to better understand how they choose to communicate. Perhaps surprisingly, school representatives rarely brought up integration or provided information on their school’s demographic statistics or goals, and parents did not usually ask about it either.

Unwrapping Hartford magnet school demographics

The fact that there is little transparency or emphasis on racial balance in schools does not mean demographic factors are unrelated to parents’ choice of schools for their children. In their field notes from the Regional School Choice Office (RSCO) fair on February 7, 2015, Alix Liss and Sara Guernsey observe that “despite the fair being particularly minority heavy in attendance, the individuals looking at the specialized schools, whether performing arts or science based, were predominantly white.” 7 Does this hold true for actually enrollment in magnet schools? In order to find out, I assigned a theme to each Hartford-area magnet school and analyzed the demographics of each category. In order to create my categories, I drew on a list compiled by Mira Debs and Jack Dougherty, and looked at the website and mission statement of each school. Though some schools have more than one theme, for the sake of this analysis, I chose the theme I thought was most prominent. I have divided the schools into the following categories: STEM, college prep, career prep, alternative pedagogy, arts, global/international studies, liberal arts, character education, and early childhood only. Using data from the 2014-2015 CSDE Sheff Compliance report from October 1, 2014, I calculated the average percent of black/Latino students in each category. 8 I found that large differences in demographics do exist among these schools. The following table shows all of the Hartford-area magnet schools, categories, and demographic data.

Table 1: Hartford-Area Magnet Schools, themes, and 2014-2015 demographic data. Demographic data compiled from CSDE Sheff Compliance Report.

The categories with the highest percentage of minority students were character education* (79.2%), college prep (77.5%), and career prep (77.0%), while the categories with the lowest percentage of minority students were early childhood* (53.1%), STEM (55.8%), arts (56.8%), and liberal arts* (59.0%) (I have marked categories with only one or two schools with an asterisk here and later in this essay; all other categories have at least four schools). The following graph shows these percentages.

Figure 1: Average percent black/Latino students in Hartford-area magnets schools by theme

The observation at the RSCO fair that white families migrated toward the more niche-themed schools makes sense considering the actual enrollment in these schools (although, it is interesting to observe that they cited those families as “predominantly white” even though the schools with the highest percentage of non-minority students are still all over 50% black and Latino). Of course, this data cannot explain whether the reason for these demographic differences is that certain types of schools appeal to certain demographics or that these schools are actively working to attract different demographics due to their philosophies or institutional goals.

However, one way schools might alter their applicant pool is through the location of their school. Because transportation is an issue for many parents and busing for interdistrict schools can be quite complicated and time-consuming, a school far outside the city in the suburbs may be less accessible to many families. In fact, using the data on the Hartford resident students from the 2014-2015 CSDE Sheff Compliance Report, I calculated that magnet schools located in the city of Hartford have an average of 43.7% Hartford resident students enrolled, while only 34.2% of students are Hartford residents in schools located outside of Hartford (in towns such as East Hartford, Bloomfield, Avon, Enfield, Glastonbury, New Britain, Manchester, Rocky Hill, South Windsor, and West Hartford). Balancing Hartford and suburban students is a main goal of magnet schools because Hartford is the second poorest city in the country, and the vast majority of Hartford is black or Latino, with only 15.8% of the city’s population whites of non-Latino background in the 2010 census. 9 This caused the extreme segregation of Hartford public schools that fueled the Sheff movement. For race, though, the difference between magnet schools in Hartford and the suburbs is much less: schools in Hartford are on average 65.8% black/Latino, while schools located outside of the city are 62.7% black/Latino. Though a difference still exists, the fact that the numbers are pretty close probably indicates that schools located in the suburbs likely enroll more suburban black/Latino students than schools in Hartford. The following interactive map shows the location of Hartford-area magnet schools and their percentage of minority students:

Direct link to the map above

Based on my analysis, I can conclude that theme of the school is more important than school location in determining the racial demographics of schools. However, when looking at the percentage of Hartford students in each school, location is much more important. Theme may be important too; looking at the table above, we can see that the themes with the highest percentage of minority students, character education*, college prep, and career prep, enroll 48.7%, 41.5%, and 51.2% Hartford students, respectively, while the themes with the lowest percentage of minority students, early childhood*, STEM, and arts, enroll 28.6%, 34.6%, and 37.6% Hartford students respectively. But the themes do not follow the exact same order in terms of their Hartford student population as they do minority student population.

Since location does seem to affect demographics at least to some degree, do schools with themes that enroll fewer minority students and fewer Hartford students tend to locate themselves further outside the city? In order to answer this question, I compiled the addresses of each magnet schools and used Google Maps to calculate their distance from Hartford (I used the location point that Google Maps automatically associates with “Hartford, CT,” which is in the center of the city, so even schools located in Hartford have a “distance from Hartford” that is based on this common centerpoint).

 Based on this analysis, there is not an obvious correlation between school location, theme, and demographics. For example, STEM schools, which on average enroll only 55.8% minority and 34.6% Hartford resident students, are only 4.3 miles from Hartford center, on average. On the other hand, career prep schools, which on average enroll 77.0% minority and 51.2% Hartford resident students, are 6.7 miles from Hartford center, on average. Therefore, there is no clear indication that different themed schools are choosing their location based on the type of students they attract or wish to attract. Of course, this analysis is limited in that it is based on a small number of schools and does not take into account the demographics of different suburbs. Moreover, because many magnet schools were founded relatively recently, many schools have changed location in the past few years or are currently in temporary locations while permanent sites are built.

In conclusion, though school representatives and parents rarely talk about demographics, there are clearly many factors that affect racial composition of schools. In this analysis, I found that theme is a key indicator, while location also has a smaller influence. Further analysis would be necessary to understand why theme affects the racial balance of schools. Clearly, though, as schools develop their themes in order to attract students from Hartford and its suburbs, it is important to keep in mind how different themes relate to school demographics.


  1. Dougherty, Jack. “Vocabulary for Understanding School Choice in CT – Google Slides.” Accessed May 3, 2015.
  2. “CONNECTICUT EDUCATION IN CRISIS: 40,000 CHILDREN TRAPPED IN FAILING SCHOOLS.” Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, November 18, 2014.
  3.  Kahlenberg, Richard D., and Halley Potter. A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 2014, p. 9
  4. See Mira Debs, “Untouchable Carrots: Marketing School Choice and Realities in Hartford’s Inter-district Magnet Program,” draft article, February 2015. This article offers insight into the frustrations many parents face in a system designed to attract more white students to schools in order to meet desegregation standards, when many minority families are struggling to get their children into a good school. This article is not yet available to the public.
  5. Franco, Darien, Personal correspondence, May 3, 2015.
  6. Thomas, Jacqueline Rabe. “$20M Agreement Will Expand School Choice to Desegregate Hartford Schools | The CT Mirror.” CT Mirror, February 23, 2015.
  7. “Compiled School Choice Public Event Field Notes,” February 2015, p. 30
  8. “CSDE Sheff Compliance Report,” October 2014.
  9. “Hartford (city) QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.” Accessed May 4, 2015.

2 thoughts on “The Unspoken Demographics of Hartford-Area Magnet Schools”

  1. Well done, Rachel. The question you have taken on – why choice programs vary so starkly in their demographics even as they all share a similar mission of integration – is an excellent one. You also have done some thoughtful analysis, looking at two different factors that might underlie school demographics, and reached a somewhat surprising conclusion, that theme may matter more than location. (I would love to know if there is any national literature that finds similar patterns in other places that use themed schools or regional school choice.) I also particularly like your bar chart and map, which make your analysis very clear. Now, though, I think your essay would benefit from more organization. To begin, I think your introduction should clearly state the thesis. As I understand it, your thesis is that a school’s theme and location both play an important role in affecting its demographic composition, and that these factors should be considered by the State as it structures the magnet school program. This (or if I’m wrong, your real thesis) should be clearly stated early in the introduction of your essay. Then, I would consider what information presented in the rest of the essay actually supports your thesis, and what is just interesting but maybe not entirely relevant – for example, your assertion that 40,000 children attend “failing schools” (a bold assertion, that your paper does not really actually explore or defend), or your discussion of charter schools (which are not the focus of your essay). This type of paring down will help you focus in on what it is essential for the reader to take away. Also, two quick comments on your analysis: First, your first table should use weighted averages, with schools enrolling more students weighted more heavily. Second, your location analysis might benefit from a consideration of the demographics of the suburbs in which each choice program is located – the demographics of West Hartford, East Hartford, and Bloomfield (to pick just three) are quite distinct. Perhaps it would be worth taking a look at some American Community Survey data. Good luck!

  2. Rachel – Based on our discussion during office hours, and also during seminar with your guest evaluator, you demonstrated a clear understanding of at least two major revisions to this draft:
    1) reframing the arguments in the body of your essay into a more clearly formulated introduction with a thesis
    2) rethinking your data visualization from a spatial argument (expressed through a map) into a theme category argument (expressed through a revised bar chart)
    Looking forward to these and other revisions.

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