Letter to Norwalk Board of Education

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This was my letter sent to the Norwalk Board of Education on June 16, 2015 as an individual. My views are my own.

Dear members of the Norwalk Board of Education,

Several newspapers recently reported that the Norwalk Board of Education would be hiring a former Superintendent of the Hartford Public Schools (HPS). As a Hartford Board of Education member since 2010 and an educational researcher, I write to raise concerns about claims made about the Hartford Public Schools between 2006 and 2011.

A press release from the Norwalk Board of Education suggests that HPS improved test results and graduation rates because of a change in policies and a new superintendent in 2006. It is true that HPS embarked on a policy of expanded school choice and hyper-accountability. This included closing schools and reopening them as themed academies.

However, there is little evidence that these policies alone resulted in improved achievement and graduation rates. As I wrote in The Hartford Courant in 2011, there was a mixed result from these policies – at best. Most importantly, the apparent “increases” only began when testing and graduation policies changed to artificially inflate this data.

Hartford’s “historic” test result increases only began when low-income, Black, and Latino students with disabilities were removed from regular tests and allowed to participate in a separate modified assessment in 2009. By 2011, 10% or more of all Hartford students, all with disabilities, were selected for a separate test. While this was happening, the HPS superintendent and administrators took credit. They also took bonus money for the subsequent increases, caused in large part by removing these kids.

I have written extensively on this issue. You can read my Op-Ed in the Hartford Courant, my report for CT Voices for Children, and my TEDx Talk at Central CT State University on the issue. This is not speculation, but fact.

Hartford’s graduation rate also has a number of question marks. Between 2006 and 2011, several policies changed that inflated graduation rates. First, the formula changed to calculate graduation rates. This new formula has excluded hundreds of Black and Latino students. They have been transferred out of their cohorts, and effectively removed from all calculations.

Second, online credit recovery and the policy of mandatory minimum grade of 55% inflated graduation rates. Online credit recovery, required by State law in 2010, meant that students that did not pass a course the first time were allowed to take the course online instead.

Hartford’s “F-55” rule mandated that a student failing a quarter or semester would get a 55% percent. With this rule, a student could earn a 75% in one quarter and pass the rest of the course, even without doing any work or even showing up to class. The Hartford Board of Education never approved these changes for online credit recovery and the “F-55” policy.

The information is not new, but ignored. Elected board members in Hartford raised concerns about both the test scores and graduation rates with little response from the Superintendent or his successor. Interestingly, the video of the meeting in early 2011 where Board members confronted the superintendent about the test inflation was reported as “damaged”. This was the only missing or damaged meeting video in my six years of service.

Rather than outright success, much of what happened in Hartford can be explained by these data illusions. Also, the tremendous State investment in school choice, particularly magnet schools, under the Sheff v. O’Neill agreement has played a major role.

The Hartford Public Schools are still trying to recover from the considerable damage caused by the school “turnarounds” started in 2006 and the unregulated school choice system. Our district is in as much or more financial distress with the expansion of school choice programs beyond our ability to support them. Many of the “turnaround” schools have experienced their second closure and reopening. In many of the Sheff magnet schools and most of our non-magnet schools, our staff still struggles to meet the needs of all children. Even former proponents of these policies have come to question their viability and performance.

I believe deeply in the ability of our city’s children and families, mostly Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino folk, to succeed academically and thrive in life. That is what we have been doing for hundreds of years with substantially unequal and separate opportunities in education and the economy. Yet, the limited resources that sustained our Black and Latino communities are now diminished, dismantled, privatized, or provided to only selected students. These resources included broad academic curriculum offerings, sports, special education services, bilingual education, and libraries.

While you are free to make the decision that is best for Norwalk, I would recommend not to make that decision based on discredited claims about Hartford. What happened from 2006-11 in Hartford may have helped some kids, but came along with further marginalization of the most vulnerable children and families in our city. In Hartford, we are still working for equitable opportunity.

Robert Cotto, Jr.

Member, Hartford Board of Education

English Language Learners Underrepresented in Connecticut’s Choice Schools

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Just over two decades ago, in 1989, Elizabeth Horton Sheff and a coalition of plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Connecticut’s then-governor, William O’Neill, calling attention to the stark segregation and inequality that characterized Hartford Area schools at the time. Now, twenty-six years later, almost half of the students in Connecticut’s capital city attend integrated schools.[i] When plaintiffs returned to the courtroom in 2003, they walked out with a new settlement that set even higher standards for racial integration within schools. In addition to expanding participation in the “Open Choice” system (previously known as “Project Concern”), this legislation called for the expansion of public charters and themed magnet schools in the Hartford Area. Connecticut’s system has been hugely successful in its attempts to promote racial integration within schools: In a recent Civil Rights Project report, Gary Orfield, a Distinguished Professor of Education, Law and Political Science and Urban Planning at UCLA, referred to it as “the only successful effort to produce a new legal framework to deal with the reality of metropolitan segregation.”[ii],[iii] Despite this undeniable progress, though, the system has been far from inclusive of the state’s large population of nonnative English speakers and has a long way to go before reaching its goal of equal educational opportunity for all students.[iv],[v] In order for English Language Learners (ELL) to be fairly represented in Connecticut’s choice schools, two things must happen. First and foremost, the state must implement recommended policy changes designed to address the insufficiency of bilingual education programs in these schools. Secondly, they should support the establishment of new dual-language magnet schools.

ELL Disparity in Choice Schools: What the Numbers Say

The number of English Language Learners in Connecticut is immense, and it is growing rapidly. In 2011-2012, over 30,000 students were considered to be ELL (and it is likely that this is an underestimate), making up 5.4% of the state’s total student population.[vi] Despite their large presence, ELL students are severely underrepresented in Connecticut’s public choice schools (specifically in magnet, charter and technical schools). According to the Choice Watch Report released in 2014 by policy analysts Robert Cotto and Kenny Feder, in the 2011-2012 school year, 76% of public charters, 64% of magnets, and 56% of technical schools in the Greater Hartford Area (GHA) had substantially lower enrollment percentages of ELL students than the local, traditional public schools in their districts.[vii] Unfortunately, choice schools have not become any more inclusive in the years since their report. These schools still enroll significantly lower percentages of ELL students than the traditional public schools in their respective districts.

ELL Enrollment in Magnet Schools, by District (2013-2014)

Comparison of ELL enrollment numbers from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 in Hartford Area magnet schools, as compared to their district averages. Charter school data included as was available.
Fig. 1: Comparison of ELL enrollment numbers from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 in Hartford Area magnet schools, as compared to their district averages. Charter school data included as was available. [ix]

When our Choice Seminar at Wesleyan updated the Choice Watch Report with 2013-2014 data provided to us by the CT State Department of Education (based on 13 of the 28 GHA districts – as much data as was available), we found that ELL students are still underrepresented, and especially so in magnet schools. ELL students are no more represented in magnet schools than they were two years ago, and in some cases, they are less so. Currently, the average ELL student-composition across the GHA is 10% for district schools, but only 4% for magnets. To identify districts that did a better job in encouraging ELL enrollment, it is most useful to look at the relative proportions within a particular district, rather than looking at the GHA as a whole. Danbury (25%), Hartford (22%), New London (22%) and Windham (26%) district schools enroll the highest percentages of ELL students. Danbury magnet schools, however, enroll 17% fewer ELL students than their district counterparts; this represents the largest enrollment gap in the GHA.[viii] Charter and technical schools also tend to under-enroll ELL students. The average composition of ELL students among Bridgeport’s four public charter schools is only 4%.[ix]

Fig. 2: ELL Enrollment in Hartford Area magnet schools as compared to district averages, in 2013-2014. [ix]
Based on the numbers, it would seem that ELL students are, to say the least, restricted, when it comes to school choice.  As of February 2015, less than half of the state’s students requiring ELL support were actually receiving it (approximately 9,897 out of 22,914), and this does not come without consequences.[x] ELL students in Connecticut are, on average, five grade levels below their non-ELL classmates.[xi] Based on 8th grade math and reading scores, the achievement gap for ELL students in Connecticut is the worst and second-to-worst in the country.[xii] The amelioration of this achievement gap relies in part on changes to existing policies regarding bilingual education programs.


Solution #1: Policy Changes

This past January, a group of concerned stakeholders including teachers, administrators, and members of the Latino and Asian communities held a forum to address the lack of resources for bilingual education. Luckily, a few legislators listened to their suggestions and worked with them to write what because known as House Bill 6835, “An Act Concerning English Language Learners.”[xiii] Aiming to better educational opportunities for ELL students in Connecticut, the original bill proposed changes to existing policies. Two recommendations, in particular, are ones that, if passed, could potentially have a significant and positive impact on the under enrollment of ELL students at choice schools.

As it stands, the Bilingual Education Statute (Section 10-17e-j) dictates that only schools with twenty or more ELL students must offer a program of bilingual education. [xiv] Furthermore, those twenty students have to speak the same foreign language. [xiv] On top of that, to say bilingual education is loosely defined in the statutes would be a gross understatement. H.B. 6835’s originally called for a decrease in this threshold, from twenty students to six. Based on 2013-2014 enrollment data, this decreased minimum would lead to the new bilingual education programs in at least forty additional choice schools in the Hartford Area. Soon after the stakeholders met, the Joint Education Commission held a public hearing, at which much dissent was expressed over the proposed amendments, in part due to financial concerns. Interestingly enough, Connecticut only spends a mere $1.9 million dollars on over 30,000 ELL students every year: a number that comes out to around $50-$60 per student.[xv] Nonetheless, in the resulting substitution bill, the proposed amendment to lower the twenty-person minimum had been thrown out.

The Connecticut Statute for Education also limits the amount of time that a student is allowed to spend in a bilingual education program to just thirty months – If the student is within 30 months of high school graduation, they are not eligible for the services at all. A second, important feature of H.B. 6835, that did make it into the substitution bill, was a two-fold increase in this time frame, from thirty to sixty months. Just last week, on April 29th, the Appropriations Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly voted 36 to 20 in favor of the Joint Education Committee’s substitution bill. [xvi] H.B. 6835 still has a long way to go – it must pass through both House and Senate before its fate is sealed.


Solution #2: Dual Language Magnet Schools  

According to Cotto and Feder’s 2012 Report, in the 2011-2012 school year, just under 50,000 students were enrolled in one of Connecticut’s choice programs – the majority of these students attended one of 63 interdistrict magnet schools.[xvii] In Connecticut, it’s easy enough to find a magnet school with just about any theme – there are magnet schools for arts, for aerospace and engineering, and for global citizenship. In New Haven, there is a very special magnet school called the John C. Daniels School (JDS). JDS is a dual-language immersion school, and with 19% of its students being ELL, a proportion one percentage point higher than the district average and more than twice that of any other interdistrict magnet school in New Haven.[xviii] So, if only 19% of students at JDS are ELL, then who are the other 81%? They are native English speakers, and they have chosen to go to JDS to learn Spanish. At JDS, half of classes are taught in English, and half are taught in Spanish. Then, in middle school, students can elect to take either Mandarin or continue on with Spanish.[xix]

View of main entrance at John C. Daniels Interdistrict Magnet School of International Communication.
Fig. 3: View of main entrance at John C. Daniels Interdistrict Magnet School of International Communication. [xxi]
JDS students consistently score above the district average in every subject, with very few exceptions. In 2013, 97% of sixth graders passed the math section of the CMT, putting them ahead of not only their district, but the entire state of Connecticut.[xx] JDS is not the only dual-language schools in Connecticut – the Dual Language and Arts Magnet Middle School in in Waterford, and the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London have also been both popular and successful. More dual-language magnet schools should be built, and the preexisting ones should be used as models. Dual-language instruction has been shown to contribute to a child’s cognitive development, language skills, career readiness and general global awareness.[xxi] A 2013 “Feasibility Study of Two-Way Language Programs,” led by the Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, revealed widespread community and business support, and even potential state interest and funding.

With the creation of more bilingual education schools comes the problem of staffing. Some consider the state’s stringent certification requirements for bilingual education teachers to be one of the biggest barriers to serving the needs of the state’s large (and growing) ELL student population. To become certified in bilingual education, a teacher must go to through a fifth year of schooling. However, once certified, they are not paid any more than regular teachers. The state also does not recognize out-of-state certification – only teachers who received their bilingual education certificates in the state of Connecticut are eligible to teach. A bill that is currently on the senate calendar, Bill 1102, addresses these stipulations. If it passes, establishing more of these themed-magnets will become a more feasible prospect: more teachers mean more programs in more schools, and more options for ELL students.


Looking Forward

Both key policy changes originally proposed in H.B. 6835 could have made many more schools practical choices for ELL students. The suggestion for the extension of the time maximum for bilingual education programs that still remains in the bill’s text is not an insignificant one. Not only could it enhance learning opportunities for students already enrolled in these programs, but it could also serve as a potential justification for the creation of new, dual-language magnet schools, if their documented success will not suffice as persuasion, since they would be providing dual-language instruction over four-or-more years. Connecticut’s choice schools should be more than just options for ELL students: they should be sensible options, at the very least. I am neither a policy analyst nor an expert in education, but I do believe in evidence, and right now the evidence suggests that something must be done.

[i] Rabe Thomas, J. (2013, November 26). Nearly half the students from Hartford now attend integrated schools. Retrieved May 3, 2015, from http://ctmirror.org/nearly-half students-hartford-now-attend-integrated-schools/.

[iii] Rabe Thomas, J. (2013, November 26). Nearly half the students from Hartford now attend integrated schools. Retrieved May 3, 2015, from http://ctmirror.org/nearly-half students-hartford-now-attend-integrated-schools/.

[iv] See, Plurality Opinion of the State Supreme Court, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding vs. Rell. March, 2009. Available at http://ccjef.org/litigation.

[v] How and Miller. Inequality in ELL-Enrollment at District versus Magnet Schools in the Greater Hartford Area. March, 2015. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1n0kDYiXIWSq17hSQl5aW8ecmKwZb6J-3PhHsdfHkffg/edit

[vi] Hartford Public Schools. Two-Way Language Program Feasibility Study, January 3, 2013. http://www.achievehartford.org/upload/files/DualLanguageDiscussion—20130124123318926.pdf.

[vii] Cotto, R. & Feder, K. (2014). Choice Watch: Diversity and Access in Connecticut’s School Choice Programs, (p. 17). Connecticut Voices for Children. New Haven, CT.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Miller, C. & How, H. (2015, March 6). “Inequality in ELL-Enrollment at District versus Magnet Schools in the Greater Hartford Area. Available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1n0kDYiXIWSq17hSQl5aW8ecmKwZb6J-3PhHsdfHkffg/edit.

[x] Zimmerman, E. (Director) (2015, February 25). Testimony before the Education Committee on Proposed S.B. No. 944 and H.B. 6835. Commission on Children. Lecture conducted from State of Connecticut General Assembly, Hartford, Connecticut. Available at http://www.cga.ct.gov/2015/eddata/tmy/2015SB-00944-R000225-Elaine%20Zimmerman,%20CT%20Commission%20on%20Children-TMY.PDF.

[xi] ConnCan: Connecticut Maintains Worst-in-the-Nation Achievement Gap. (2013, November 8). Retrieved May 3, 2015, from http://www.conncan.org/media-room/press-releases/2013-11-conncan-connecticut-maintains-worst-in-the-nation-ac.

[xii] Boesner, B. (2013, November 7). 2013 NAEP Snapshot [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://webiva-downton.s3.amazonaws.com/696/f8/4/1276/4/2013_ConnCAN_NAEP_Snapshot.pdf.

[xv] Rodriguez, O. (2015, May 1). Background Information on H.B. 6835 [Telephone interview].

[xvi] Appropriations Committee – Vote Tally Sheet. (2015, April 29). Retrieved May 3, 2015, from http://www.cga.ct.gov/2015/TS/H/2015HB-06835-R00APP-CV33-TS.htm.

[xvii] Cotto, R. & Feder, K. (2014). Choice Watch: Diversity and Access in Connecticut’s School Choice Programs. Connecticut Voices for Children. New Haven, CT.

[xviii] MacDonald, A. (2015, March 6). “Angus’s Exercise D.” Available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CPD_xgiWQFqSIPHbyRDXEHWRZ_ti61Qv8P-FhuXRxwE/edit.

[xx] John C. Daniels School Test Scores – New Haven County, CT. (n.d.). Retrieved May 3, 2015, from http://www.realtor.com/local/John-C-Daniels-School_New-Haven_New-Haven-County_CT/test-scores

The Invisible Demographics of Hartford-Area Magnet Schools

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Magnet schools in Connecticut are part of a movement to allow parents and students to choose their school. The school choice system is an alternative to the traditional neighborhood public school system, which divides students into schools based on their neighborhood of residence and has often led to racial and socioeconomic segregation of  public schools. “Choice” alternatives in the Hartford, CT area include district-wide open choice programs, interdistrict city-suburban transfer, charter schools, and interdistrict magnet schools. 1 This essay will focus on racial diversity in interdistrict magnets, which have appealing alternatives themes and are open to all Connecticut children, regardless of their residence.

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. Though the goal of the Sheff movement is to integrate schools to have diverse student populations, the Hartford area magnet schools have remarkably different levels of minority populations. I am focusing on magnet schools in this essay 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. Interdistrict magnet schools are designed to attract students from all around the area and from all walks of life, but there are many factors that could affect which students end up applying to and attending the school, including both the school’s marketing strategies as well as qualities of the school. I hypothesize that two qualities that could have a major effect on student demographics are school location and school theme. In my analysis, I find that school theme has a bigger effect on demographics, with more minority students enrolling in schools focusing on college or career preparation while more white students enroll in niche-themed schools, with focuses such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or the arts.

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/black 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.

However, in education reform, integration is a debated concept. According to the Sheff Movement, attending racially, economically, and culturally diverse schools leads to a “range of short and long term benefits for all racial groups. This includes gains in math, science, reading, and critical thinking skills and improvements in graduation rates.  Research also demonstrates that diverse schools are better equipped than high-poverty schools to counteract the negative effects of poverty.” 3 Moreover, in their book, Kahlenberg and Potter emphasize the importance of maintaining a focus on integration in education form; they quote Albert Shanker, founder of the charter school movement, 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.” 4 They critique the recently popular charter school movement for moving away from this vision. Magnet schools, on the other hand, have maintained the goal of racial integration, so it is important to better understand why certain schools are more successful at this than others.

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. 5 In order to uphold a “racially balanced” school, magnet school lotteries must give preference to applications from towns with greater white populations rather than to the areas heavily populated by minority students who have a far greater need for good schools. 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.” 6 Proponents of the charter school movement agree; charter schools tend to be very segregated with almost entirely minority students in order to serve the most at-risk students.

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. 7 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) in order to be funded by the state. They are also designed to have a 50-50 balance of Hartford and suburban students. 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 in their selection of students.

One important factor in attracting a certain student body is the way schools communicate with parents and prospective students. In a seminar at Wesleyan University called “Choice: A Case Study in Education and Entrepreneurship,” students visited various “choice” school fairs and open houses. Our class observed many schools present themselves to parents and children in order to better understand how they choose to communicate. However, from the field notes collected at the school fairs and open houses we visited, racial and socioeconomic integration were rarely mentioned. 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. 8 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. It seems ironic that racial balance is rarely discussed at magnet school fairs and open houses, when it is the fundamental purpose of magnet schools and is required for the schools to be funded. Schools and parents are not actively discussing diversity and racial balance in schools, but there are clearly unspoken factors influencing the wide discrepancies in the percentage of minority students we observe among Hartford-area magnet schools.

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.” 9 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 weighted average percent of black/Latino students in each category. 10 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, including average percent of black/Latino students and average percent of students from Hartford, weighted based on the size of each school.

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* (78.9%), college prep (74.4%), and career prep (71.1%), while the categories with the lowest percentage of minority students were early childhood* (54.3%), STEM (57.4%), arts (61.0%), and liberal arts* (62.3%) (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 marketing to 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 data on the number of Hartford resident students in each magnet school 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 34.1% 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).

Creating a 50-50 balance of 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. 11 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

Another possible explanation is that many of Hartford’s suburbs also have a high percentage of racial minorities. However, when comparing demographics of magnet schools to the demographics of the suburbs in which they are located, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference. I looked at the demographics of the three suburbs that have more than one magnet school: Avon, East Hartford, and Bloomfield. Though these three suburbs have highly different demographics (Avon is .98% black and 1.57% Latino, East Hartford is 18.83% black and 15.23% Latino, and Bloomfield is 66.06% black and 3.67% Latino), their magnet schools’ average minority populations are 64.6%, 60.2%, and 62.7% respectively, which does not reflect the differences in the towns’ populations.

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 48.5%, 43.5%, and 43.1% Hartford students, respectively, while the themes with the lowest percentage of minority students, early childhood*, STEM, and arts, enroll 24.8%, 35.7%, and 39.4% Hartford students respectively (weighted averages based on total school enrollment). 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).

Table 2: Hartford-Area Magnet Schools, locations, and 2014-2015 demographic data. Demographic data compiled from CSDE Sheff Compliance Report.

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. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1Eknsj1S-RAeQDeFulF7viHiSN6Uhn3UUz7b1p-9GZ6o/edit#slide=id.g5f09c8db1_05.
  2. “CONNECTICUT EDUCATION IN CRISIS: 40,000 CHILDREN TRAPPED IN FAILING SCHOOLS.” Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, November 18, 2014. http://www.conncan.org/media-room/press-releases/2014-11-connecticut-education-in-crisis-40000-children-trapp.
  3. “Why School Integration? |.” Accessed May 12, 2015. http://www.sheffmovement.org/why-school-integration/.
  4. 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
  5. 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.
  6. Franco, Darien, Personal correspondence, May 3, 2015.
  7. Thomas, Jacqueline Rabe. “$20M Agreement Will Expand School Choice to Desegregate Hartford Schools | The CT Mirror.” CT Mirror, February 23, 2015. http://ctmirror.org/2015/02/23/20m-agreement-will-expand-school-choice-to-desegregate-hartford-schools/.
  8. “Compiled School Choice Public Event Field Notes,” February 2015.
  9. “Compiled School Choice Public Event Field Notes,” February 2015, p. 30
  10. “CSDE Sheff Compliance Report,” October 2014. https://www.dropbox.com/s/xt0ddcrl95jjxfd/2014-15SheffComplianceFromCSDE_SN_BLRI.xlsx?dl=0.
  11. “Hartford (city) QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.” Accessed May 4, 2015. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/09/0937000.html.

Still Separate and Still Unequal: Understanding Racial Segregation in Connecticut Schools

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Forty thousand students in Connecticut are enrolled in failing schools. Eighty-seven percent of those students are Black or Hispanic, and ninety percent are low-income. 1 The historic Brown v. Board of Ed. case (1954) reaches its’ sixty first anniversary this year; it is difficult to realize many students are still segregated by socioeconomic class and race. Much of this segregation is evident in choice based schools, institutions geared toward providing educational opportunity to less advantaged students.   2 With an obligation to enroll 25-75% minority students, magnet schools are working to provide better education yet struggling to successfully integrate their classrooms. In this web essay, I aim to first understand how racial discrimination began in Connecticut schools and how it endures. Second, I will examine why classroom integration is important. Third, I will question whether choice based magnet schools, institutions initially created in an effort to provide greater opportunity to those who have less, are the best form of schooling to eradicate  school-based segregation. Last, I will work to understand what the most effective solutions to racial segregation might be.

Why does racial segregation exist, and how can it be explained in schools in Hartford, CT?

Today, Connecticut is populated primarily by white, middle to upper class educated individuals. Some 81.6% of the population is white, with 11.3% Black and 14.7% Latino. For the years between 2009-2013, on average, 89.2% of residents across the state graduated from high school. Some 36.5% graduated from some form of secondary college education.  3 Even though Connecticut is white dominated, there are large pockets of minority individuals living throughout the state, especially in Bridgeport, Waterbury, New Haven, New Britain and East Hartford. Below is an interactive map application depicting the “racial breakdown of students since 1969, by district.”  One can use the map to better understand school-based racial segregation throughout the state.  4

School-based segregation first began nationwide with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and continued with Brown v. Board of Ed.’s (1954) poorly executed reparations. There are several ‘reasons’ for the ongoing segregation in Connecticut schools and in many others nationwide. Some of these explanations include proximity to schools, extracurricular activities, clubs, and religious temples, housing opportunities, white flight, gentrification and zoning. There are many causes; in this essay, I will speak of a few. In their work entitled “Smarter Charter,” Richard Kahlenberg and Haley Potter write, “Parents of all incomes were likely to value a strong reading and math curriculum. Learning good study habits and self-discipline also…the overall ranking of preferences was fairly consistent across income brackets”. 5. Even with the commonality of education goals, many still prefer enrolling their school-aged children in institutions of learning where in terms of race, ethnicity and culture, the student body is like their own.  6  People are motivated to live in communities with others like themselves as well. These areas of condensed poverty and wealth, and therefore further segregation, are depicted in the interactive map of Hartford below.  7

As demonstrated through self-selection practices, information neighborhood parents receive when enrolling their children in schools and the lottery system, school choice is yet another reason for much of the existing school-based segregation (131). 8 Many choice-based institutions target varied cultural and ethnic groups. 9 When they do this, certain racial groups have a stronger presence in the enrollment lotteries than others. The resulting grades and classes within schools become homogeneous. This has certainly been the case at Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, CT, which was “originally created to give students living in high poverty areas the chance to receive exceptional education in areas where it’s most needed.” 10

In 1980, Connecticut instituted the Racial Imbalance Law, requiring schools to report their racial make-up to the state. This information included proximity of home from schools and how many students require free or reduced price lunch. Schools were forced to communicate with their districts when the number of minority students was not aligned with that of the majority race students.   11 This law failed, and so has the state government in eradicating school-based segregation. The law did however opened up a dialogue that had not been previously discussed; that conversation is centered heavily on integration, its importance and how it can change the future of education today. 12

Understanding Integration and its importance in Connecticut schools:

In 1989, Elizabeth Horton Sheff began a crusade against Connecticut on behalf of minority students in the state, demonstrating Black and Latino schools in urban areas were less privileged than those of the white suburban schools. In 1996, district lines were deemed unconstitutional and within the following year, “An Act Enhancing Educational Choices and Opportunities” was passed;  it encouraged racial integration through school choice. In 2008, a greater number of spots for students from all areas and racial backgrounds were to be made available in magnet schools.  13 14

As Sheff has helped to demonstrate, there are many benefits to racial integration in schools. Some include curtailing racism, providing a forum for mixed race friendships and increasing school-wide test scores in lesser performing schools. In her article entitled “What Will you Think of Me? Racial Integration, Peer Relationships and Achievement Among White Students and Students of Color,” Sabrina Zirkel writes, “Desegregated schools do produce more successful educational and professional outcomes for students of color. They do reduce prejudice and increase racial integration in the larger society. (58-59).”  15  Marguerite Spencer, a Professor at University of St. Thomas, finds children studying in integrated schools have “[a] higher level of parental involvement, higher graduation rates, complete more years of education, earn higher degrees and major in more varied disciplines, gain greater access to professional jobs and have higher incomes 16.

There are a surprising number of individuals disinterested and unwilling to send their children to integrated schools. In fact, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act perpetuates school-based segregation, giving “upward of $70 billion to continue to reinforce patterns of racial and economic separation in American Schools.” 17 This is evidence racism is more alive than ever.

Are choice based schools the solution to limited diversity in schools?

Over the last decade, Connecticut state government has spent $1.4 billion on repairing those schools that are dilapidated and building new magnet schools. $140 million is spent on school upkeep each year. 18 One of the state’s goals has been to provide opportunities for 41% of Hartford’s minority students to enroll in integrated schools.  Magnet schools initially seemed like the most likely approach. In the 2010-2011 school year, there were 2,722 magnet schools operating nationwide with 2,055,133 students enrolled. Fifty-four of those were in Connecticut. Today, there are seventy magnet schools in Connecticut serving 31,689 students, 70% of which are of minorities, mostly Black and Hispanic. 19

Hartford Magnet Middle School
Source: Trinity College

Magnet schools are often formed with a focused mission like STEM, Fine and Performing Arts, International Baccalaureate and Career and Technical Education. The curriculums are created in this manner in order to provide direction while also building family involvement.  20 21 These specialized programs were also created in an effort to attract white students to minority-majority schools, establishing a trend toward integration. Instead, as Boston University Professor Christine Rossell writes in her dissertation entitled “The Desegregation Efficiency of Magnet Schools,” “One possible explanation for why magnet schools [do] not have a more salutary effect on interracial exposure in the voluntary desegregation plans is that they may produce some white flight of their own.” (12)  22 “White flight” speaks to the racism many white people maintain and their resulting move to areas in which they make up the majority population (47) 23 Choice schools were created to provide opportunity to varied racial groups to converge to learn together, but classrooms in these institutions, especially in magnets, are still homogeneous. In order to understand why this is, an analysis of their assessment processes must be done.

Connecticut Magnet Schools are evaluated through a series of state designed questions each year. The first is “What characteristics define inter-district magnet schools and how do inter-district magnet schools differ from other public schools?” The second is, “what impact have inter-district magnet schools had on reducing the racial, ethnic, and economic isolation of Connecticut students?” The third is, “what impact have inter-district magnet schools had on reducing the racial, ethnic, and economic isolation of students within the magnet school itself?”  The fourth is “How does the performance of inter-district magnet school students compare with that of public school students state-wide?” And the final two are “how consistent are students, parents, and their public school professional staff in their perception of the effectiveness of their magnet schools, and what characteristics do the highly successful magnet school share?” (3-5)  24. With these questions, magnet schools are clearly evaluated each year but their assesments are lacking.  The questions themselves are fairly vague, keeping researchers from examining specific aspects of individual schools. Each inter-district magnet school does not maintain the same characteristics or the same students. Therefore, one school cannot be evaluated in the same exact way as another. Magnet schools are indeed effective in providing more opportunity than minority students would have previously had. They do not, however, provide the optimal education option of an integrated learning environment, especially when it comes to those students who are white or living with special needs.    25

What are the solutions to school-based segregation?

Since Brown v. Board of Ed., school-based segregation has become a larger problem than ever before. Much of this is due to the federal government’s limited implementation of relevant policy. No Child Left Behind was one reformation initiating efforts; testing alone though cannot close the achievement gap. Instead, as Gary Orfield suggests, districts need to first look at the factors outside schools that affect children in order to best understand why some schools have the demographics they do. Some of these include housing, day care, wages and health care. A parent’s ability to pay for housing in a middle to high income school district can dictate a child’s potential to enroll in a school with high levels of student success. Teachers must be provided with cultural sensitivity training so that they are equipped to instruct individuals of all backgrounds. Orfield also suggests universal pre-k, smaller class sizes, counseling and early grade reading classes will not only help to desegregate but will also help to close the achievement gap.  26 27 No one kind of institution can solve the conflict of racial segregation in schools. As Rod Dreher suggests, the US and Connecticut  governments must make integration a priority, demanding a higher quality of teaching and a greater number of after school programs. Within the next ten years, white students will be in the minority. It is time individuals begin learning together with varied races now.   28


With limited school-based integration, goals for institutions of learning to “promote an American identity, social cohesion and democratic leadership” are further out of reach than ever before. 29

Racial segregation can be an enormous impediment to learning, especially for low income minority students. Segregation encourages stereotypes, increases racism and widens the achievement gap by limiting access to quality education for Blacks and hispanics.  Integration can help minorities more than it can the already racially privileged white students. It can assist in the efforts to raise scores on standardized tests, reduce violence, encourage parent involvement, create greater access to professional jobs and guarantee higher incomes. Integration and exposure to a variety of cultures and ethnicities can also help all students to eradicate racism and experience a life with greater perspective. 30

Choice-based institutions, like magnet schools, are meant to be building universal change. They are creating more opportunity for minority students, but not together with their majority peers. In an effort to build an integrated education system for the future, we must first understand how racial segregation began in Connecticut, how it endures, why integration is important and what the best solutions are. If choice-based schools have not been an effective form of segregation eradication, can we truly think of them as the future of our multi-cultural education system? I don’t think we can. The United States and Connecticut governments must make integration a top priority, creating a system of change that includes a higher standard for teaching and a greater availability of before and after school enrichment programs to foster equal access for all students, no matter what race, together.



  1. 2014. Connecticut Education in Crisis: 40,000 Children Trapped in Failing Schools. connCAN. Retrieved May 11, 2015. (http://www.conncan.org/media-room/press-releases/2014-11-connecticut-education-in-crisis-40000-children-trapp)
  2. Frankenberg, E., Siegel-Hawley, G., & Wang, J. 2010. Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards. Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Retrieved April 30, 2015. (http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/choice-without-equity-2009-report/)
  3. 2015. State and County QuickFacts: Connecticut. United States Census Bureau. Retrieved April 30, 2015.(http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/09000.html)
  4. (Thomas, Jacqueline Rabe. 2014. 60 Years after Brown vs. Board of Education: Still Separate in Connecticut. The CT Mirror. Retrieved May 1, 2015. (http://ctmirror.org/2014/05/16/60-years-after-brown-vs-board-of-education-still-separate-in-connecticut/). 
  5. Kahlenberg, Richard D and Potter, Haley. 2014. A Smarter Charter: Finding what Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press
  6. Kahlenberg, Richard D and Potter, Haley. 2014. A Smarter Charter: Finding what Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press
  7. (Hartford, Connecticut (CT) Poverty Rate Data. City-Data.com. Advameg Inc. Retrieved May 10, 2015. (http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-Hartford-Connecticut.html#mapOSM?)
  8.  Orfield, Gary and Ee, Jongyeon. 2015. Connecticut School Integration: Moving Forward as the Northeast Retreats. UCLA The Civil Rights Project 5. Retrieved April 29, 2015. (http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/connecticut-school-integration-moving-forward-as-the-northeast-retreats/orfield-ee-connecticut-school-integration-2015.pdf)
  9. Kahlenberg, Richard D and Potter, Haley. 2014. A Smarter Charter: Finding what Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press
  10. 2011. Are Magnet Schools Perpetuating Segregation? The Huffington Post. Retrieved May 11, 2015. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/01/school-segregation_n_860857.html).
  11. Lohman, Judith. 2010. The Racial Imbalance Law. OLR Research Report. Retrieved May 1, 2015 (http://www.cga.ct.gov/2010/rpt/2010-R-0228.htm)
  12. (Orfield, Gary and Ee, Jongyeon. 2015. Connecticut School Integration: Moving Forward as the Northeast Retreats. UCLA The Civil Rights Project 5. Retrieved April 29, 2015. (http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/connecticut-school-integration-moving-forward-as-the-northeast-retreats/orfield-ee-connecticut-school-integration-2015.pdf)
  13. 2014. History of Sheff v. O’Neill. Sheff Movement: Quality Integrated Education for All Children. Retrieved May 1, 2015. (http://www.sheffmovement.org/history-2/)
  14. 2014. Sheff v. O’Neill. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 1, 2015. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheff_v._O’Neill)
  15. Zirkel, Sabrina. 2004. What Will You Think of Me? Racial Integration, Peer Relationships and Achievement Among White Students and Students of Color. Mills College: Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 60, No. 1, 57-74
  16. (Spencer, Marguerite. 2009. The Benefits of Racial and Economic Integration in Our Education System:Why this Matters for Our Democracy. The Kirwin Institute. 1-19.)
  17. (Tegeler, Philip, Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin and Bottia, Martha. 2011. “Research Brief No. 4: What we know about school integration, college attendance, and the reduction of poverty.” Poverty and Race Research Action Council. The National Coalition on Student Diversity 1-4.”)
  18. Thomas, Jacqueline Rabe. 2014. 60 Years after Brown vs. Board of Education: Still Separate in Connecticut. The CT Mirror. Retrieved May 1, 2015. (http://ctmirror.org/2014/05/16/60-years-after-brown-vs-board-of-education-still-separate-in-connecticut/)
  19.  2015. Connecticut Magnet Schools. Public School Review. Retrieved May 11, 2015. (http://www.publicschoolreview.com/state_magnets/stateid/CT)
  20. Chen, Grace. 2015. What is a Magnet School? Public School Review. Retrieved May 3, 2015. (http://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/what-is-a-magnet-school)
  21. 2013. What are Magnet Schools? Magnet Schools of America. Retrieved April 29, 2015. (http://www.magnet.edu/about/what-are-magnet-schools)
  22. Rossell, Christine. 2003. “The Desegregation Efficiency of Magnet Schools. Boston University Political Science Department. Urban Affairs Review 1-25)
  23. Kahlenberg, Richard D and Potter, Haley. “Charter Schools” Can Racial and Socioeconomic Integration Promote Better Outcomes for Students?  Poverty and Race Research Action, The Century Foundation.
  24. Beaudin, Barbara Q. Interdistrict Magnet Schools in Connecticut. Connecticut State Department of Education Division of Evaluation and Research. Retrieved May 2, 2015. (http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/PDF/Equity/magnet/magnet_presentation_caims_11_2003.pdf)
  25. Thomas, Jacqueline Rabe. 2014. Report: Many Connecticut charter schools ‘hyper-segregated’. The CT Mirror. Retrieved May 2, 2015. (http://ctmirror.org/2014/04/09/school-choice-many-schools-hyper-segregated/)
  26.  Orfield, Gary. 2015. Race and Schools: The Need for Action. National Education Association. Retrieved May 11, 2015. (https://www.nea.org/home/13054.htm_)
  27. (2015. School Desegregation and Equal Education Opportunity. The Leadership Conference Civil Rights 101. Retrieved May 11, 2015. (http://www.civilrights.org/resources/civilrights101/desegregation.html))
  28.  Dreher, Rod. 2013. Can We Ever ‘Fix’ Segregated Schools? The American Conservative. Retrieved May 11, 2015. (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/can-we-ever-fix-segregated-schools/)
  29. Kahlenberg, Richard D and Potter, Haley. 2014. A Smarter Charter: Finding what Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press
  30.  Thomas, Jacqueline Rabe. 2015. School choice: Future of new magnet schools uncertain. The CT Mirror. Retrieved May 3, 2015. (http://ctmirror.org/2015/01/06/school-choice-future-of-new-magnet-schools-uncertain/)

Redesigning the Open Communities Alliance Mobility App to Help Connecticut Residents Find Affordable Housing

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On April 15, 2015, members of Wesleyan University’s CSPL 341 (for more information on the class as well as other projects and various resources visit The Cities, Suburbs & Schools website), traveled to the North End Action Team (NEAT) headquarters in Middletown, Connecticut to gather information on the public’s reaction to the Connecticut Open Communities Alliance (CTOCA) Mobility App.  OCA is “a new Connecticut-based civil rights organization that promotes access to opportunity for all people through education, organizing, advocacy, research, and partnerships.” 1 As a part of their mission, they have created the Mobility App, a opportunity centric tool, intended to assist people with government housing subsidies (notably Section 8 Vouchers, an initiative that provides rental housing subsidies to low-income households) find housing in high opportunity neighborhoods with quality schools, low crime rates, high employment levels, and various other necessities for success. Housing mobility, although it may seem trivial, is crucial for helping low income families gain upward mobility socially, economically and educationally.

We interviewed adults in the community, asking how they felt about their current housing situation, whether they were looking to move, whether they were regular computer users, and other questions, in order to assess the efficiency and applicability of the current app’s design. Our findings reveal that current app is not fulfilling its mission of “help[ing] people with government housing subsidies…find homes within thriving communities.” 2 The App is conveniently available through the OCA website but is relatively new and underutilized. A participant begins by inserting an address (perhaps his/hers or perhaps a desired location), clicking “Search,” and is then shown a peg on a map that reveals the location’s “Opportunity Index” (rated on a scale of “very low” (tan) to “very high” (deep orange)) as well as various “Neighborhood Assets” near the location (starting at ½ of a mile away and spanning up to 100 miles) such as public schools, daycare facilities, grocery stores, and places of worship. Each differently colored section is based off of census tract data.


The “Opportunity Index” is based off of three qualifiers: economic quality, such as unemployment rate and job diversity, educational levels, such as connecticut math and english exams, and neighborhood indicators, such as crime rate and percent of people below the poverty line.


While the Mobility App provides baseline support for housing movement, it is falling short. Technologically, participants are not meaningfully engaging with the app.  In the aforementioned trials done with NEAT while nearly 65% of these people were looking to move only 29% of participants changed how they thought about housing. In addition, many users experienced challenges navigating the website with 57% unable to enter their addresses without assistance. When exploring the tool, 78% clicked on one or fewer facets, showing that without explicit instruction participants cannot effectively use the website. 3 Some of these issues are due to the fact that many of our participants had low literacy levels. The biggest issue with the mobility app is that it lacks links to available housing, thereby not fulfilling its mission to help participants find housing. Without direct links to housing, the tool cannot fully promote actual mobility into higher opportunity areas.

Considering the effectiveness of this app and the primitive resources currently given in the app, this essay calls for a redesign on the Open Communities Alliance Mobility App in order to create more opportunity and effective housing mobility which includes two larger factors: an instructional video and a more comprehensive interface.


As discussed, many users do not possess the technological skills to navigate the website alone. Therefore, to make the app effective, a feature needs to be created to provide explicit usage instructions. The inclusion of a video would visually demonstrate to participants how to effectively engage with the app many of whom have limited literacy. Hopefully, an instructional video would make the website understandable to the extent that users could navigate it alone. This video would pop up automatically when the user enters the website. If he/she is not a first time user, the participant would have the option to skip the tutorial.

The video tutorial would consist of multiple chapters: the first would introduce the app and explain what it is designed to do, reciting the mission statement. The following chapters would explain more specific features to the app. The first specific chapter would be the “Opportunity Index” gradient. The narrator would clarify that it ranges from very low, the tan color, to very high, the dark orange color, and that it is determined based on “economic, education and neighborhood quality”, meaning the caliber of nearby schools, amount of job opportunities, level of crime, and more. 4 Next the video would explain the color coded amenities (that should be expanded beyond what they are now) below the opportunity index such as health centers, daycare facilities, grocery stores, transportation, and more. This portion would show the user how they can select amenities that are important to them specifically, and how the map would then automatically show nearby dots that represent chosen amenities.  When a participant clicks on a dot, the title of the resource, the address, and the phone number would pop up, as well as a link to get directions to/from this amenity. The voiceover would explain that the button leads the participant to a linked website, Google Maps, where the user would be able to see the easiest routes by foot, bike, car or public transportation from the destination to the selected address. It would give a short demonstration of how to do so by entering two sample addresses and clicking on various routes. The next chapter would explain crucial new redesign aspects (discussed in the next section): the ability for two addresses entered concurrently and pegs with links to homes for rent in the area (marked with green arrows).  At the end of the tutorial, a participant would click the “next” button, leading him/her to the Mobility App. If the user needs to go back to the video later for reference, there would be a link at the top of the page that says “How To Use This App.” The video tutorial would make the Mobility App more accessible for all users, especially technologically challenged users, and would help the app become more efficient in helping low-income section eight voucher recipients find a more upwardly mobile neighborhood and home to live in.

Below is a sample instructional video of the current website. It does not include the interface redesign, mentioned above and explained in detail below,that we are hoping to implement. This video would need to be updated when the website is redesigned.

Sample instructional video, created by authors, on YouTube. 5


The second major suggestion to enhancing the Mobility App’s mission of “help[ing] people with government housing subsidies interested in an opportunity move find homes within thriving communities” 6 would be to change the actual interface of the app.  Currently, the app has too much writing for our literacy deficient demographic, no direct visual comparison between two different addresses (current and future), unclear coloration for the different opportunity areas, and most critically, no direct housing availability on the map. A potential redesign would accomplish four things: include a video (discussed above), remove a lot of the written information so that a person with minimal reading comprehension can understand how to work the app, provide space to enter two addresses (the second being optional) to make a potential mover think about opportunity level comparisons between his/her current location and a new location, and add in real housing options taken from real estate websites.

In addition, a redesign could add in various other amenities (like proximity to transportation, hospitals, job availability, places of worship, grocery stores, shopping centers, etc.) to cater toward individualized amenity desires and keep the search as personalized and therefore as useful as possible. Moreover, the neighborhood amenities distance would automatically be set higher than half a mile (the current setting) because not all addresses have amenities in such a close proximity.

However, it is necessary to remember that amenities and opportunity level are not the same; opportunity level refers to “sustainable employment, high-performing schools, a safe environment, and safe neighborhoods” whereas amenities are just ‘cream on top,’ extra to make the app participant-centric. 7 The meat of the redesign falls in the former redesign ideas as these suggestions bolster the app’s ability to offer housing mobility into higher opportunity neighborhoods.


The redesign would include several links, the first of which would be “How to Use This Tool” located at the top of page that would open to the introductory video detailed earlier. This would ensure that a participant can return to the video if they need to be reminded of a specific instruction or purpose of one of the site’s amenities (i.e. what opportunity index means, what the tract (grey lines) mean, etc).  Similarly, underneath the “ Opportunity Index” color-gradient chart there would be a link to the “methods” section that describes what “opportunity” means. While this link would be relatively superfluous with the explanation of what “opportunity” means in the video, it would ensure that categorization into how neighborhoods are being assessed remains as transparent as possible.

The next necessary edit of the website would be the elimination of some of the word-heavy areas and the addition of a space for two addresses. Our first deletion would be the introductory paragraph:

This would hopefully make the website less intimidating for low literacy participants as there are too many ‘advanced’ words. Replacing this space with the option of entering two addresses would permit a user to first enter his/her current address to see this location’s opportunity and then enter a second address (perhaps the address of a loved one or a place of work for comparison). As the NEAT data show, nearly 36% of people described themselves as “Stayers” and therefore the second address is helpful and optional, but not necessary. The app would then compare the opportunity levels of the two neighborhoods and of the neighborhoods in between, show available housing in and between the neighborhoods, depict nearby amenities, and transportation routes. Overall, the addition of two addresses would give participants a visual comparison of a current and a desired address in terms of opportunity level while simultaneously creating choice for participants through showing the opportunity levels of neighboring areas and nearby amenities as well.

If the participant enters two addresses the site would look like this:


However, if a person opted to only enter one address, the map would show the level of opportunity in this location, though ideally more zoomed out than in the current design, because it is currently difficult both to locate an address within a greater neighborhood/opportunity level context and see nearby amenities.

Lastly, the most apparent missing feature in the Mobility App is the lack of available housing displayed, which completely defeats the purpose of this app. How can an individual looking to move into a higher opportunity area do so without knowledge of what housing is available? Therefore, the new design would show housing opportunities on the map in locations higher than the first entered address (current address).  The tool could pull from Trulia, Zillow, or CTHousingSearch for example. This in turn helps the Mobility App creators fulfill their mission statement of providing housing and their goal of making the app as opportunity centric as possible. (See mock-up below)


As the Open Communities Alliance Mobility App currently stands, it does not fulfill its mission. The Mobility App has a solid foundation for assisting Connecticut residents with housing subsidies such as section eight vouchers find homes in new locations with higher opportunity levels than his/her current home. Unfortunately, it does not provide enough resources to make meaningful change. However, with a few simple additions and edits, the app could be more applicable, pertinent, and easy to use. Overall our submissions for the redesign would improve how participants interact with the app despite low literacy levels, create elements that help to make the app more opportunity centric through explicit visual instruction, decrease unintelligibly sophisticated language, and provide links to available housing. Once these redesigned aspects have been implemented and the app has been made as opportunity centric as possible, we believe it would be in the best interest of the creators to survey low income participants again to gauge whether or not there are some amenities missing from the site that they consider important and that they look for when searching for a house (such as adding a landlord rating for some of the housing units to eliminate concern), however, the primary focus on the redesign should be on making the app as user-friendly as possible. 8 If the Open Communities Alliance Mobility App included the aforementioned redesign suggestions, we believe the tool could assist those looking to move find long-term and stress-free housing within his/her budget.



  1. Open Communities Alliance, “Open Communities Alliance Homepage”, Open Communities Alliance, Accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.ctoca.org/
  2. “Mobility App,” Open Communities Alliance, accessed May 1, 2015, http://www.ctoca.org/mobility_app.
  3. “Mobility App Participant Spreadsheet,” Jack Dougherty, accessed May 1, 2015, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1dbwO9jooBxvxZIuLaZzwAXX21LxRHy7k_jfeKadpIKk/edit#gid=0.
  4. Jack Dougherty,”Mobility App Interview Guide.” Paper presented at the CSPL 341 Choice- A Case Study in Education and Entrepreneurship class at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, April 18th, 2015.
  5. https://youtu.be/0EI3SAcUCXk
  6. “Mobility App,” Open Communities Alliance, accessed May 1, 2015, http://www.ctoca.org/mobility_app.
  7. Steve Gaul, “Connecticut Opportunity Index: 2014 Opportunity Index Levels for Connecticut”, Connecticut Opportunity Index, Accessed May 11, 2015. http://sgaul.github.io/opportunity/
  8. Connecticut Fair Housing Center, “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 2015”, Government of the State of Connecticut Website, Accessed May 1, 2015, http://www.ct.gov/doh/lib/doh/analysis_of_impediments_2015.pdf