Redesigning the Open Communities Alliance Housing Mobility App to Increase Ease of Use

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As scholars have discussed, housing opportunity has a tremendous impact on people’s lives and life outcomes. 1 Many social workers and non-profit organizations are dedicated to helping people find better housing opportunities. The Open Communities Alliance is one such organization. The Alliance is a Connecticut-based organization that aims to improve opportunities for all through policy and advocacy, with a focus on housing opportunities. The Open Communities Alliance has developed a tool to help individuals with housing subsidies find better communities and homes. The app aims to present three broad categories of relevant information to the user: An opportunity level index that measures opportunity levels across census tracts, “neighborhood assets” such as schools and grocery stores, and transportation information in the form of “get directions” links to Google maps.

Current Housing Mobility App
The Housing Mobility App, here shown in its current format, has rich information to offer users but also has room for improvement. 

While it is an excellent initiative, the mobility app is not yet as effective as it could be in helping people find homes and communities to move into. Through a housing-information event organized on April 15, 2015 with the help of the Open Communities Alliance and the Middletown North End Action Team, our class was able to conduct interviews with locals who would potentially find the application useful. 2 Through computer screen recordings of interview participants, we were also able to collect data on what parts of the app users were using.  The interviews and data from the housing event indicate that while there is a clear interest in information that the app presents, the Mobility App is not highlighting the information that many individuals are interested in.

Our findings about workshop participants’ patterns of usage on the app can be summarized with the following table that we created as a class. The Stayer or Mover column describes whether participants said they were interested in staying in their current homes or moving. The next two columns serve as different ways of measuring computer familiarity, with New or Regular column using self-reports and the Search without Assistance column using behavioral observation. The green columns reflect observation of the order in which participants clicked on different features of the app. The pink columns show the order in which participants verbally described the features of the app.

One of the largest current problems with the app is that it does not supply information about actual apartment and house listings. The app has good information about opportunity levels and assets surrounding certain addresses, but this only goes so far in helping people find places they may actually live in. The Open Communities Alliance website states, “The Alliance is dedicated to bringing resources to lower opportunity areas and linking to higher opportunity areas people who historically have not had access to them.” The Housing Mobility App does not currently meet this goal adequately. In our class’s community housing workshop, most participants did not click on the opportunity levels at all. As can be seen in the chart above, only 5/14 (36%) of participants clicked on the opportunity levels, and only one participant out of our fourteen clicked on the opportunity levels first. It would be helpful for the housing mobility app to have access to information about specific apartment or houses to rent in higher­ opportunity areas.

People who attended the community housing workshop cited the app’s lack of real listings as one of its most significant flaws. One participant said, “What are these, like, spots you can move?” when ze saw the dots for the neighborhood assets. 3 The same participant commented that ze liked the security deposit on the Portland, CT listing we showed workshop participants. This suggests a demand for information about specific housing opportunities in addition to the information about neighborhood assets and opportunity levels that the app already provides.

In the next version of the app, it would be helpful to incorporate housing listings from a rental listings website, such as CTHousingSearch, and to have these listings represented as points on a map of the area. A May 1st and May 10th, 2015, comparison of listings of Middletown apartments on Trulia,, Zillow, and CTHousingSearch suggested that CTHousingSearch might be the optimal choice for a source of data to use in conjunction with the app. CTHousingSearch had more listings overall for Middletown housing opportunities (43 postings, compared to 38 on Trulia, 28 on and 26 on Zillow) and more listings for opportunities under $1000/month (33, compared to 15 on Trulia, 12 on and 9 on Zillow). CTHousingSearch is a housing locator service funded by the Connecticut Department of Housing that aims to help individuals and families to find the best housing for their needs. 4 The organization shares a similar mission to Open Communities Alliance and therefore would probably be inclined to help furnish listings for the housing opportunity app. An advantage of Zillow, however, is that Zillow presents its listings on a map of the area, which is what we propose for the app to do as well. Therefore it might be easier to pull location data from Zillow listings than from CTHousingSearch, but this would need further investigation by someone more familiar with the technical demands this would impose.

To make the listings very visible, we propose that they be represented with individual balloons indicating an apartment or house for rent. A really clear redesign would be to completely remove the census tracts, (which the app currently uses to show opportunity levels), but to color code the available housing markers by census opportunity level. This would allow users of the app to see clearly where the apartment or house was located with respect to familiar streets or neighborhood assets while also benefitting from the information about opportunity levels. We looked at ColorBrewer and concluded that using a sequential color scheme, like the app currently does, is the most clear way to represent the gradient of opportunity levels. Some of our workshop participants had trouble distinguishing between the shades of orange when they were made less opaque in order to show the streets, but because we propose to use balloons to show individual listing opportunities, the balloons can be opaque, and thus the colors will be easily distinguishable from one another. Here is what this might look like:

Housing Mobility App Housing Listing Redesign
This is our proposed design for the representation of housing listings. This is what the open listings as of May 10, 2015, look like in Middletown, displayed as individual balloons that are color-coded by opportunity level.

To distinguish the listings from neighborhood assets and to ensure that the listings were the most prominent feature of the app, we propose that they be represented as balloons akin to the ones Google uses. Users could click on the balloons to get more information (opportunity level as well as a link to the posting on CTHousingSearch or Zillow) about the house or apartment listing. The neighborhood assets could be dots as they are in the app currently. This change to the app would allow housing listings to come first, which could really help people looking for housing make their decisions based on actual listings and locations without sacrificing the important opportunity­ level data and neighborhood assets.

The feature that was least evident to most participants was the transportation information. The availability of transportation is a huge factor for many looking for a new home. The lack of access to a regularly running bus can make it difficult, dangerous, or impossible to get to a job, school, or grocery store. In the current format of the app, transportation is limited to a “get directions” link that takes the user to a new Google Maps page. Before it was explained, none of the fourteen participants clicked on or described the presence of this feature. This is a terrible shortcoming of the app, considering how important access to transportation is to most individuals when considering a new home or school for their children. Participants 3, 4, and 14 all referenced a need to understand different aspects of transportation during the process of finding housing despite there already being a section of the tool dedicated to housing. Any redesign of this tool must address this issue, because the inclusion of neighborhood assets or housing offerings are not as enlightening when users can’t find out how accessible they are.

It’s clear that linking out of the application for transportation information isn’t a very obvious feature to many. It would be better to include transportation information directly in the app. This way, it would be easier to use alongside visuals for opportunity level, housing, and neighborhood assets. The first and most simple step is to use a street map for the application instead of the map of census tracts. Being able to visualize a neighborhood’s roads and streets is the first step to understanding how one’s day to day travels will pass. The census tracts give very little in the way of understanding scale, population density, and nearness to highways or public transportation, all of which have an impact on living.

Here is an example of how a bus route could be shown. This example uses a shuttle route in Hartford. The word bubble is an example of what could pop up if the user mouses over the route.
Here is an example of how a bus route could be shown. This example uses a shuttle route in Hartford. The word bubble is an example of what could pop up if the user mouses over the route.

The next truly helpful asset would be to add bus (and other public transportation) routes and stops directly to the app. A good redesign would include an overlay of the different routes and stops on the map. Users should be able to hide or show this feature, just like the neighborhood assets. Also like the neighborhood assets, when clicked, the line would show a text box with the name of the bus or stop, along with a relevant phone number for the area’s CT Transit. This feature would not replace the “get directions” link, but would rather enhance its function. While this tool would not be as effective as the “get directions” link in finding tangible directions, it would provide a quick and broad understanding of how transportation in different neighborhoods compare to each other. This is an important layer of understanding that is not covered in the neighborhood assets or the opportunity index – a neighborhood can have wonderful schools, low crime, and high average incomes, but if life there requires a car, these positives would be of little use to a family without one.

The neighborhood assets feature was by far the most utilized in our housing workshop. Ten of the eleven individuals who clicked on any part of the application without assistance first clicked on neighborhood assets, and all eleven clicked on neighborhood assets at some point. By comparison, five people clicked on the shapes representing census tract opportunity level at some point, and no one clicked on the “get directions” link. This implies two things: That the way in which the neighborhood assets are represented in the tool is highly effective, and that neighborhood assets as a category are interesting to individuals who the app is designed for.

Many of the participants used items that could be labelled as “neighborhood assets” to decide whether or not a potential new home was in a good area. For instance, Participant 5 was interested in living near a community center. Participant thought that adding more points for things like public parks. Other participants wanted to find libraries and hospitals. These all could be listed alongside the current neighborhood assets.

In many ways, individuals were looking to these points as indicators of a good area. This is understandable – it is often crucial to live within a safe walking distance to a school or grocery store, or at least a bus stop to get there. For many, this is a basic necessity when looking for housing. However, this information in itself cannot stand in for the opportunity data. One might assume that high opportunity neighborhoods are more likely to have more neighborhood assets, but a quick examination of the mobility app shows otherwise. For all of the urban centers in Connecticut, the city center tends to have a lower opportunity level and quite a lot more neighborhood assets than the surrounding suburbs. This makes perfect sense, but it means that neighborhood assets alone are not adequate indicators of high-quality neighborhoods.  Likewise, a high opportunity neighborhood might lack a grocery store within within walking distance of many homes. Neither opportunity levels nor neighborhood assets are adequate rubrics on their own, and both are hardly useful at all without an understanding of transportation.

Additionally, a stumbling block to many users of the app was the app’s overall lack of intuitiveness. Many participants in our focus group indicated that they were confused about what to do with what they were seeing in the app.

One specific major issue common across several participants in our housing workshop was that they found it difficult to orient themselves in the map. People said things like “How did I lose High Street?” 5 and “like where would Main…does it show like streets? Like where would the Y be from there?” 6 which indicated confusion. By changing the opportunity levels to colors of the balloons, as suggested in our discussion of housing listings earlier, the map would be clearer, and participants would be able to see specific streets and familiar landmarks more clearly. Having features pop up when you hovered the mouse over them instead of when you clicked them would also help with increasing the ease of use and reducing the clutter of the app.

Part of this struggle we observed in some of our participants may be attributable to the digital divide. A majority of the participants in our housing-app test session were not familiar or proficient at using computers (only 43% of our participants could use the search tool unassisted), and this represents a major potential-user population that may need different features to help them use the app. Several participants who were not very familiar with computers indicated that something of this nature would be helpful. One participant said, As Participant 5 said, “I think if something that could explain it for people that don’t know the computers, that would be really helpful.” Other participants indicated that more guidance would help them, making statements like “So what are we looking for?” 7 and “So what do I have to put there?” 8 If people can’t figure out how to use the tool on their own, they will not be able to take advantage of the valuable information the app contains.

A thorough tutorial could help people with digital literacy struggles use the app. Ideally, the information in the tutorial would go down the the level of telling people what to click on and where to type in information to help people who were extremely unfamiliar with computers and might not have the same intuition-based abilities to figure this out as more computer-savvy users. This might look something like this:

(Direct link to slide show above:

We believe these suggestions will improve the housing mobility app and increase its utility and ease of use for those most in need of better housing opportunities. With our additions and revisions to the app, people will be able to find specific places to live, get a realistic sense of their transportation options, see enriched neighborhood assets, and understand how to make use of all this information even with limited computer skills. The Housing Mobility App has the power to be a tremendously helpful resource to housing mobility counselors and people looking for better housing opportunities for their families. These suggestions would make the app even more closely aligned with CT Open Communities Alliance’s mission to help people who historically may have not have had access to high opportunities have a chance to succeed.


  1. Boggs, Erin. “Commentary: Why Mapping ‘opportunity’ Matters.” TrendCT. April 14, 2015. Accessed May 12, 2015.
  2. The interviews, conducted by Wesleyan CSPL 341 students at the Middletown North End Action Team, are kept confidential to protect the identities of the fourteen participants. They will be cited by participant number.
  3. Participant 10A.
  4.  “About Us.” CT Housing Search. 2015. Accessed May 12, 2015.  
  5. Participant 1.
  6. Participant 13.
  7. Participant 9M.
  8. Participant 11.

The “Not So Dirty” Dozen, Plus a Few: Ways Hartford Magnet Schools Influence Student Enrollment

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How do magnet schools influence student enrollment? Kevin Welner (2013) introduced “The Dirty Dozen,” ways charter schools influence enrollment:

  1. Description and Design: What niche?
  2. Location, location, location
  3.  Mad Men: The Power of Marketing and Advertising
  4. Hooping it Up: Conditions Placed on Applications
  5. As Long as You Don’t Get Caught: Illegal and Dicey Practices
  6. Send us Your Best: Conditions Placed on Enrollment
  7. The Bum Steer
  8. Not in Service
  9. The Fitness Test: Counseling Out
  10. Flunk or Leave: Grade Retention
  11. Discipline and Punish
  12. Going Mobile (or Not)

Do magnet schools, founded upon different goals, use the same strategies to sway their student body? This essay aims to determine which of these also apply to Hartford magnet schools, how they are used differently, and what additional approaches magnets use.

Background and Methods

Hartford Public Schools is an “all-choice” program, in which families submit lottery applications to their preferred district school, including charter and magnet schools (Dougherty et al., 2014). Charter schools aim to improve academic achievement and educational innovation, reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation, and give families a choice of public education programs (Cotto & Feder, 2014). Magnet schools aim to reduce, eliminate, or prevent the racial, ethnic, or economic isolation of public school students, and offer a high-quality curriculum that supports educational improvement (Cotto & Feder, 2014) by providing special curricular themes to attract students from city and suburban districts (Dougherty, 2015). Funds for magnets can be withheld if the student body does not contain between 25% and 75% students of color, as per the Sheff vs. O’Neil standards, while no standards exist for charters (Cotto & Feder, 2014).

To look for instances of the dirty dozen, field notes collected by my classmates were analyzed. Students in the choice seminar attended magnet school open houses or the RSCO fair and recorded observations. The Regional School Choice Office (RSCO) provides information and support to Hartford families who wish to select a school best suited for their child. RSCO coordinates the application and lottery for magnets but not charters.

What Approaches Don’t Magnet Schools Use?


The first approach that magnets do not use is location. Welner argues that charter schools choose their location with the students they intend to serve and the availability of transportation in mind. The Capitol Region Education Center, CREC, coordinates free transportation to magnet schools, even for students out-of-district (CREC Schools, 2015), whereas charters only guarantee transportation to in-district students (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2015).

RSCO transportation zone map (Source: Regional School Choice Office)
RSCO transportation zone map (Source: Regional School Choice Office)

This theme is evident in the field notes. IF, at an open house, noted that the rep discussed “how they provide transportation regardless of location.” Additionally, a magnet school student SS and JC spoke to at the RSCO fair “volunteered the information that buses are free.” AL and SG, also at the fair, described an area solely for providing information about transportation for families interested in magnets in the Hartford area. Thus, Hartford magnets are not trying to exclude students based on their location as charters may; instead, they are accommodating students from the city and surrounding suburbs. The wider transportation services offered to students attending magnet schools allow them to attract students from different backgrounds in order to uphold the Sheff standards, which charters are not held to.

Although these schools may be trying to accommodate far students, location will always play a role in enrollment. Students may opt out of a free but long commute to a magnet in favor of a quick commute to a neighborhood school. This location approach is not necessarily mal-intentioned, though, as charter schools in Hartford are locating themselves in areas of high need, likely not intentionally excluding certain students.


In “mad men,” Welner argues that charters shape their school’s demographics using advertising and images. Hartford magnets appear to be emphasizing diversity in their advertising to encourage students of different races to feel comfortable applying, and not simply targeting or deterring students of a certain race. AM noted that the students who represented the magnet school he visited were of different races, and the school played a video featuring “an anecdote about a white girl and a black girl who became good friends through school,” and a teacher explaining, “not one of my students look alike.”

Source: Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy

Additionally, AG and RU observed an elementary magnet distribute brochures in English and Spanish, and EK, at the RSCO fair, noted that school representatives of magnets sometimes spoke in Spanish to families. The RSCO catalog, which provides information about Hartford’s magnet schools, is also available online in English and Spanish.

LS, at the RSCO fair, “noticed that the presenter’s spiel was different based on who came over to the booth.” He observed that when a black, seemingly lower class family came over, transportation was extensively focused on, while when a white family came, the rep skipped the transportation portion of his spiel and instead focused more on curriculum. Magnets do not appear to be targeting specific students only, but tailoring their advertisements to fit the needs of each student, again likely to adhere to the Sheff standards.

Application and Enrollment Requirements 

Magnets also do not readily place conditions on applications, enrollment, or use “illegal or dicey practices,” as charters may.  In Hartford, each charter requires its own application, while RSCO manages a single application for all magnets. Though long, the application only asks for basic information and rankings of open choice or magnet programs. Jumoke Academy, a charter school, requires five student essays on top of similar information, and Explorations Charter School requires two essays. Odyssey Community School, another charter, requires interested students to attend an open house. Requiring essays and attendance at events weeds out unmotivated families with likely lower-achieving kids, and lower-income working parents who cannot attend open houses and help their child write five essays. No such essays or visits, or even auditions, are required to apply to any magnet schools. Hartford magnets clearly do not make as much use of the “hooping it up” strategy as charters.

Magnets also do not use the “illegal and dicey practices” approach, in which some charters ask for Social Security cards or birth certificates, even though these cannot be required by law. Nowhere on the RSCO application was there a request for social security numbers or birth certificates, but there was also no evidence for this in any available charter applications.

Magnets also do not employ the “send us your best” strategy, in which conditions like needing a certain GPA or prerequisites are placed upon enrollment. Although few charter applications could be accessed, Explorations Charter School did employ this tactic, by requiring that students entering the high school not as freshmen already have certain number of credits. Once enrolled, students must pass 80% of their courses and be present 90% of the time. Again, although little data is available, Hartford charters appear use this approach more than magnets.

Steering Away

Magnets also do not seem to employ the “bum steer,” in which charters may steer away less desirable students. Instead of steering students away, magnets emphasize finding the right fit. IF explained that one magnet “offers a program in which a prospective and/or accepted student can shadow a current student because the school only wants students who want to be there.” EK, at the RSCO fair, observed, “several schools also encouraged parents to have their child experience a day at their school and decide for himself/herself if it would be a good fit.” Rather than the school representatives themselves steering away students who may not be the best match, they encourage students to make this “fit” judgment themselves. Thus, the magnets are getting the students who are a good fit for the school without using a manipulative approach.

What Approaches Do Magnet Schools Use? 

Not in Service

While magnets do not appear to outwardly steer high-needs students away, they do use the “not in service” approach by simply not readily providing services for a group of higher-needs students. AM, at a magnet open house, explained, “these special arts programs received a lot of airtime when things like special education and ELL programs were skimmed over.” While state law requires schools enrolling more than twenty English language learners (ELL) to offer a school-wide bilingual education program, there is no requirement that choice schools offer such a program if ELL enrollment is under this threshold (Cotto & Feder, 2014). The school’s failure to mention any services for ELL students was possibly an attempt to discourage these students from applying, saving the school from bearing the financial burden of implementing these services. ELL students in Hartford are less likely to attend choice schools than local public schools (Cotto & Feder, 2014), perhaps due to this tactic.  However, magnet schools did make efforts to cater to ELL students by advertising in Spanish.

ELL students are the most underrepresented in charter schools, followed by magnet schools. (Source: Cotto & Feder, 2014)
ELL students are the most underrepresented in charter schools, followed by magnet schools. (Source: Cotto & Feder, 2014)
In Hartford, there is the smallest percentage of ELL students in charter schools, followed by magnet schools. (Source: Cotto & Feder, 2014)
In Hartford, there is the smallest percentage of ELL students in charter schools, followed by magnet schools. (Source: Cotto & Feder, 2014)


Magnets also appear to use the “discipline and punish” tactic, involving harsh discipline regimes leading to high expulsion rates. While data was unavailable for expulsion rates by school type, a CT Mirror feature compares disciplinary incidents at a given school to the statewide average. Data for the available Hartford magnet schools was perplexing; many schools reported zero disciplinary incidents in 2012-2013, however, even more reported numbers higher than the state average, most frequently school policy violations. This could either indicate great variation in school policies and disciplinary strategies between Hartford magnets, or some magnets not reporting this information. Many charters with accessible data were also above the state average, again with the majority being for policy violations. While the data does not indicate if these incidents led to expulsions, the high numbers suggest that some of Hartford’s choice schools may employ harsh discipline regimes, perhaps in an attempt to remove disruptive students, as Welner suggested.

CT Mirror data for the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy, with the highest number of disciplinary incidents of all Hartford magnet schools for which data was available.
CT Mirror data for the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy, with the highest number of disciplinary incidents of all Hartford magnet schools for which data was available.

Magnet Themes 

Welner explains that charters decide early on what types of students to cater to when determining what niche the school is designed to fill, such as focusing on rigorous academics or special needs students. Magnets expand on this approach with their special curricular themes. Hartford magnet themes include arts and humanities, STEM, college prep, vocational, and character education. These themes, intended to attract students, may actually attract certain students while repelling others.

STEM schools, for instance, may attract more higher-income, well-educated families who understand the importance of such curriculum. LS, observing a STEM magnet booth at the RSCO fair, described how an Asian mother from an affluent suburb had already researched the school, and asked the representative about specific opportunities and “what the school would offer her son.” In contrast, a black mother from Hartford asked more general and “practical questions, including after school care options and transportation.” Although both expressed interest in the school, the socioeconomic difference may explain this difference in questions, and the Hartford mother’s focus on after-school care and transportation suggests that practicality, not special programs, is most important to her family. While the curricular theme may be the selling point for an affluent family, lower-income families may have to settle for a more convenient school. AL and SG, at the RSCO fair, also commented, “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.” Magnet schools serve the lowest percentage of free and reduced lunch eligible students in Hartford (Cotto & Feder, 2014).  Whether or not this holds true for STEM schools, the specialized themes may partly explain why the least low-income students enroll in magnet schools.

Hartford magnet schools enroll the lowest percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price meals. (Source: Cotto & Feder, 2014)
Hartford magnet schools enroll the lowest percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price meals. (Source: Cotto & Feder, 2014)

Magnets also influence enrollment by not offering particular themes. For instance, there are no Hartford magnets with a dual language theme, which also may explain the lower ELL enrollment in Hartford magnets than local public schools (Cotto & Feder, 2014). Perhaps magnets would attract a wider population if they expanded the breadth of their themes.

Availability of Information 

Another bias in choice schools Welner did not account for is the availability of information about the schools. Information can often be found online, however, not every family in Hartford owns a computer, or knows how to use one, creating a bias against low-income or illiterate parents, also likely biasing against lower achieving children. Valuable information is also gathered from attending open houses and school fairs that some parents cannot easily attend. HH, at the RSCO fair, noted “some parents expressed concern that they may not be able to make it to the specific info sessions offered by some schools due to the fact that those sessions are normally offered during weekdays.”  Working, lower-income parents likely have less flexible hours, or are unable to afford childcare, and cannot attend open houses to get the important information. Although this likely impacts student enrollment, this is probably unintentional, and thus more “accidental” than “dirty” in biasing access to choice schools.

Approaches with Limited Data 

Welner discusses additional approaches, however limited data for these is available. Such strategies include “flunk or leave”, in which school officials threaten to hold the student back a grade if they remain in the school, “the fitness test,” in which parents of less successful students are counseled to consider alternative options, and “going mobile (or not),” in which charters decide whether or not to backfill the students they lose, either during the year or for higher grades. Future research is needed to determine if these apply to Hartford magnets.


Many of these approaches mentioned in “The Dirty Dozen” that charter schools may use seem to be less readily employed by Hartford magnet schools. Magnets do not appear to use Welner’s tactics of location, advertising, conditions placed on application and enrollment, dicey practices, or the bum steer in the same way as charters. However, magnets do seem to use Welner’s not in service, discipline and punish, and niche approaches, and their own approaches of theme and information available. Magnets seem to be well intentioned and trying to create a diverse student body catering to different types of families and students rather than purposely trying to exclude certain students. However, the attempts do not always accomplish this inclusiveness, and some factors may unintentionally leave some students behind. While magnets may advertise in Spanish, for instance, they still enroll a smaller ELL population than the neighborhood schools. This indicates that magnets do not intend to exclude this population, but other factors play a role. If choice schools wish to prevent these “accidental” factors that make certain students less likely to enroll from occurring, these populations must be identified so that choice schools can better recruit these students.


Attend and Apply (2015). Explorations Charter School. Retrieved from

Charter School Questions and Answers. (2015).Connecticut State Department of Education. Retrieved from

Cotto, R. & Feder, K. (2014). Choice Watch: Diversity and Access in Connecticut’s School Choice Programs. CT Voices for Children. Retrieved from

Dougherty, J., Zannoni, D., Block, M., & Spirou, S. (2014). Who Chooses in Hartford? Report 1: Statistical analysis of Regional School Choice Office applicants and non-applicants among Hartford resident HPS students in grades 3-7, Spring 2012. Trinity College Digital Repository. Retrieved from

Dougherty, J. (2015). A Vocabulary for Understanding School Choice in Connecticut. Presentation for CSPL 341: Innovation in Education- Choice Seminar.

How to Apply (2015). Odyssey Community School. Retrieved from

Explorations Charter School Application (2015). Retrieved from

IF, SS, JC, AL, SG, AM, EK, LS, HH, AG, RU (2015). Class Field Notes.

Jumoke Academy Application (2015). Retrieved from

RSCO Catalog (English). (2015). The Regional School Office. Retrieved from

RSCO Catalog (Spanish). (2015). The Regional School Office. Retrieved from

RSCO Lottery Application (2015). The Regional School Choice Office. Retrieved from

The RSCO Transportation Zone. (2015). The Regional School Choice Office. Retrieved from

Transportation. (2015). CREC Schools. Retrieved from

Video. (2015). Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy. Retrieved from

Welner, K. G. (2013). The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment. Teachers College Record. [online],

Your School (2015). The CT Mirror. Retrieved from





Reduced Isolation: An Examination of Integration in Magnet and Charter Schools

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According to the Connecticut State Department of Education, both magnet and charter schools were founded on the basis of creating environments designed to “reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation.” However, of the two, only magnet schools are actually required to maintain a racial balance with the legislation passed in the Sheff vs. O’Neill case, whereas it is merely a suggestion for charter schools. In our essay, we look to past school enrollment data to reveal the importance of having this defined standard of reduced isolation, and how the presence of this guideline is more effective at integrating schools when strictly employed as in magnet schools than when simply encouraged as in charters. What is the big deal about having racial, ethnic, and economic integration in school populations anyways? The importance of integrated environments is highlighted by indisputable data regarding the higher academic achievement and increased social awareness of minority students educated in diverse environments. Integration not only leads to a “dramatic decrease in discriminatory attitudes and prejudices,” 1 but also it is crucial because “children from socioeconomically deprived families do better academically when they are integrated with children of higher socioeconomic status and better-educated families” 2. Looking at recent school enrollment data, we have found that a larger number of magnet schools have integrated student bodies than do charters, even with the 2013 revision of the definition of Sheff’s “reduced isolation.” Should charters be held to a similar, strictly defined standard for creating environments of reduced isolation as magnets are held to Sheff, we strongly believe that they too can have more integrated student bodies.

Magnets Versus Charters

Magnet schools are public schools that operate under “a local or regional school district, a regional educational service center, or a cooperative arrangement involving two or more districts” 3. Magnets have two main goals: to reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation and to offer curricula that encourage and support educational improvement and achievement 4. The magnet schools we have chosen to focus on in this essay are those that participate in the Sheff integration settlements and specifically abide by the clearly defined standards for environments of reduced isolation. Because schools were not effectively desegregating and thus perpetuating unequal education opportunities, Elizabeth Horton Sheff and several other families filed a lawsuit in 1989 against the governor at the time, William O’Neill, demanding the end of isolated school environments. The plaintiffs succeeded after a long trial process, leading to a series of legal settlements and remedies aimed at increasing integration 5. In 2003, the first Sheff Stipulation and Proposed Order went into effect to rectify the Hartford schools’ violation of the Connecticut Constitutional order to reduce the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic isolation 6. Remedies to the Sheff legislation proposed benchmarks to enhance incentives and promote reduced isolation. If magnet schools fail to meet these guidelines, they risk losing grant funding 7. In 2008, the order required that magnets enroll between 25% and 75% minority students, defined as non-white students 8. In 2013, the range remained the same, but the definition of minority changed to only Black and Hispanic students 9. In 2013, Sheff included a section calling for the enrollment of at least 44% Hartford-resident minorities in any school participating in Sheff’s reduced-isolation goals 10. Most recently, Sheff has increased that requirement to 47.5% 11. Together these two clearly defined and measurable standards function to increase integration, achieving the primary goal of magnet schools.

Charter schools, on the other hand, are public schools “that operate independently of local and regional boards of education” with a goal “to reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation” 12. With this idea at the forefront, charters establish their own methods and standards for achieving their goals. Charters abide by the Connecticut State Statute, which is riddled with vague language allowing charters to function with flexible accountability. This raises concerns for the incentives of charters and their goal of fostering diverse environments. When approving a charter, the “State Board of Education shall consider the effect of the proposed charter school on the reduction of racial, ethnic and economic isolation in the region in which it is to be located” 13. Merely “considering” something is meaningless – the legislation does not hold charters accountable to any kind of consequence if they do not successfully reduce isolation. Charters can be placed on probation if they fail to “achieve measurable progress in reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolation” 14. The question here is: what qualifies as measurable progress when there is no quantifiable value provided? Much like “considering,” “measurable progress” provides no substantial meaning because it is a subjective term, whereby charters decide on their own ratio of minority to non-minority students. They are then held only to their own personal standard for reduced isolation. While the State “may deny an application for the renewal of a charter,” they are not required to do so, thus charters will not necessarily be punished for a failure to comply with state regulations 15. The issue with this type of language is that while the statute does require charters to actively work towards integration, it provides no specific boundaries or definite consequences on which to hold them accountable.

The Sheff Standard: Old and New

In an attempt to reduce racially isolated schools, Sheff settlements outline requirements for schools to be considered desegregated. In 2008, Sheff categorized reduced isolation as schools whose minority percentage fell between 25%-75% of total enrollment 16. Minority was defined as non-white students, including Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, and Pacific Islander. Under this standard, about a third of magnets failed to comply. While it is much more common for schools to fail meeting reduced isolation standards because of an over enrollment of minority students, two of these noncompliant magnet schools faced the opposite issue – their failure to meet compliance stemmed from an overwhelming majority of white students. The frequency of hyper segregated environments of minority students can be attributed to the “niche market approach,” where schools and their administrators target low-income and minority groups to serve populations with the greatest need 17. By enrolling a larger number of minority students than of white, the schools achieve their goals of reaching more disadvantaged communities. However this approach proves to be far more detrimental to those disadvantaged students; educating them in a racially and economically segregated environment seems to do more harm than good.

Changing the Sheff definition for reduced isolation from nonwhite students to only Black and Hispanic students results in an increase of compliance within magnet schools.
Changing the Sheff definition for reduced isolation from nonwhite students to only Black and Hispanic students results in an increase of compliance within magnet schools.

In 2013 Sheff amended its reduced isolation standards to refer solely to students identifying as any part Black or Hispanic 18. Under this new definition of minority, the number of non-compliant magnets in the 2013-2014 school year was cut in half, dropping from 22 schools to 11. Had the definition remained unchanged, 18 magnet schools would have been noncompliant in 2013-2014 (compared to the 11 noncompliant schools under Sheff’s 2013 standard), showing little to no significant change from past years. Furthermore, of those 18 magnets that failed to meet Sheff’s 2008 standards, 8 of them became compliant under Sheff’s revised standards in 2013 without having to alter their student enrollment.

The annual enrollment data shows a consistent increase in compliance; by holding magnets to a measurable standard of reduced isolation, schools are held accountable and given real incentives to foster integrated student bodies. When counting only Black and/or Hispanic students towards reduced isolation, 83% of the magnets (52 out of 63 schools) successfully achieved Sheff compliance, a significant increase from its original 65% of compliant schools (41 out of 63 schools) in the 2011-2012 school year, using the previous definition of minority. Looking at the most recent school enrollment data for magnet schools reveals only 5 out of 45 listed schools out of compliance with Sheff standards, which further increases the percentage to 89% compliant.

Looking at recent school enrollment data, we found an increasing trend in the number of magnet schools that became compliant with Sheff standards.
Looking at recent school enrollment data, we found an increasing trend in the number of magnet schools that became compliant with Sheff standards.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that the way the word “minority” is defined has immense power in its ability to influence future demographics and enrollment standards in schools. Simply changing the definition for reduced isolation had a significant impact on whether or not magnet schools remained compliant with the racial standards set by Sheff. Under the original Sheff standard, defining “minority” as non-white, these schools would not have been in compliance. However, the updated definition of minority automatically puts these schools in compliance without any active effort to adjust racial enrollment. Thus, while an increasing number of schools were considered desegregated, the racial distribution for some schools changed minimally or not at all. A possible explanation for this might be that the Sheff settlements were attempting to reach students most in need of reduced isolation environments. By altering the definition, Sheff’s integration policy better served its purpose to increase diversity and created more opportunities for Black and Hispanic students. Regardless, a significant portion of these newly compliant schools did in fact make an active effort to reduce isolation, reinforcing the idea that this imposed standard of compliance encourages magnet schools to diversify and become compliant with Sheff standards.

What If?: Applying Sheff to Charters

In his original proposal for charters, Albert Shanker emphasized the necessity of reduced isolation environments for promoting social cohesion and high achievement. However, as more states adopted charter school legislation, there emerged an unexpected divergence from integration. Charter advocates and administrators chose instead to cater to niche markets and target immigrant populations as a way to “promote intercultural competence” and serve students “who are demonstrably in need of better schools” 19. Despite veering from Shanker’s original plan, charters still hold integration as one of their main goals. The Sheff reduced isolation standard is currently only exercised by magnets, which is not out of exclusivity within the legislation, but rather because other types of schools have chosen not to participate. In the Sheff legislation, the state agreed to incorporate a variety of programs, some of which include “charter school initiatives, state technical high schools and vocational agriculture programs, and other new and progressive initiatives,” that could, if they chose, be considered a part of the reduced isolation goal 20. Participating in this goal would allow the state to count the school in their total number of integrated schools, as well as make the school eligible for funding. Given that charters were designed to promote diversity, the Sheff standard of integration appears to directly align with their mission. However, charters have yet to act in accordance with the Sheff legislation; instead, they follow their own, more lenient integration guidelines as previously discussed.

Using the most up-to-date data available for the enrollment levels of both magnets and charters, this bar graph shows how many more magnet schools are racially integrated than charters.
Using the most up-to-date data available for the enrollment levels of both magnets and charters, this bar graph shows how many more magnet schools are racially integrated than charters.

Without a concrete and measurable unit for integration, charters can often neglect entirely this goal of diversity within their student enrollment. A lack in standard also creates more difficulty in determining which charters are succeeding or failing to create diverse and integrated environments. In order to test how integrated Connecticut charter schools were, we applied the new Sheff reduced isolation standard to charter schools from the 2013-2014 school year. We found that only 28% (5 out of 18) would be compliant with reduced isolation, compared to the 89% of magnets currently in compliance. While the change in Sheff’s definition of reduced isolation functioned to increase integration in magnets, applying this new standard to charters results in a decrease of compliant schools from 15 to 13. This reverse effect demonstrates that charters are failing to create opportunities for Black and Hispanic students who are in most need of integrated environments. Based on this disparity, we would argue that magnets are far more successful than are charters in creating environments of reduced isolation, a difference that is rooted in the strictly defined integration standard that magnets, but not charters, are held accountable to.

Changing the Sheff reduced isolation definition from nonwhite students to only Black and Hispanic students results in a decrease of compliance in charter schools.
Changing the Sheff reduced isolation definition from nonwhite students to only Black and Hispanic students results in a decrease of compliance in charter schools.

So why, then, do charters not adopt the Sheff standards? When our seminar spoke with the authors of A Smarter Charter, Kahlenberg and Potter explained that such a set standard was not in the nature of charters. Placing specific criteria or regulations on charters goes against Albert Shanker’s initial vision of charters as laboratory schools. For Shanker, charter schools were to function as experiments with varying approaches and curricula to discover what works best for all students 21. Charters do not want to hinder or bind themselves by requiring a standard for racial balance and integration because perhaps it is not the best way to educate its students. An education system built on freedom of exploration strives to hold on to that independence and self-governance. But while they exercise their freedom, charters fail to produce the rich and diverse environments Shanker had hoped would come naturally. It is this kind of integrated environment that promotes the highest achievement for students of low-income or minority backgrounds, one that magnets are required to ascribe to and charters are not. If charters were held to a similar standard as are magnets, it would increase their incentive and strengthen their dedication to create more diverse and integrated school environments.


  1. Kahlenberg, R. D., & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teachers College Press. p. 55
  2. Ibid 9.
  3.  Cotto, R. & Feder, K. (2014). Choice Watch: Diversity and Access in Connecticut’s School Choice Programs. Connecticut Voices for Children. New Haven, CT. p. 6
  4. Ibid 6.
  5. Sheff v. O’Neill, 238 Conn. 1 – Conn:Supreme Court 1996.
  6. Sheff v O’Neill. “Stipulation and Proposed Order [Remedy Phase III].” Superior Court: Complex Litigation Docket at Hartford, CT, HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S, December 13, 2013. p. 1
  7. Cotto, R. & Feder, K. (2014). Choice Watch: Diversity and Access in Connecticut’s School Choice Programs. Connecticut Voices for Children. New Haven, CT. p. 6
  8. Sheff v O’Neill. “Stipulation and Proposed Order [Remedy Phase II].” Superior Court: Complex Litigation Docket at Hartford, CT, HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S, April 4, 2008. p. 3.
  9. Sheff v O’Neill. “Stipulation and Proposed Order [Remedy Phase III].” Superior Court: Complex Litigation Docket at Hartford, CT, HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S, December 13, 2013. p. 5
  10. Ibid 5.
  11. Sheff v O’Neill. “Stipulation and Proposed Order [Remedy Phase IV].” Superior Court: Complex Litigation Docket at Hartford, CT, HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S, February 23, 2015. p. 2
  12. Cotto, R. & Feder, K. (2014). Choice Watch: Diversity and Access in Connecticut’s School Choice Programs. Connecticut Voices for Children. New Haven, CT. p. 6
  13. General Statutes of Connecticut (2015). Chapter 164 – Educational Opportunities, Section 10-66bb,
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Sheff v O’Neill. “Stipulation and Proposed Order [Remedy Phase II].” Superior Court: Complex Litigation Docket at Hartford, CT, HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S, April 4, 2008. p. 3
  17. Kahlenberg, R. D., & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teachers College Press. p. 18
  18. Sheff v O’Neill. “Stipulation and Proposed Order [Remedy Phase III].” Superior Court: Complex Litigation Docket at Hartford, CT, HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S, December 13, 2013. p. 5.
  19. Kahlenberg, R. D., & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teachers College Press. p. 18-19.
  20. Sheff v O’Neill. “Stipulation and Proposed Order [Remedy Phase III].” Superior Court: Complex Litigation Docket at Hartford, CT, HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S, December 13, 2013. p. 2.
  21. Kahlenberg, R. D., & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teachers College Press. p. 7.

Examining the Relationship between Communities of Hartford Choice Schools and Discussion of Student Demographics

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As both charter and interdistrict magnet schools seek to transcend the traditional attendance zones and urban-suburban lines, they unavoidably produce shifts in the types of communities formed within school buildings and within the broader surroundings. Many charter schools have been highly criticized for the lottery, the convoluted application processes and other creaming tactics that recruit and maintain a high-achieving, highly motivated and often hyper-segregated student body (e.g., Welner, 2013). Specifically in the Hartford metropolitan area, a study of parental perception of interdistrict magnet schools detected a prevalent sentiment that choice schools create local community divisions due to the competitive nature of the lottery (Debs, 2015). The present investigation examines how several interdistrict magnet schools and one charter school in the Hartford area portray their school communities and elucidates if and how racial composition is communicated as a valued part of school community.

Since magnet schools by definition unite diverse families from different locations to ensure integrated student bodies, fostering an inclusive and welcoming school community would seem necessary in marketing campaigns. Conversely, many charter schools, which often prioritize closing the achievement gap, are likely to emphasize a school community that appeals to a particular targeted demographic (e.g., low income minority students). The thematic analysis of choice school mission or vision statements and field notes collected by Wesleyan University students in February 2015 from six school choice events reveal that specific types of school communities are emphasized in explicitly and subtle ways. The types of communities described include (1) a community built on diversity or a particular racial or ethnic identity, (2) a strong relationship between school and family, (3) a focus on a particular niche theme, and (4) a partnership between the school and the local surroundings. Each of these types of communities influences how racial or ethnic composition of the school is discussed.

Diversity, Identity & Community

The most intuitive type of school community expressed by school representatives would be based on the student body demographics (i.e., percentage of minority students, students who qualify for free and reduced price meals, students who are English Language Learners (ELL) or have a documented disability). Yet, seldom did the school representatives address this information directly. Observations from the Regional School Choice Office (RSCO) Fair mentioned that school representatives referenced the Sheff v. O’Neill ruling in regard to maintaining a certain racial balance at their interdistrict magnet school (HH, field notes, 2015). Other field notes from the same event reported that during the “entire hour and fifteen minutes there I did not hear the words ‘race,’ ‘Black,’ ‘White,’ ‘Latino,’ or ‘disadvantaged’ (LS, field notes, 2015).” Only the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA) was reported to have explicitly mentioned its mission to create a diverse student body through a film shown to open house attendees. The field notes reported the following:

The film talks about plurality and shows shots of children of many different races. The central thesis seems to be that Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy was the mechanism through which children from diverse racial, geographical, and socioeconomic backgrounds have been permitted to come together and meet people from other milieus. (IF)

Additionally, the mission statements from the magnet schools described in the field notes of open houses do not directly state that their schools seek to attract and educate a diverse student body (i.e., Breakthrough Magnet School, Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, CREC Academy of Aerospace Engineering Elementary School, HMTCA). These pieces of evidence suggest that, counter to the explicit intention of interdistrict magnet schools to promote racial and socioeconomic diversity, neither school representatives in school choice event settings nor their mission or vision statements were likely to describe their school community using direct language that underscores the diverse students they serve. While the legal language of the Sheff decision may be a standard explanation for school representatives, it may also alienate some parents due to a lack of prior exposure to the topic.

In contrast to a school community composed of a diverse student body, many charters, especially those that follow a “no excuses” model, have been criticized for generating student bodies that are more segregated than traditional district schools in the same jurisdiction (Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014). Data trends from 2011-12 to 2013-14 on racial  integration support this criticism (See Figure 1). 

This data is an update to the Cotto & Feder 2014 Choice Watch Report.

Cultural appeals to low income minority families by school representatives illustrate a strategic way in which charter schools develop racially or ethnically isolated communities. The school representatives at the Achievement First open house appealed to certain demographics through subtle, yet meaningful, gestures and modes of communication. For example, a school representative at the open house in Hartford provided empanadas and spoke Spanish with some Hispanic families. These efforts were described as a way to “establish the cultural/linguistic bond of identification” (CB, EK, AF field notes, 2015). While these efforts did not directly address community building, they created a welcoming community atmosphere specifically for the Hispanic parents. The Achievement First mission statement’s direct emphasis on “closing the achievement gap” and providing educational equity to historically underserved populations provides a clear impetus for directing promotional tactics at specific demographics who would most benefit from the school’s philosophy (“Our Mission and Vision,” 2015). While racial and socioeconomic integration in education has been repeatedly found to boost minority students’ academic outcomes, Achievement First’s model instead employs a rigorous academic approach targeted at a concentrated population to close the achievement gap (Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014).

Building the Bridge Between School and Family 

Instead of touting student diversity or making appeals to certain demographics, some school representatives characterized their school community using a character appeal by underscoring the collaborative and supportive student-staff culture. The Breakthrough magnet school representative at the school’s open house characterized the school community as having a “family feel” and as a “close knit school community” (NT, field notes, 2015). The field notes also reported that the school representative “used many buzzwords such as, ‘thriving,’ ‘joyful,’ ‘character,’ ‘safe,’ ‘risks,’ and ‘leadership.’” Breakthrough magnet school’s emphasis on the character of their students and staff who compose their school community echoes their mission statement’s focus on developing “students as models of outstanding character” (“A Global School for Students of Character,” 2015). What is striking about this school representative’s portrayal of the school community is that the topic of parent involvement in the creation of a collaborative school community was omitted. Conversely, the mission statement dictates that Breakthrough Magnet School seeks to form a partnership between “staff, family and community members.” Although it is unclear whether the topic of parental involvement was intentionally excluded from the school representative’s pitch to families, the omission could indicate a larger problem facing magnet schools: the difficulty of engaging families from disparate communities and backgrounds at the school.

Other magnet schools and the charter school in the field notes sample did, however, directly mention parental involvement as a core element of their school community. At the CREC Academy of Aerospace Engineering magnet school open house, the representatives specifically addressed how a parent group convenes monthly to plan activities and to fundraise (AG, RU, field notes, 2015). This comment places an emphasis on parental behavioral engagement in the school community, which may be hard for working class parents. The school representatives at the Achievement First open house emphasized a potentially more accessible way in which parents of all backgrounds can contribute to the school community. The field notes from this event reported the following:

The presenters also mentioned several times that they consider parents to be partners in the mission to get the kids to college. They said that there was a lot of communication between parents and teachers… They also had a list of expectations for parents as a slide on the PowerPoint, and this included things like the expectation that the parents get their child ready for school and wearing their uniform each day and that they ensure their child does his or her homework. (CB, EK, AF, field notes, 2015)

Source: Achievement First Website (
Quote from a principal featured on the same webpage as the mission statement. Source: Achievement First Website

This observation indicates an attitudinal and philosophical form of parental engagement that is a key element of bridging the divide between school and family. Instead of asking parents to volunteer regularly at the school or to help fundraise, the school asks that parents be mission-aligned in order for students to be best prepared for the school’s academic and behavioral demands. Additionally, this commentary prioritizes constant and transparent communication between parents and teachers. This suggests that the Achievement First family-school community operates under a reciprocal, goal-oriented and highly communicative system. As a way of further emphasizing the mission-alignment of all stakeholders in the Achievement First community, related quotes from principals and administrators appear on the webpage containing the mission statement.

Niche Communities

Source: Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts Website (
Image and explanation of the state-of-the-art performing arts facility on the same webpage as the mission statement.
Source: Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts Website

School communities formed by the coalescence of mission-aligned groups is also apparent among interdistrict magnet schools, which often develop niche communities based on specialized interests. In order for magnet schools to attract students from a wide range of socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, they typically have a special curricular focus that a traditional district school would not offer. The magnet schools Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and CREC Academy of Aerospace Engineering Elementary School provide quintessential examples of specialized school communities. The mission statement of the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts portrays its dedication to developing visual and performing artists as well as providing an “academically rigorous curriculum” (“An Artistic and Academic Immersion,” 2015). The photograph directly under the mission statement visually displays the state-of-the-art facilities to further highlight the emphasis on the arts.

While there is no explicit mention of fostering an integrated student body in the mission statement, it does state that the arts are to be learned as a “mechanism for social justice” which perhaps connotes a social consciousness of the diverse backgrounds of the students. The field notes from this school’s open house corroborate the prioritization of artistic development and the absence of discourse on diversity or the student demographics. Only in describing a promotional pamphlet did the field notes mention the school’s “desire to be a part of a diverse, multi-cultural environment” (CM, field notes, 2015). Additionally, out of approximately 150 families present at the open house, the field notes reported that only one family was African American and only one was Hispanic. This provides potential evidence that either the curricular theme was particularly appealing to a certain demographic, or the timing or location of open house was not easily accessible or welcoming to minority families.

Similarly, the CREC Academy of Aerospace Engineering Elementary School’s mission statement stresses it’s dedication to teaching rigorous and cutting edge science and technology, yet there is no explicit mention of an aim to establish a diverse student body as is legally mandated by the Sheff ruling (“Academy of Aerospace & Engineering Elementary School,” 2015). In contrast to the field notes from the open house at the Arts Academy magnet school, the field notes from this magnet school’s open house did address the issue of integration. Curiously, however, race was discussed though a proxy of geographic locations in the Hartford area, which aligns with the stipulations of Sheff. The school representative was reported stating that, “50% of the students are from Hartford and 50% are from 33 other towns” (AG, RU, field notes, 2015). The families present at the open house were also described as being more diverse and thus representative of the Hartford region. While interdistrict magnet schools are designed to establish and maintain integrated school communities, niche community-type magnet schools based are not likely to explicitly express this goal in their mission statements nor in the pitches given by school representatives at open house events.

Community Partnerships

Source: Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy Website (
Image of HMTCA students at Trinity College located on the same webpage as the vision statement.
Source: Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy Website

While the magnet schools previously mentioned portray school communities that can seem insular due to their focus on a specific theme, other choice schools establish school communities that extend into the local community. The Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy’s vision statement places a major emphasis on incentivizing community engagement, working to improve the community, and collaborating with community contributors (“Vision Statement,” 2015). The field notes from this magnet school’s open house align with this emphasis on community partnership. While the school representatives did focus on the student-teacher relationships, they also highlighted the school’s main partnership with Trinity College, located across the street (AM; IF, field notes, 2015). Photographs on the vision statement’s webpage illustrate students’ engagement with the college. Yet, when the school representative discussed extracurricular activities, the representative mainly focused on the arts and failed to explicitly mention any type of community engagement (IF, field notes, 2015). Additionally, discussion of community relations or of the school community reflecting the larger community based on identity were not acknowledged.

The mission statement and the presentation by school representatives at Achievement First also underscore a school community that extends into the larger community. However, a dichotomy between a collaborative spirit and a competitive tone emerged regarding this topic. The Achievement First mission statement highlights its goal of sharing best practices with district schools and other charter schools in order to bring about greater education reform and to close the achievement gap (“Our Mission and Vision,” 2015). In contrast to criticism of some charters for their push to replace district schools (Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014), this message emphasizes collaboration. The field notes from the Achievement Frist open house indicate that the school representatives also mentioned other district schools in the Hartford region and in the state of Connecticut. A data-driven approach was taken in which schools were compared by test scores and presented as bar charts on a PowerPoint (CB, EK, AF, field notes, 2015). This message has a competitive charge and does not acknowledge any sort of collaboration between Achievement First schools and non-Achievement First Schools. Thus, school community in this case can be conceptualized as the “in-group,” or schools and educators aligned with the Achievement First mission, juxtaposed against the “out-group,” or those who do not share practices or a common philosophy with the charter network.

The array of school communities delineated by school mission statements and by the rhetoric of school representatives shows how discussion of racial composition of choice schools can be highlighted, merely hinted at or largely avoided. When magnet school communities were described based on their student body composition, the demographics were often explained using Sheff jargon. Conversely, the Achievement First representatives targeted minority populations, reflecting their student body, through cultural appeals. When school community was characterized based on the school-family bond, a distinction emerged between behavioral and attitudinal parental involvement, the latter of which is likely more inclusive and accessible to working class, minority families. The niche communities of some magnet schools were found to emphasize their special interest in ways that overshadowed the racial composition of the school. Finally, schools that that underscored local partnerships as a focal part of their community omitted any sort of identity-based identification between the students and the local community. Instead, partnerships based on ideological alignment seem to be prioritized. Additionally, little evidence points to the communities formed on the classroom level that may reflect the larger school community. A closer examination of internal school programs (i.e., tracking, ELL or special education programs) would elucidate whether students receive a classroom experience that truly reflects the school’s marketed community.


A Global School for Students of Character. (2015, May 2). Retrieved from

Academy of Aerospace & Engineering Elementary School. (2015, May 2). Retrieved from

An Artistic and Academic Immersion. (2015, May 2). Retrieved from

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

Debs, M. (2015). Untouchable Carrots: Marketing School Choice and Realities in Hartford’s Inter-district Magnet Program. Unpublished Manuscript, Yale University, New Haven, CT.

AG, RU; AM; CB, EK, AF; CB; IF; NT. Field Notes. (2015, February).

Kahlenberg, R. D., & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Our Mission and Vision. (2015, May 2). Retrieved from

Vision Statement. (2015, May 2). Retrieved from

Welner, K. (2013). The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment. Teachers College Record. Retrieved from

Better Choice? Try Better Transportation

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In choosing a school for their child, Hartford parents must navigate a sea of information. Deducing the “best fit” school requires balancing a host of factors. Parents must look into the school’s curriculum, academic performance, and racial and economic diversity, among many other factors in order to make the best decision. Of great importance to every family is the logistical concern of transportation—how will my child get to and from school? To answer this question, parents must wade through the informational materials provided by Hartford Public Schools (HPS), the Regional School Choice Office (RSCO), and other third-party websites like SMARTERHartford to find what they need. From my research, I found this to be a tedious, time-consuming, and unforgiving process–and I’m a web-savvy undergraduate with an academic background in school choice. For the average parent, and particularly for underserved Hartford parents for whom the school choice process ought to best serve, it is nearly impossible to construct a well-rounded picture of their transportation options. One must look high and low to find the information they need to know if they are eligible for transportation, which zone they are in, when their child will be picked up and dropped off. And then—the kicker—they must rinse and repeat this cross-web search for each and every school in which they are interested.

For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on inter-district magnet schools. The lottery for these schools, run by RSCO, handles more than 20,000 applicants from both the city of Hartford and its suburbs. Because the original premise of magnet schools is to instigate racial diversity, and Hartford’s geography is riddled with racial segregation, a complex inter-district transportation system is at hand. Buses must cross “zones” and “districts” to bring individual lottery winners to their desired schools; yet, hard as this must be for transportation officials to coordinate, it is equally difficult for parents to see how their school choices will play out in the everyday reality of pick-up and drop-off.

Web-based materials are not the only way parents understand the transportation issue. Families can attend school-specific open houses or multi-school choice fairs hosted by RSCO. However, evidence in field notes taken at these events point to a wide information gap. At Breakthrough Magnet School’s open house, transportation was not discussed at all (NT, field notes, 2015). Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts’ delegate directed parents to the RSCO transportation guide in their choice pamhplet (CM, field notes, 2015). Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy simply stated that they provided transportation regardless of location, as per RSCO guidelines (IF, field notes, 2015). On the other end of the spectrum was REC Academy of Aerospace Engineering Elementary, whose representative gave detailed, grade-specific transportation information (AG and RU, field notes, 2015). The information offered varied so greatly from school to school; and yet, it was often parents’ first question asked of choice officials (LS, field notes, 2015).

Parents not only deserve better, more consistent information, but they need it to make the best school choice for their family. This decision should not be made lightly. When parents make the wrong choice, everyone suffers. A student might spend hours on a bus and have less time to devote to schoolwork or enriching extra-curricular activities. They might also be ineligible for bussing if they live “too close,” which might mean a two-mile walk each way in during a bleak and often dangerous Connecticut winter for those families who cannot provide their own transportation. If the school is unreachable to the parent, they might not be as involved in school organizations or functions as more mobile or local parents. This might result in attrition, which hurts the family and the school community.

The school choice system in Hartford is one buoyed by information. Parents are more likely to make the best choice for their family if they have all of their information laid out in front of them in an easy-to-understand format. Transportation is a big factor in making the best decision; for this reason, information pertaining to it must be available, accurate, and easily accessible to parents of all backgrounds.

What Parents See: Existing Transportation Materials

As it stands, parents rely primarily on information from HPS and RSCO, which is delivered via paper brochures and guides, school choice fairs, school open houses, and their websites. I focused on the latter for reasons of attainability.  A parent at the beginning of this process looking for transportation information would most likely begin their search at RSCO’s transportation page.

A screenshot of the Regional School Choice Office's transportation webpage.
A screenshot of the Regional School Choice Office’s transportation webpage. Source: Regional School Choice Office (

Here, they learn that RSCO is responsible for “out of district” transportation, while the student’s home “district” is responsible for intra-district bussing. A link is available to a district map where parents can see an overview of the districts. However, the map does not allow them to interact with it and actually see into which district they fall; all that is gleaned from the map is that one is probably eligible for transportation. A legalistic document is also provided. For the most part, this yields no more than definitions and in-case-of solutions.

The most useful aspect of RSCO’s transportation website is actually a link to Capitol Region Education Council’s (CREC) own transportation website. CREC is RSCO’s transportation vendor, and their website is host to information about the actual bus routes; and yet, is only really mentioned in a tiny link on RSCO’s website.

Screenshot of CREC Bus Routes
A screenshot of CREC’s bus route document. Here, an outline of each school’s bus routes is provided. Source: Capital Education Council (

However, even this is problematic. Are parents supposed to piece together the bare-bones routes provided by CREC for each school in which they are interested? Even if this were a somewhat feasible task, the data is not easily adaptable in a PDF format. A spreadsheet would be more helpful because it would allow the route data to be transformed into a route map or processed by some other technological device. If someone were to need this data, they would have to transfer it by hand, a tedious, time-consuming process.

A parent might then turn to HPS’s transportation website, where information about “neighborhood” schools can be found. Though the focus here is on inter-district magnet schools, it is important to note that the two systems run together. HPS renders certain students ineligible for transportation if they live too close to their desired school.

By grade level, the thresholds read:

  • K-1: 0.5 mi away from school
  • 2-5: 1.0 mi
  • 6-8: 1.5 mi
  • 9-12: 2.0 mi

If a sixth grader lives 1.4 miles away from their desired school, they are ineligible for transportation. It is not obvious whether this radius measured in straight-line distance or driving/walking distance. If straight-line, this would result in artificially longer travel distances for students. The website is unclear about how this threshold is measured, an ambiguity that is quite problematic.

Again, the spotlight of this essay remains intentionally centered on inter-district magnet school transportation. The individual district provides intra-district magnet transportation; to compile this data would require analyzing all forty-three districts’ bus routes and guidelines. This task is not feasible for me—but we should take note that the complexity of the transportation issue is, in itself, absurdly problematic.

Like RSCO, the highlight of HPS’s website is a link to a third-party site: SMARTERHartford. Here, parents enter their home address and student’s grade level to receive a personalized map of public school. The pins on the map are color-coded to signify district, magnet/open choice, charter and technical schools. A star icon shows one’s home address to place it visually among the surrounding school options.

Screenshot of SMARTERHartford School Finder
A screenshot of SMARTERHartford’s school finder application. A sample address was used. Source: SMARTERHartford (


This tool is important for families to know about because it is the only tool, to my knowledge, that personalizes the unending mass of school data to each family. Though transportation data is not a part of this tool, families are able to visualize all of their choices as they relate to their location—which is immensely helpful for parents at any point in their search. Families could use this application to do an initial sweep of schools, perhaps limiting their options to schools within a certain radius of their home. This is doable by sorting the list below the map by “distance” (click on the header).

However, this tool is not as thorough or informative as it could be regarding to transportation. Again, we run into the problem of straight-line distance measurement. Of greater concern is that their transportation information is merely links to RSCO and/or HPS, which we have already established to be less-than-helpful. Though this tool customizes the dauntingly large ocean of information school choice providers allow parents, it is only a start. The next step is to combine all of the available transportation data into a single, dynamic, easy-to-use tool.

 What Parents Need: A Better Tool

Parents need to have all of their transportation options presented to them in such a way that will help them draw meaningful conclusions about their school choices. Without information about day-to-day bus routes, transportation eligibility, and the school’s driving/walking distance from home or work, families cannot paint an adequate picture of their school options, and therefore are not likely to make the decision most representative of their needs. The next step in providing this data, then, is to design a tool that is comprehensive, accurate, and accessible.

The fastest and simplest answer to this problem is to improve upon the application already available from SMARTERHartford. Though this tool only currently offers rudimentary transportation information, it can be combined with other available information to be more helpful to families trying to understand their transportation options. An obvious but important improvement would be to add CREC’s bus routes to the map. After parents type in their address and see a visual of the schools surrounding their home location, information about bus pick up/drop off, bus ride length, and bus stop location could be provided. The tool could also show ineligibility for transportation to particular schools (i.e. if the school is too close to home).

Personalized transportation information could be added.
Personalized transportation information could be added.

If one clicks “See bus route,” a personalized, interactive bus route would appear and might look like this:


This web-based visual model is the most satisfactory solution for a variety of reasons. Because it is hosted on the web, families can input their own personal information, like home address and child’s grade level, and see immediate results that are specific to their own situations. This connects the impersonal, difficult-to-understand, jargon-heavy materials dispersed by the district and RSCO to families who would otherwise have a hard time understanding their options. It also allows for changes in information and policy to be easily implemented. Rather than reprinting paper brochures and other documents, transportation authorities could instantly update the tool to reflect changes in bus routes, school addresses, boundaries, and so forth. Finally, an ideal function of the tool would be a bus tracking application for current parents. Families could see, in real time, the whereabouts of their respective bus. This would be helpful for families who have far away bus stops—particularly in the cold, so that students are not standing in the dangerous Connecticut winter weather for too long. However, for the purposes of school choice, this addition is not necessary.

However, certain consequences inherent to the Internet are not to be ignored. Though the web is available to many, it is not accessible to all. Those without computers or devices with Internet capabilities would have a more challenging time using this tool. A way to mitigate this issue would be to have computers available at school choice fairs. Families could navigate the application there, with school choice counselors on site to help those who are not as comfortable with this technology. Though this might help to solve this problem, it is not a complete solution and should be considered and addressed with sensitivity.

Ultimately, a tool like this is significant progress in filling the holes left by existing school choice materials. In centralizing all of the information, parents are no longer forced to master the information of several websites and pamphlets; instead, this tool could be a one-stop application. Enabling parents to enter in their personal information allows them to see how each of their school options play into their daily lives. Because this sort of information is more understandable to families, a positive change in the school choice process is expected. Parents will be more informed and ultimately more comfortable with their choice—which will, in turn, inspire intentional and engaged school communities.



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Guidelines for the Sheff Regional Transportation System (2015, May 1).

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NT; CM; IF; AG and RU; LS. Field Notes. (2015, February).

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School Finder. (2015, May 1). Retrieved from