Hartford: the Poster Child for Portfolio-Based School Reform

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Setting the stage—an overview of The Hartford Public Schools (HPS) reform:

Urban education is in a state of crisis and reform efforts must be reevaluated in order to properly address and confront the systemic issues that plague urban school districts. The educational reform movement in Hartford, Connecticut has seen differences in leadership over the last 13 years. With three different superintendents, room for variance in approach is wide. Anthony Amato’s strategy to pull Hartford Public Schools out of the mud involved a strict and regimented curriculum overhaul that is starkly different from those of Steven Adamowski and current Superintendent Christina Kishimoto. Recently, Hartford has adopted a portfolio-based school reform. What is portfolio reform and is it working to lift urban education in Hartford? A crux of this reform model is the notion that we must not strive to create a great school system but we must instead move forward to create a system of excellent schools. Portfolio-based reform is a viable strategy for Hartford given its disheartening record of student test results sinking far below state and national averages. Both local and national advocates alike proclaim that HPS is the poster child for portfolio reform because of the visible and dramatic shifts in student performance, as marked by continued positive trends in student achievement.




What is portfolio-based reform anyway?

Portfolio-based school reform is a model that guarantees continuous improvement in academic achievement by flipping failing district schools, leaving nothing behind but the physical bedrock foundation of the school itself. Founded and backed by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, Hartford has recently adopted this improvement tactic and has received instant returns, classifying itself as the poster child for portfolio reform in only a few short years. Through seven key components, portfolio reform redesigns or rebuilds schools, giving total control and autonomy to each school shortly thereafter. To successfully activate CRPE’s strategy, the following seven measures must be adhered to.

1. High-level options and choices for all families

2. School autonomy

3. Student-based funding

4. Talent Management approach

5. Theme-based partnerships

6. Performance-based accountability for schools

7. Extensive public engagement

These components allow for the creation of diverse school options within Hartford’s district. In essence, the portfolio strategy is multifaceted and includes a balanced composition of several mini methods of reform. This unique combination of strategies allows for the greatest lasting impact in educational improvement. Additionally, these facets suggest that long lasting education reform is multidimensional and continual as it evolves with the demands of the times. Static reform efforts were unable to tackle the systemic educational equity barriers prevalent among Hartford schoolchildren. These seven facets, however, serve to address the challenges and shortcomings of HPS by extending support in multiple directions. Of the seven fundamental components, listed above, only three have proven central ingredients to Hartford’s installment of portfolio reform: school choice, autonomy, and accountability.

School Choice: What is it?

School choice emerged as a result of Sheff v. O’Neill, a landmark Supreme Court case calling for regional school desegregation in the greater Hartford area, and the Hartford Public Schools’ All-Choice Initiative (Caron 12). Put simply, the choice system affords parents the opportunity to actively select which school they wish their child to attend. Much like anything else in this world, with choice comes competition. Indeed, rivalry between schools is a hallmark feature unique to the operation of this method of reform. Each school faces the intrinsic challenge of offering students a premiere education, one whose record is marked by high levels of student achievement and parent satisfaction. Perhaps it is the case that excellence is the product of fear, as schools are habitually confronted with the looming threat of losing students to higher performing schools in consequence of choice implementation (Hoxby 4). Whatever the case, the district choice design instigates school turnaround by successfully increasing the number of excellent schools.

What are its limitations?

Though an innovative remedy to Hartford’s broken school system, school choice does in fact claim a few shortcomings. In its earliest stages, nothing was in place to support parents as they navigate the complex school selection process. They were left to base their child’s placement decision on a word-of-mouth basis, inquiring within their social networks as to which local schools had the best reputations (Teske 12). Of course, answers were subjective and varied by social association. To assist parents in making informed decisions, an interactive website was created in 2008 by Jack Dougherty, a Trinity College Educational Studies Professor. SmartChoices allows parents access to a wealth of perspective school information simply by providing their home address, such as a particular school’s test goal, test gain, racial balance, and distance from home. Though not always the case, some parents used SmartChoices as a tool to select schools on the basis of race, to ensure their child was part of the majority, and location, to make travel arrangements simple (Dougherty et. Al 7). Achieve Hartford, a local education reform agency, was also quick to identify this issue and as a result, launched a choice education program for parents. Today, Achieve Hartford continues to support parents by offering one-on-one counseling and regularly facilitating workshops to ensure parents are making informed decisions and can complete applications with ease (Achieve Hartford: Parent Engagement 1).

Autonomy: What is it?

School autonomy remains at the center for portfolio reform in Hartford. Autonomy allows schools to make decisions that will best benefit their students such as who to hire, how to spend their budget and what the curriculum should look like. Because each individual school knows their particular students well, they are the body best equipped to make decisions about the allocation of resources. In order to influence student achievement, autonomy not only means freedom from a central governing body, but supplying schools with the necessary tools to do so (VCE Study Guides 1). Essentially, autonomy localizes control by empowering individual institutions to call the shots.

What are its limitations?

School autonomy empowers academic institutions to make decisions that they deem best. This instills a lot of responsibility within schools to know their student body and decide appropriate courses of actions and methods of daily operations. Not only does it instill a lot of power in a particular school, it instills a lot of power in school leaders and fully trusts their ability to make sound decisions for their schools. Autonomy implies that schools and their leaders do not have to answer to a higher authoritative power and does not include measures for the possible abuse of power and authority. Ultimately, school autonomy weakens the power of higher governing bodies and places an overwhelming onus on schools and their leaders. Essentially, there are no safeguards in place to reprimand or account for internal corruption on even the most minute scale.

Accountability: What is it?

Accountability finds promise in overall school performance and individual student achievement. It is mainly driven by test results and seeks avenues for continuous improvement depending on the nature of students’ scores. It seeks to replicate successful schools, support struggling schools and close chronically low-performing schools (CRPE: Performance-Based Accountability for Schools). Under a portfolio model, certain measures influence which schools are replicated, which are supported and which are closed. Some of these measures are standardized test scores, school climate, graduation rates and organizational health. Most notably, the portfolio model aims to drive accountability from multiple players: policy-makers, elected officials, school administrators, educators, parents, and even students. Each role is different, but each result is the same: positive outcomes stemming from responsible actions.

What are its limitations?

Accountability in schools takes multiple forms such as performance-based accountability and student-accountability. One shortcoming of this particular facet is that performance-based accountability does not absolutely account for schools that continue to miss the mark. Although schools may report reasonable test scores, it does not necessarily signify students’ college readiness, access to a successful career path, or even active role in civic engagement (Teske et al. 7). It is worth noting, however, that student accountability is enhanced by parental involvement and ability to choose the schools they attend. Local school governing agents or bodies must monitor school performance and apply accountability based on outcomes like test scores (Teske et al. 7).

Hartford’s past reform efforts and leaders:

In order to place portfolio-based reform within its current context, it is important to understand the missions, ideologies, and goals of the three most recent superintendents in Hartford.

Anthony Amato: Codified curricula

The Hartford Public School district has undergone dramatic systemic changes in the past 13 years. While the end goals of increasing student achievement indefinitely still remain, the methods that teachers have adopted and superintendants have implemented are vastly different. In 1999, Anthony Amato bravely assumed position as the superintendent of the Hartford district. Amato was inheriting quite the job; in 1998, just 13 percent of Hartford’s fourth graders reached state goal on the Connecticut Mastery Test (Archer 1). In 1999, the district improved more in both math and reading scores than it did in the previous four years combined (Archer 1). Something was obviously working, but ultimately, Amato could not implement the proper reforms to invigorate and drastically change HPS.

Not everyone was a fan of Amato’s application of codified curricula, as many teachers felt that their creativity was being jeopardized. Supplementary enrichment programs, such as Soar to Success and Early Success, pulled students with reading difficulties out of the classroom and placed them into small group discussions with their struggling peers (Archer 2). Of the numerous strategies in place, Amato’s main goal was to institute uniformity across the district. Therefore, if someone were to peer into any first grade classroom in the city at 10am, students would be reading the same story or tackling the same math problem (Archer 2). The codified method present in elementary school was also applied to middle schools; this approach was apparent in the tracking materials that teachers used to assess and monitor their students (Archer 3).

Why did regimented and strict practices make sense in Hartford? According to the 2000 Census data, 46.5 percent of children over five years old spoke a language other than English at home (United States Census Bureau 1). Undeniably, Hartford is a melting pot of different cultures and languages. Nearly one-fifth of Hartford residents were born outside of the United States and, of this subset, 66 percent were Latin American decedents (United States Census Bureau 1).

What did this mean for schools? During Amato’s reign, many students in the district were, and continue to be today, children of immigrants. For families that moved around frequently, this standardization in approach ensured that if students were to relocate within the district, and therefore attended a different district school, they would maintain on track with their new set of peers (Archer 3).

Hartford’s diverse global demographics are reflected in its district’s student body. The classroom approach must reflect the needs of the student body and that is exactly what Amato’s approach did. While it was a step in the right direction, the standardization of the curriculum did not yield the improvement in student achievement that Amato promised. Consequently, Amato left HPS after a rocky three and a half years of service. In 2006, Steven Adamowski took over the district’s school system after a three-year stint by Robert Henry, his predecessor (Gottlieb 1). He had the intention of instituting a major makeover: he aimed to shift the focus away from curricular uniformity by implementing a balanced approach to Hartford’s reform plans. 

Steven Adamowski: Balanced approach

In a presentation given at Trinity College in November of 2009, Dr. Steven Adamowski stated his vision for HPS by highlighting the difference in reform approaches between him and former superintendent Amato. In his public address, Adamowski declared, “We will take HPS from a bureaucratic, dysfunctional, low performing school system to a system of high-performing, distinctive schools of choice. The attainment of Hartford students in reading, math, science and college readiness will be reflective of the high educational outcomes of the State of Connecticut” (The Politics of Educational Reform in Hartford Public Schools 2). His vision for Hartford reform was contingent upon two principles: an all-choice system of schools and managed performance/empowerment theory of action (The Politics of Educational Reform in Hartford Public Schools 5). The all-choice system is strikingly similar to what we have come to know today as a definitive characteristic of HPS’ portfolio system. In this regard, parents were empowered to make choices from a broad array of strong inter and intra district schools. Their preferences were made simple and transparent to ensure immediate change. Adamowski’s empowerment theory of action also hinted at ideas prominent in Hartford’s current state of portfolio reform since the district defined its relationship with each school based on its performance under his reign. Additionally, autonomy increased for higher performing schools, which forced chronically low-performing schools to either redesign or close (The Politics of Educational Reform in Hartford Public Schools 4). Ultimately, Adamowski worked with a sense of urgency that was that methodical, reasonable and effective but even still, it was not enough to completely revive Hartford schools.

Christina Kishimoto: Portfolio-based reform

Christina Kishimoto came to power on July 1, 2011, as superintendent of HPS. She immediately adopted a system of portfolio-based reform, casting Hartford’s mended education system in the national limelight. Essentially, the main difference between Amato’s methods and Kishimoto’s strategies is the switch from curricular uniformity to curricular autonomy. Recently, Kishimoto has launched a portfolio model of reform that grants total autonomy to all schools and gives each individual institution the opportunity to run its school as it sees accordingly for its particular student body.

Why this transition?

HPS has hired different superintendents in the past with different curricular strategies in order to uplift urban education in Hartford. Therefore, it is only natural and within reason that there have been shifts in ideology from Amato to Adamowski to Kishimoto. Amato cited a curricular uniformity approach that attempted to increase student achievement by regimenting the curriculum across the entire city. There was little room for teacher and curricular creativity. Adamowski began to broaden the curriculum yet still maintained loyal to a finite list of reforms and regulations. His balanced approach attempted to implement change in HPS without the shock and upheaval that Amato adopted. Kishimoto currently utilizes a portfolio-based reform model that has inverted elements of Amato’s strategies which empowers all schools with the choice to run their schools how they best see fit. Under Kishimoto, Hartford’s goal is not to create a great school system but rather form a system of excellent schools.

What evidence supports that Hartford’s portfolio reform is in fact working?

Portfolio-based reform is a viable option for HPS because it enhances and replicates what is working and does away with what is not. In order to fully understand progress, it is helpful to break portfolio-based reform into three specific school models: redesign, magnets and new schools (see details in blue bubble below).

In analyzing data from the Achieve Hartford’s What Do the Results Tell Us Report, it becomes clear that portfolio-based reform is in fact working to provide students a quality education, as measured by improved test scores, and ultimately to close the withstanding achievement gap. Look at the graph below: redesigns, magnets, and new schools at the elementary and middle school level have demonstrated compelling progression across the board.



When comparing these gains to advances made by elementary and middle schools exempt from reform influences, as their prior performance records were sufficient enough to continue operations as usual, non-redesigns have crawled to a plateau or have made statistically insignificant gains in comparison to schools influenced by portfolio reform. This standstill is demonstrated most accurately by the individual non-redesign graph below.

When schools are being reworked and restructured, they are showing gains in student achievement. While there are certainly success stories amongst non-redesign schools, it is clear that schools that have undergone reform are improving at a faster rate.

Ultimately, the elaborate process of creating a system of great schools will only be complete when either: high achieving academic institutions supersede Hartford’s substandard schools, when Hartford’s substandard schools blow up their defective model and institute an entirely new academic arrangement conducive to superior student achievement, or when Hartford’s substandard schools are subject to closure.



“A Digital Guide to Public School Choice in the Greater Hartford Region.” SmartChoices. Trinity College, Achieve Hartford. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://smartchoices.trincoll.edu>.

Achieve Hartford! Hartford Public Schools: 2012 CMT and CAPT Scores: What Do the Results Tell Us? [Hartford, CT] 16 Aug. 2012, Annual Report ed

Adamowski, Steven. “The Politics of Educational Reform in Hartford Public Schools.” Hartford Public Schools, Nov. 2009. 30 Nov. 2012. <https://www.dropbox.com/s/l9tfum3281srn5k/Adamowski%20HPS%20Nov2009.ppt>.

Archer, Paul. “Under Amato, Hartford Schools Show Progress.” Education Week. Educational Week, 1 Mar. 2000. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2000/03/01/25hartford.h19.html>.

Caron, Joel et Al. “What Factors Are Most Influential In A Hartford Parent’s Decision To Choose A High Test Scoring School For Their Child?” Trinity College: Smart Choice Econometrix (2009) Achieve Hartford. 30 Nov. 2012.

“Choice Education Program.” Programs. Achieve Hartford. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://achievehartford.org/prog_pt.php>.

Gottlieb, Rachel. “City Schools: A Balancing Act.” Hartford Courant. 30 Oct. 2003. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://articles.courant.com/2003-10-30/news/0310300044_1_schools-anthony-amato-robert-henry-city-s-most-troubled-schools>.

“Hartford (city) QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.” Hartford (city) QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. United States Census Bureau, 2000. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/09/0937000.html>.

Hill, Paul. “Performance Management in Portfolio Districts.” CRPE (2009): Achieve Hartford. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.crpe.org/sites/default/files/pub_dscr_portfperf_aug09_0.pdf>.

Hoxby, Caroline M. “School Choice and School Productivity (or could school choice be a tide that lifts all boats?).” National Bureau of Economic Research (2002): Achieve Hartford. 

Jack Dougherty, Diane Zannoni, Maham Chowhan ’10, Courteney Coyne ’10, Benjamin Dawson ’11, Tehani Guruge ’11, and Begaeta Nukic ’11. “School Information, Parental Decisions, and the Digital Divide: The SmartChoices Project in Hartford, Connecticut.”

“Model Portfolio District.” Hartford Public Schools. CRPE. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.hartfordschools.org/index.php/about-us/model-portfolio-district>.

“School Autonomy – VCE Study Guides.” VCE Study Guides RSS. VCE English and ESL, 2011. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.vcestudyguides.com/guides/language-analysis/australian-issues-in-the-media/school-autonomy>.

Smarick, Andy. “The Disappointing but Completely Predictable Results from SIG.” Flypaper Commentary. Thomas B. Fordham Institute: Advancing Education Excellence, 19 Nov. 2012. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/2012/the-disappointing-but-completely-predictable-results-from-SIG.html>.

Teske, Paul, Jody Fitzpatrick, and Gabriel Kaplan. “Opening Doors: How Low-Income Parents Search for the Right School.” University of Washington: Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs (2007)



The Missing Link: The Connection between Housing and School Policy in the Sheff v. O’Neill Case

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The court’s decision in favor of Brown v. Board in 1954 that declared separate but equal education for black and white students unconstitutional gave African Americans hope in their fight for true equal opportunities. In a post Brown era, residents in the Hartford metropolitan area began their fight to eradicate the same educational inequalities that were fought against 35 years earlier. The original Sheff v. O’Neill complaint (1989) which was supported by both urban and suburban parents from various racial, ethnic, and economic background claimed that both Hartford minority students and their white suburban counterparts were being deprived of the best educational opportunities possible.[1] Together the plaintiffs advocated for integrated schools to achieve the equal education opportunity that is assured under Connecticut’s State Constitution.

To learn more about the Sheff case from Elizabeth Horton, a plaintiff in the case watch the video below.

When I first learned about Sheff v. O’Neill, I thought that the idea of integrating urban and suburban students in the same classroom was bizarre.  From my own educational experience at home in Chicago, I was aware of the stark differences between city and suburban schools, but I never thought that the best solution to combat the difference in education quality could be solved by integrating the two.

I recently came to the realization that in order to understand the Sheff movement, historical housing segregation must be examined. The Cities, Schools, and Suburbs seminar, brought the connection between housing and schooling to my attention. Housing discrimination has existed since the beginning of the 20th century. In the Hartford metropolitan area, housing discrimination practices such as redlining, racial steering and blockbusting have not only contributed to the racial composition of the city, but also limited opportunities for employment and quality education to the minority populations that reside in the city today. The creation of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, made housing discrimination illegal.[2] However, the creation of this law did not completely vanish housing discriminatory practices. As a result housing barriers that were once overt transformed into more subtle practices.

There are a lot of discussions surrounding the Sheff movement as the deadline to meet the second set of proposed goals approaches. With the increase in attention that the Sheff movement has received since the ruling, many people are either not aware or have lost sight of the underlying purpose of the original Sheff complaint. Housing and schooling segregation go hand in hand even though they often separated. In pursuit of eradicating the housing barriers that leave many Hartford residents disadvantaged, civil rights activists’ used school integration tactics to bring a new hope for equality and opportunities for all.

History of housing barriers in the Hartford Metropolitan Area

As you can see in the “Racial Change in the Hartford Region 1900-2010” interactive map below, Hartford was once predominately white. During the years 1910 to 1930, there was a huge shift in the demographics of Northern cities. This period known as the Great Migration was a period of mass movement for southern African Americans in search of life without the perils of Jim Crow. When African Americans began to settle in Hartford, they moved into the area that is now referred to as the North End.

Click on the map below to see an interactive change in the racial composition in the Hartford Area beginning in 1900-2010.

In the mid to late 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) instituted a housing policy known as redlining. Redlining is “the practice of denying or restricting financial services to certain neighborhood based on the racial makeup of that neighborhood” greatly affected communities where people of color lived.[3] The HLOC created maps of neighborhoods and drew colored lines ranging from green, which were deemed as the safest areas to invest while areas that had red lines drawn around them were deemed the riskiest areas to invest. The HLOC’s characterization of redlined areas included undesirable population or infiltration of them (people of color and poor people), physical characteristics such as vandalism, and low home ownership.[4]

This is an example of how a redlining map looked. Photo source: University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center- MAGIC. (2012).

Redlining was detrimental because it denied poor and people of color access to loans for home buying. More importantly, further entrenched the color line that that existed, making it easier to keep racial segregation alive.

Racial Steering and Blockbusting

After the Fair Housing Act was enacted, housing discrimination still existed in Hartford. Neighborhood improvement associations and real estate agents used more subtle tactics were very instrumental in preventing people of color from residing in certain neighborhood using two methods known as blockbusting and steering.

While looking at the two racial change maps below you will notice the increasing number of blacks in Bloomfield in the from 1960 and 1970. Furthermore, the change in the black population continued to increase in Bloomfield as seen on the map from the 1980s well into now.

Click on the map below to see an interactive change in the racial composition in Bloomfield. Start the map at the year 1950, and continue through 2010 to see how it has changed over the last 60 years.

Racial Change Map in Hartford Photo Source: University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center – MAGIC. (2012).

During this time, real estate agents use of blockbusting changed the racial makeup of Bloomfield. Blockbusting is a practice used by real estate agents to generate “white panic” or fear from white homeowners in the area by instilling fear that their property values will diminish when blacks moved into the area.[5] The white residents who were scared sold at low prices their homes to the real estate agents to get out the area before the blacks infiltrated the area. Real estate agents would then resale the homes to blacks at significantly higher prices to maximize their profit.

Real estate agents also used steering to maintain the racial make up of different areas in and around Hartford. Steering is the practice of guiding homeowners to some neighborhoods and not others based on race.[6] Steering may appear harmless because it has the potential of coming of as a friendly suggestion. Blacks who had the means to afford homes in wealthier and more predominately white towns were often steered by agents. Fair housing tests, which included two testers (often black and white) who sought after the same housing properties in the more affluent towns in the Hartford area, were used to discover if real estate agents were actually unlawfully steering clients. As reported in The Hartford Courant in 1989, the tests uncovered the dirty truth; real estate agents were more likely to question the black clients about their finances and were more hesitant to show them properties in comparison to whites.[7] These findings allowed people to see that discrimination continued to exist despite the change in the law and time.

Although blockbusting and steering were harder to prove as being discriminatory practices, they were still very detrimental to the lives of blacks. Even though blacks were not totally denied of all housing, the limits placed on them led to racial isolation, concentrated poverty, and low opportunities. There should be no surprise that these historical housing barriers continue to effect the lives of blacks in the city of Hartford as seen in Sheff movement’s continued fight today.

The Sheff Flaw

Housing and neighborhood quality has direct effects on the quality of life. Although I commend the Sheff movement’s fight for quality education, I think the amount of significant changes that can effectively be made is very limiting. I agree that changing the neighborhood district lines allows students to not be limited to the shoddy neighborhood schools that exist and provides more possibilities for opportunities. However, the real problem lies in housing. Going to school in a different neighborhood only provides temporary escape from the everyday struggles that the children face outside of school walls. If housing and neighborhood conditions don’t improve, there will still be a great number of students that continue to fall under the cracks.

As the Sheff II deadline approaches and the plaintiffs prepare for the third remedy, I challenge the Sheff proponents to reevaluate the underlying issues that lead to the need for desegregation. Even though equal housing is not declared a constitutional right, more should be done to not only put pressure on schools for meeting testing standards and racial composition percentages. Instead, the proponents should think of ways to better the Hartford neighborhoods as well. I understand that changing neighborhoods will not happen over night, but investing changes in neighborhoods and schools concurrently will serve more good than rescuing schools alone.

[1] Sheff v. O’Neill complaint (Connecticut Superior Court 1989). Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu)


2 Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, ch. 2-4.

3Jack Dougherty and colleagues, “Preview Chapter,” On The Line: How schooling, housing, and civil rights shaped Hartford and its suburbs. Web-book preview edition. Hartford, CT: Trinity College, Fall 2011, http://OnTheLine.trincoll.edu.

4 Jason Reece, et al., People, Place, and Opportunity: Mapping Communities of Opportunity in Connecticut: A Report Commissioned By the Connecticut Fair Housing Center (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, The Ohio State University, 2009), http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/connecticut-opportunity-mapping-initiative-results-and-resource-materials/.

 5 James Ross. “Realty Agents Blamed for Shift In Bloomfield’s Racial Pattern.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1986). Hartford, Conn., United States, February 24, 1974.http://search.proquest.com/hnphartfordcourant/docview/552114953/abstract/1398DDDDD694F3EA00F/1?accountid=14405.

6 Jason Reece, et al., People, Place, and Opportunity: Mapping Communities of Opportunity in Connecticut: A Report Commissioned By the Connecticut Fair Housing Center (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, The Ohio State University, 2009), http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/connecticut-opportunity-mapping-initiative-results-and-resource-materials/.

 7 Bixby, Lyn, Vada Crosby, Brant Houston, Jeffrey Williams, and Larry Williams. “Some Real Estate Agents Discriminate Against Black Home Buyers (Two Connecticuts Series).” The Hartford Courant, May 21, 1989. Temporary URL:https://www.dropbox.com/s/elny1swl6jt866q/19890521HC_HousingDiscrimination.pdf

University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center – MAGIC. (2012).Racial Change in the Hartford Region, 1900-2010. Retrieved from http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/otl/timeslider_racethematic.html.

University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center – MAGIC. (2012). Federal HOLC “Redlining” Map, Hartford area, 1937. Retrieved from http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/otl/doclink_holc.html.


School Desegregation in Hartford: Insight from a Florida Girl

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The majority of my education took place in Polk County, FL. One of the largest counties in the state, Polk County is located smack dab in the center—amid swampland and just a quick drive away from Walt Disney World. I cannot say the place I grew up was very much like the metropolitan area of Hartford. Where Hartford has crowded streets and the vibrancy of urban life, Polk County is comprised of small towns strung out along the highways with dots of orange groves and cow pastures in between.

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The map above shows the county in which I grew up.

With my rural, southern upbringing, I was quite unprepared for what I found in Hartford and surprised by both the similarities and differences. What I learned in my Educational Studies classes at Trinity College especially emphasized how alike yet diverse the two locations are—especially in the realm of school desegregation.

The more I learned about the Hartford school district, the more familiar it seemed. A definitive feature of the district is its school choice—that is, its multitude of available magnet, charter, and other alternative schools. I recognized the concept of school choice because I myself attended two charter schools, a magnet school, and a traditional public school while living and learning in Florida. I soon learned that school choice in Hartford was a product of the movement to desegregate schools in the district. As I delved deeper into the history of schooling in Polk County, I found a similar movement as well. The two movements, however, were not identical. Both movements started with concerned mothers in court cases and resulted in school choice, but they differed in their goals and what they achieved because they fought dissimilar forms of segregation.

View Larger Map

The above map is one of Hartford, the capital of the Nutmeg State.

The Similarities

Hartford School District Polk County School District
The Court Case: Sheff v. O’Neill (1989). The Court Case: Mills v. Polk County Board of Public Instruction (1978).
The Mother in Charge: Elizabeth Horton Sheff The Mother in Charge: Althea Margaret Daily Mills
The Solution: School Choice The Solution: School Choice

The table above outlines the court cases and the mothers behind the school desegregation movements for both school districts.

Hartford’s Case: Sheff v. O’Neill

The catalyst for school desegregation in Hartford was the case of Sheff v. O’Neill (1989). The original complaint was released in April of 1989 by the plaintiffs: 17 children of varied ethnicities, their parents, and lawyers. The plaintiffs noted the existence of sharp racial and socioeconomic disparities within the school systems of the greater Hartford area—disparities emphasized when comparing the city of Hartford to its surrounding suburbs. In the complaint, they argued that their children, as well as other students in Hartford, were limited to an education that was “minimally adequate”. 1 They sought to fight against the state of Connecticut so that the education of the Hartford city students could be improved. The complaint also stated that children in the suburban areas were “deprived of the opportunity to associate with, and learn from, the minority children attending school with the Hartford school district”. 2 The plaintiffs thought that by blending children of different socioeconomic statuses and races, they could improve education for all.

Click here to read the original Sheff v. O’Neill (1989) complaint.

Hartford’s Mother: Elizabeth Horton Sheff

First on the list of plaintiffs for the Sheff v. O’Neill (1989) complaint was Milo and Elizabeth Sheff. Eager to provide her 11-year-old son with a desegregated education that was equal to that of his white and suburban counterparts, Elizabeth Horton Sheff became the face of school desegregation in Hartford. She worked hard to advocate for the Sheff movement and, after, continued working within the community of Hartford with a focus on helping disenfranchised groups and support the education of Hartford students.

Watch the video above to hear Elizabeth Horton Sheff on the subject of Sheff v. O’Neill (1989). 3

Polk County’s Case: Mills v. Polk County Board of Public Instruction

The Polk County equivalent for the Sheff case was Mills v. Polk County Board of Public Instruction (1963). The 1960s was still an era of segregation in Florida and the Polk County school district, at the time, operated with in state of de jure segregation. Parents and plaintiffs of the case, upset that their children were receiving a far inferior education in their all black schools, sued the school board for allowing the schools to remain separate and unequal. Unlike the parents involved in Sheff v. O’Neill (1989), who fought the de facto segregation inherent in urban and suburban housing, the parents of Polk County were combating the legal system which assigned blacks and whites to separate schools. The case resulted in the Federal Court ordering Polk County to end its biracial school system in 1968—a major victory for Civil Rights activists in the state of Florida. 4

Click here to read the Procedural History of Mills v. Polk County Board of Public Instruction (1963).

Polk County’s Mother: Althea Margaret Daily Mills

A photo of Althea Mills Source: The News Chief

Growing up in an integrated school system, Althea Mills immediately noticed the difference when her son attended a segregated school in Winter Haven, Florida: “It was a hard time for people because the schools for the African-American children had inferior equipment… Our instructors were just as good, but some of my son’s textbooks would go to page 3 and then skip to page 35. You can’t learn like that.” 5 When it came time to enroll her son in high school, he was denied admittance to Winter Haven High without a psychological test and instead was redirected to Jewett High School. Her experience in the town of Winter Haven fueled Althea Mills’ passion for desegregation, not only in the school system, but in the county as a whole. In fact, it was Althea Mills who spearheaded the complaint against the Polk County school board. Without her efforts, the school district could have waited longer for orders of desegregation.

Click here to read more about Althea Mills and her fight against segregation.

The Difference: Segregation

At the time Elizabeth Horton Sheff was fighting for desegregation in Hartford’s school system, there was not a governmental establishment of segregation. That is to say, by 1989, the only segregation that existed was de facto. Thus, what Elizabeth Sheff was fighting was the encouragement and the continuity of separation along racial and socioeconomic lines. She was not, however, fighting against a segregation established by the laws of the county.

The story is different for Althea Mills. As she recalled, “There was segregation all over – not just in the schools, but for the movie theaters, the stores, the restaurants”. 6 After participating in a sit-in at the local counter, which was located just down the street from where I took my weekly piano lessons, her 9-year-old son was put in a juvenile home for two weeks. By filing a lawsuit against the county, Althea was challenging the entire system of segregation.

School Choice: A Solution

In considering the eventual desegregation of their school systems, leaders of both Hartford and Polk County’s school districts saw school choice as the solution to the problem, including the construction of magnet schools. Magnet schools are schools with a particular theme designed to attract students from all over the area. For Hartford, the eventual outcome was that the students, being geographically mixed, were inherently mixed racially and socioeconomically as well. In Polk County, choice schools were used to integrate students by providing learning spaces that were not traditionally “white” or traditionally “black.” Today, a considerable amount of magnet and other alternatives to the traditional school have been opened within both counties.

Click here to visit Hartford’s website on Public School Choice.

Click here for more information on Polk County’s Office of Magnet, Choice, and Charter Schools.

The Successes of Both School Desegregation Movements

Since both court cases for desegregation were filed, the school districts of Hartford and Polk County have achieved amazing things. As their struggles differed, so did their victories, and we can measure the victories of Hartford and Polk County in different ways.

Hartford's Sport and Medical Sciences Academy (a magnet school) Source: http://sportandmedicalsciences.org

A report released by the Sheff Movement reports “impressive achievement results”7 when comparing the standardized test scores of students in magnet schools as opposed to the test scores of students in a traditional Hartford public school. The report shows a greater percentage of students scoring above proficiency who attend the magnet schools. While some critics argue against the active role in which they play in the improvement of scores, many can agree that magnet schools have had a positive impact on the education of students in Hartford. Judging by the Sheff Movement’s report, it would appear that the desegregation movement of the school system of Hartford rates its success on two major factors: racial integration and improved test scores. Within the provisions of the Sheff 1 and Sheff 2 cases, a certain amount of racial mixing is required in order for the school system to be considered successfully integrated. Based on these parameters, however, the school system is falling behind. So instead, the Sheff Movement turns to test scores as the indicator for success.

Polk County's Davenport School of the Arts where I spent my 8th grade year (a choice school) Source: http://schools.polk-fl.net/dsa/

As for Polk County, it’s greatest success, perhaps, occurred in 2000 when it was granted unitary status by the federal court.8 This meant that, under the observation of the federal court, Polk County was no longer operating a segregated, or dual, school system. Here, the court decided that the county was no longer operating under the rules of segregation, and the schools were providing integration for all students. Polk County’s success differs in its focus, being that it is entirely racial. To note that the county gained unitary status suggests that it achieved its goal of racial integration.


Attending magnet schools and charter schools as a kid, I was never made aware of their significance. Ironically, only after I move away, do I discover that these alternative schools stand to symbolize equal opportunities for all people. Sure, the magnet/charter/choice system is not perfect. Critics argue that they have not made enough difference—or perhaps have not made a difference at all. But I would argue that the desegregation movements of these two districts have made great progress. We can see many similarities between the two districts as well as recognize the differences between their struggles and success. All in all, the schools within these districts have many opportunities to offer, and they are available to students of all colors.


About the Author

Richelle Benjamin Trinity College '15

Richelle Benjamin is a student at Trinity College, seeking to major in Educational Studies. She is the co-build coordinator for the college’s Habitat for Humanity chapter and is a P.R.I.D.E. leader for the first-year class—promoting respect for diversity on campus. After college, she hopes to continue working in the field of education and dealing with the issues of inequality that are present. Though she still considers herself a Florida girl, Richelle has learned a lot by studying in the city of Hartford.

  1. “Sheff V. O’Neill Complaint.” Archival Documents (1989): n. pag.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill (with video) by Candace Simpson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, July 28, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
  4. Procedural Histories of School Desegregation Suits in the Fifth Circut. N.p.: Clearing House, n.d. PDF.
  5. Godefrin, Shelly. “Mills’ Battle to Desegregate Polk County Schools Still Resonates Within Community.” newschief.com. 15 June 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Sheff Movement. “Regional Magnet Schools and Open Choice Post Impressive Achievement Results!” October 19, 2012.
  8. Documentation of Unitary Status, 100 Districts in South and Border. N.p.: n.p., 29 July 2004. PDF.

Is There Hope for Hartford? The Inclusive Zoning Policy of Montgomery County Has Had Dramatic Impacts on the Educational System

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Education is often regarded as a primary means of social mobility in the United States.  This disregards that some children have opportunities to top schools, while others do not have this advantage.  The opportunity to attend high-achieving schools depends on what kind of neighborhood a family lives in.  Most of these schools reside in affluent neighborhoods, so only children whose families can purchase expensive housing are about to attend; therefore segregating children by economic status.  By integrating low-income housing into wealthy areas, it can improve children of low-income’s opportunities for economic mobility and help stop future poverty by providing them with a higher-achieving school.  Montgomery County, Maryland has implemented integrated zoning plans that provide an example for other counties struggling with segregation in schools, such as Hartford County, Connecticut.  Communities, low-income families, and students benefit from economically integrated neighborhoods and schools.

The Study

The Century Foundation study, Housing Policy Is School Policy, conducted by Heather Schwartz of the RAND Corporation, explores the effects of two educational reform strategies implemented by Montgomery County, Maryland. To date, these strategies have exhibited encouraging results for their district public schools—results so promising that the schools are nationally acclaimed for both their academic excellence and equity in education (Schwartz 14).

One of the educational reform strategies entailed investing extra resources into approximately sixty of the district’s “most disadvantaged” elementary schools—regarded as being part of the “red zone” (the remaining 131 more “advantaged” schools are deemed as belonging to the “green zone”).  The improvements would include full-day kindergarten, a reduction in class sizes, a greater emphasis on literacy and math, and extra professional development to the teachers (Schwartz 14)

Subsidized Housing Unit – Clarksburg, MD

The other strategy implemented by the county is an “inclusionary zoning” housing policy. First employed in the mid-1970s, the policy has enabled children of low-income families in public housing to attend the more-affluent “green zone” (higher-scoring) district schools (Schwartz 15). The housing policy requires developers of large subdivisions to reserve 12 to 15% of units for less affluent families. Additionally, the public housing authority is able to buy up to one-third of the apartment units (Schwartz 15).

Heather Schwartz


The study follows the academic progress of 850 elementary school students living in public housing between 2001 and 2007 in Montgomery County.  These children came from some of the most impoverished families—the average income was $21,000—and approximately 72% of the children were African American (Schwartz 16).


The Effects of “Inclusionary Zoning” (Economic Integration)

Heather Schwartz: Click to enlarge

The graph below illustrates the average math performance of children in public housing that attended Montgomery County’s “green zone” schools from 2001 to 2007 (Schwartz 18). As made evident by the graph, after two years in the district, children in public housing performed comparably on standardized math tests despite the poverty level of the respective schools. However, by the fifth year, considerable statistical differences (p < 0.05) arose between the performance levels of the children that attended the most affluent schools and those that attended the moderate-poverty schools (Schwartz 19). Most significantly, by the seventh year, children that attended the most affluent schools performed approximately eight normal curve equivalent (NCE) points higher than children that attended the higher-poverty district schools (Schwartz 19).

The Effects of Allocating Resources to “Red Zone” Schools

As previously stated, the Montgomery County school district divided its 131 respective elementary schools into two zones—the “red zone” and the “green zone”—in 2000. Approximately one half of the district’s students attend the “red zone” elementary schools, while the other half attend the “green zone” elementary schools. During 2001 to 2007 (the years this study was conducted), the district invested greatly into improving the “red zone” schools. These improvements entailed “extend(ing) kindergarten from half- to full-day, reduce class sizes from 25 to 17 in kindergarten and first grade, provide one hundred hours of additional professional development to red zone teachers, and introduce a literacy curriculum intended to bring disadvantaged students up to level by third grade” (Schwartz 23).

Heather Schwartz: Click to enlarge

The graph to the right shows the average reading scores of the students that attend the “green zone” and “red zone” schools, and the graph in the previous section shows average math scores (Schwartz 24). As illustrated, by the end of the study, the children who attended “green zone” schools significantly outperformed their peers that attended the “red zone” schools—approximately nine points higher in math and eight points higher in reading. This is most interesting, because at the beginning of the study, both groups of students started out with relatively similar achievement levels (Schwartz 24).

 So, what have we learned here?

Montgomery county realized that in order to improve their schools, solely giving schools more funding and resources does not help.  Schools cannot have concentrated poverty within their classroom walls, because that limits their access to parental involvement, retaining prepared teachers and administrators, and ultimately giving students a reliably advantageous education.  By economically integrating housing, Montgomery county has provided an example for school districts–such  as Hartford’s– that  are attempting to improve school quality through means of desegregation.

Segregation in Connecticut

Source: Missing the Goal: A Visual Guide to Sheff v. O'Neill School Desegregation; from the Cities, Suburbs and Schools Website.

Connecticut has a large wealth disparity (the highest income per capita in the United States, but also has 3 of the 20 poorest cities in the united states). The more affluent residents in Connecticut drive up real estate costs, leaving little affordable housing for the poor (Fink).  Although 10% of housing stock must be affordable in Connecticut municipalities, only 31 out of 169 have 10% or more of their housing stock is affordable. This large percentage of areas with low amounts of affordable housing stock creates isolated pockets of extreme poverty.  With segregated neighborhoods, comes segregated schools, a problem that Montgomery county also encountered.  The schools within large areas of poverty become the lower achieving schools, and the schools with wealthy attendees are the highest achieving schools in the state.  This segregation creates a difference in opportunity that many Connecticut residents protest about.  Certain wealthy communities, such as those in the surrounding Hartford area have the resources and “pathways to opportunity” needed for an individual to succeed and achieve social mobility in modern day society, whereas others do not.  These opportunities start at age five–a child’s first day in kindergarden–and if they are placed in a high achieving school, their prospects for a better future are much higher than those children placed in low-achieving schools.  Due to this difference in opportunity, Connecticut citizens want change.  Hartford has tried many different programs to try and give its students more opportunities; however, their attempts have only been temporary solutions that merely brush the surface of the underlying problem.

Hartford’s Attempt at School Integration

Parents must search for what school they want. Source: http://smartchoices.trincoll.edu/

Hartford has tried many solutions to give students in the area more choices on where to attend school.  Future students can apply to magnet schools, charter schools, and any other public schools they would like to attend, within Hartford or in the suburbs.  Instead of integrating housing, Hartford metropolitan area decided to try and just integrate schooling, by busing children to the schools they wish to apply, and going home to their segregated communities after.  This solution is not as promising as Montgomery County’s housing integration plan for many reasons.  First, students still remain widely segregated since the demand for schools outside of Hartford’s public schools is much higher than the number of students suburban schools are willing to take, and the number of students that magnet and charter schools have space for.  This leaves many students as “losers” in this system because after applying to more integrated or better performing schools, they still remain in segregated and/or low-performing schools.  In addition to this, those students who do get into alternative school choices often have a long bus ride to their respective school.  This not only is hard for the student to bus a long way every day, but also creates a divide within the school between those students who have to bus a long way and those who can walk or take a short bus ride.  As Heather Schwartz says, “housing policy is school policy”, where poor students who attend an affluent school and live in an affluent neighborhood do better than those who just attend an affluent school.  So, although Hartford has made some attempts to integrate their schools, they are far away from their potential of a more equal school system.  This will not happen until children of different racial and economic backgrounds can not just have the possible option of going to school outside of their district, but have the definite future of attending a school with a diverse student body consisting of kids from their neighborhood.

Could Montgomery County Provide a Model for Hartford County?

According to David Rusk’s Commentary on Schwartz’ article on Montgomery, “Region-wide inclusionary zoning policies…would produce major change”.  Although creating inclusionary zoning is not an easy policy to enact, it is a clear, permanent solution for counties that wish to improve integration of their community and their schools.  In Hartford, they have gone a voluntary route in their integration efforts: children and their families can apply to the schools they want, and surrounding suburbs can choose to allow as many or as few inner-city students as they want into their schools.  This voluntary system does not solve the deeply rooted problem of segregation within the surrounding community.  Some even argue that it exacerbates this problem, arguing that typically those with more resources are the families that are more likely to apply to different schools, whereas those who do not apply are the families with less means to do so (Winterbottom).  By implementing inclusionary zoning and attempting to gentrify some of Hartford to integrate the metropolitan area will create an environment that not only integrates children in school, but out of school as well.  Schwartz highlights this out of school influence as an extremely critical part of the development of a student and their education.  This policy is the answer for Hartford’s metropolitan area; however, the actual implementation would be difficult.  Most of Hartford’s suburban towns remain under 10% for a reason–most of their residents have a “not in my backyard” prospective, routinely rejecting integration of affordable housing in their area, and even proposals to just economically integrate their some of their low-poverty schools.


Montgomery’s plan is an extensive measure to reform schools, but also very successful.  Hartford county needs a proposition to keep Hartford moving forward in its plans to integrate schools.  The programs that Hartford already implemented have helped give children more options; however, these options are a small improvement.  Montgomery provides an example of integration that areas such as Hartford should aim to strive for in the future.  Instead of dumping money and reforming poor-income heavy schools or building new schools and seeing minimal positive impact, Hartford should follow Montgomery’s steps and focus on integrating the county, and inturn integrating its schools–this would show better improvements in students.  By implementing a desegregation plan in Hartford, the city and its surrounding area would not only improve its schools, but also, having a metropolitan area that is more integrated is a positive outcome by itself.


About the Authors:

Mary Daly is a sophomore at Trinity College from Madison, Wisconsin.  She is majoring in Urban Studies and minoring in Hispanic Studies and Economics.

Amanda Gurren is a sophomore at Trinity College from Weston, Connecticut.  She is double majoring in Urban Studies and Sociology.


Works Cited:

Fink, David, Christina Rubenstein, and Amneris Torres. “Housing in CT 2010: The Latest Measures of Affordability.”Partnership for Strong Communities 1 (2010): n. pag.www.ctpartnershiphousing.org. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

David, Rusk. “‘Housing Policy is School Policy’: A Commentary.” Finding Common Ground: Coordinating Housing and Education Policy to Promote Integration 1 (2010): 21-30. Print.

Schwartz, Heather. “Housing Policy is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland.” Finding Common Ground: Coordinating Housing and Education Policy to Promote Integration 1 (2010): 15-20. Print.

Winterbottom, Nancy. “Hollowing Out City Schools: It’s Wrong to Blame Teachers and ‘Failing Schools,’ When Flight to Magnet and Charter Schools Leaves Neediest Students Behind (op-ed Essay).” Hartford Courant, March 14, 2010.

What’s Space Got to Do With it? How School Environment Influences Learning

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Learning Spaces in Magnet Schools

Outside of three Hartford Magnet Schools

Pictures of the GHAMAS, Hooker School, UHSSE Photos Taken By: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz and Pauline Lake


Visit any school for the first time and you will immediately notice the environment that you enter. Believe it or not, a school’s environment can play an important role in the school’s overall perception and in a student’s academic performance. Therefore, it is important that school space be closely examined. In Hartford, Connecticut there are three high achieving interdistrict magnet schools with Science themes. These schools are the Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker (Hooker School), the Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science (GHAMAS), and the University High School of Science and Engineering (UHSSE), which is partnered with the University of Hartford (UHart). Each of these schools manipulates their space to teach Science in vastly different ways. Thus, producing three distinct learning environments: a lecture learning environment, a social learning environment, and a hands-on learning environment.

Data Collection

We visited each of the three schools and were given a tour of GHAMAS and the Hooker School. During our visits, we took photos of empty classrooms, labs, and social spaces. In addition, we researched each school’s website.


Table 1, below, provides a summary of the information we gathered about each of the three schools. The names of each of the three schools are listed on the columns across the top of the table, while categories are listed on the rows along the left side of the table. Each of these findings are explained in greater detail throughout our web-essay. While reading our web-essay, pay particular attention to the findings on the category labeled “Types of Learning Environments.” In addition, take notice of how the other categories listed impact the different type of learning environment produced at each school.

School Descriptions

Each of the schools listed in Table 1 are magnet schools. Magnet schools are interdistrict public schools that are organized around specialized themes, which appeal to students’ interests.  Specifically, in Hartford, CT, magnet schools are a part of the Sheff Movement, a larger reform movement to desegregate public schools. In addition, the magnet schools in Hartford,CT are run by one of two school systems, either the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) or by the Hartford Public School System (HPS). Of the three schools in Table 1, two schools (Hooker School and UHSSE) are run by HPS. The third school, GHAMAS, is run by CREC. Although, the schools are run by different school systems, they are based on one common theme: Science.

The three magnet schools each have a specialized Science theme. GHAMAS and UHSSE both specialize in dual themes: GHAMAS is a Mathematics and Science school and UHSSE is a Science and Engineering school. Hooker School, on the other hand, focuses solely on Environmental Sciences. Another important distinction between the schools is the grade levels that they serve. GHAMAS and UHSSE both serve grades 9-12 while Hooker School serves PreK3-8. With Hooker School serving twice as many grades as the other two schools, it comes as no shock that the estimated total student enrollment at Hooker School is about 600 students, while at GHAMAS and UHSSE the estimated total student enrollment is about 400 students. Yet, another interesting distinction among the schools is their student demographic breakdown. Table 1 includes pie charts that indicate the demographic breakdown of two of the three schools based on data provided by the Smart Choices website. According to this data, the Hooker School and UHSSE are both fairly racially diverse schools. This is most likely due to the fact that they are both magnet schools that are a part of the Sheff Movement.

Age and Location

The Hooker School is housed in the oldest physical structure of the three schools, which was originally built in 1950 and commonly referred to as the Mary Hooker campus. The Hooker School was later renovated to expand its facility in 2009. 1 (Mary Hooker School 2010 Article) In addition, the Hooker school is surrounded by residential housing units and adjacent to the school there is an outdoor classroom teaching facility. On the other hand, GHAMAS was built completely brand new from the the ground up in 1997 as part of a bigger project known as the Learning Corridor. In fact, the decision to build the Learning Corridor was made by Trinity College’s Board of Trustees to commit $5.9 million from the College’s endowment to launch a bold $175 million neighborhood revitalization plan. 2 As a direct result GHAMAS is surrounded by three other magnet schools and located across the street from Trinity College. Similarly, UHSSE was erected from the ground up, in 2004, on the outskirts of the UHart campus. Contrary to GHAMAS, UHSSE is more isolated, and surrounded by woods. To see for yourself, use the live Google map provided below.

Click and drag on the map to move it around. Click “Sat” in the top right corner to see a Satellite view of the areas. Click the + and – to zoom in and out. Or, view Three Hartford Magnet Schools in a larger map. The red push-pin represents UHSSE, while the blue push-pin represents the Hooker School, and the green push-pin represents GHAMAS.

Analysis: Differences in Learning Spaces

Interestingly, all of the previously discussed aspects are factors that influence how learning spaces are created and utilized in each of the schools. GHAMAS, Hooker School, and UHSSE contain learning spaces that can be categorized into three types of learning environments: lecture, social, and hands-on. All three schools contain examples of each type of learning environment. However, the physical space provided by these specific schools limits the presence of certain learning environments. Therefore, each school exhibits one of the three learning environments more than the other two.

Lecture Learning Environment:

Examples of lecture learning environments. Photos taken by: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

A lecture learning environment consists of students taking notes while watching and listening to their teacher explain subject material. Most lecture learning environments include desks and/or tables that are arranged so that the students sit facing the front of the classroom. This setup encourages students to stay focused on where the teacher stands to give their talk, or lecture, on a particular topic. Generally, teachers stand at the front of the classroom near some form of a board. Because of this, we believe that interactive learning is limited in a lecture learning environment.

According to Marrais (1998), there are two types of activities that take place in learning spaces and the type of activity depends on how the space is framed. Marrais classifies one type of activity as quiet inside activity. Quiet inside activity takes place in spaces that are designed for students to do academic work with the students usually facing the front of the classroom toward the teacher. 3 Classroom layout ultimately decides what activities can take place in the classroom. Therefore, space influences learning. In the case of lecture learning environments, any learning that happens, happens through quiet inside activity.

In the Hooker School, the existence of lecture learning spaces may be connected to the larger number of students that are enrolled at the school. Having more students and serving more grade levels, Hooker School might have lecture learning for their students because lecturing may be an easier, and faster way, to get information to all of the students. A more logical reason for why Hooker School may provide lecture learning environments for its students is that every school should have some type of lecturing going on to relay knowledge from teacher to students in an organized fashion.

On the other hand, GHAMAS might provide lecture learning environments due to the fact that they have a dual theme in Math and Science. More often than not, upper level Math classes, such as algebra and calculus, are taught using a whiteboard and dry erase markers. Math classrooms are almost always set up in a lecture environment. The lecture environment is particularly important for Math classrooms because Math is taught by a teacher providing examples of Math problems on the board and then the teacher helping students individually. Lecture learning environments provide the space for a teacher to lecture at the front of the classroom. In addition, lecture learning environments often provide seating in rows, which allows teachers to navigate through the classrooms easily and assist students when needed. Thus, lecture learning environments make teaching Math convenient.

Similarly, recall that UHSSE has a dual theme of Science and Engineering. The lecture learning environments are just as important here as they are at GHAMAS. Many of the science classes at UHSSE, such as Engineering and Physics, are Math based. Just like at GHAMAS, teachers at UHSSE need spaces that they can easily navigate through and teach subject material in a lecture format.

Another important factor in the way space is created at UHSSE is their partnership with UHart. UHart is a post-secondary institution, in which lectures are the primary format of relaying information from teacher to students. UHSSE’s partnership with UHart is to help prepare UHSSE students for college. Thus, we believe that UHSSE is the school that prevails in having mostly lecture learning environments throughout the entire school building.

Social Learning Environment:

Examples of social learning spaces Photos taken by: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

Since all schools have some form of lecture learning environments, they must also have some form of social learning environments that allow students to participate in interactive learning and socializing activities. Donovan and Bransford (2005) state that “Every community, including classrooms and schools, operates with a set of norms, a culture—explicit or implicit—that influences interactions among individuals. This culture, in turn, mediates learning.” 4 Thus, in every school there are social service spaces, such as the cafeteria, to help promote a sense of community and interaction among students. In most schools, however, a space devoted to learning while socializing is frowned upon unless it is being used during one particular part of the day for the students to take a break and talk amongst themselves. With that said, each of the three schools contains a cafeteria. But, one shocking discovery in each of the schools was the presence of social learning environments, social spaces that were being used to promote interactive learning.

Picture of UHSSE Cafeteria

The cafeteria at UHSSE Photo taken by: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

At UHSSE, there is a colorful and inviting cafeteria on the first floor. Unlike the other two schools, UHSSE’s cafeteria space occupies the majority of the first floor and is the first space seen when entering the front doors of the building. Having a big social space that is isolated away from the classrooms suggests that UHSSE promotes quiet classroom learning environments and expects loud noise and interaction to stay out of, and away from, the classrooms.

In addition, on each of UHSSE’s two other floors, there is one common area in the middle of the building. The common areas have comfy tables and chairs near the students lockers. We feel that this area encourages socializing while providing a common space that students can gather in to do work.It could also be argued that the Hooker School discourages social learning environments.

Although the Hooker School building has only one floor, the building occupies an entire city block. After its renovation, the cafeteria space was built in the very back of the school. Similar to UHSSE, the cafeteria may be placed in the back of the school to keep noise away from the classroom spaces. However, the Hooker School encourages learning in the cafeteria. This is done through their composting program, in which all of the students are asked to separate their food waste into various colored trash cans. By participating in composting, the students learn the importance of waste and how composting can be used to help the environment. Although the Hooker School may encourage more social interaction than UHSSE, we believe that it does not prevail in containing social environments.

We believe that the third school, GHAMAS, prevails in having the most social environments throughout the school building. On each of its two floors, there are areas outside the teachers’ offices that have tables and chairs arranged into groups. This setup provides students with a space to work together on assignments, as well as, to have immediate access to their teachers. In addition, GHAMAS provides a larger social space at the end of its floors that allow students to gather in a more relaxed setting. This space is where students go in between classes to do work. Overall, GHAMAS’ space is constructed in a way that produces and promotes social learning environments for its students.

Hands-on Learning Environment:

Examples of hands-on learning spaces Photos taken by: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

A hands-on learning environment is produced as a result of an instructional technique where students play with and manipulate classroom materials to help develop an understanding of the concepts.5  A hands-on learning environment is set up to fully immerse the student into the subject and is great for student-discovery learning. In addition, this type of environment is extremely unique, distinct, and specific in every case, and more so follows a constructivist view on education.

Constructivists firmly believe that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.6 Generally this leads to the encouragement towards students to become active agents in their educational trajectory, and question their true understanding of the concepts being taught. By questioning themselves and their strategies, students in the constructivist classroom ideally become “expert learners.”7 As a matter of fact, constructivism actively sparks a distinctive curiosity about how things work in the world collectively. Under this form of learning, students do not reinvent the wheel, but rather, attempt to understand how it turns, and how it functions through being engaged and applying their existing knowledge and real-world experience.8

In GHAMAS there exist hands-on learning environments primarily in the laboratory space provided in the school. The lab spaces are utilized, by the school, as a tool to teach the core science courses, such as biology, chemistry, physics, and biochemistry. The same type of hands-on learning environment is also present in UHSSE, in the laboratory spaces provided by the school. This type of environment is most beneficial when teaching any science related topics, because it does a great deal in combining both theory and practice in a safe controlled environment. Although a hands-on learning environment is present in both GHAMAS and UHSSE, we believe that it is more prevalent and manifested in the Hooker School.

The eco-pond at the Hooker School Photo Taken by Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

Remember we previously mentioned the Mary Hooker school underwent massive structural changes in 2009. In fact the space was renovated to include a butterfly vivarium, an aquatics laboratory, a greenhouse, and an interactive Science theater. These drastic renovations were essential to progressing the schools vision to reduce the amount of energy used by the school and to help the environment.9  This new state-of-the-art building and campus provides many different ecosystems and labs, which allow students to work side-by-side with a resident marine scientist and an entomologist.10  This school is like no other in Hartford and anyone who walks into their building can clearly see this. As soon as you walk into the school you are greeted by an aquatics laboratory and eco-pond waterfall–holding over six-thousand gallons of water, in aquariums and terrariums.11

The physical space at the Mary Hooker school has been manipulated to incorporate these environmental science specific learning features. Located at the front of the school, behind the eco-pond, is the vivarium– a 1500 foot, two story greenhouse. The vivarium serves as a place where students would experience the forms, colors and smells of a diverse tropical ecosystem.12 The space literally serves to expose the students to real life experiences to better understand the overall concepts being taught. The same goes for the aquatic lab and eco-pond, the space is actively being used to bring Science to life.


All three schools, GHAMAS, Hooker School, and UHSSE, are magnet schools that have created different learning environments for their students. Each school promotes learning Sciences differently depending on how they have shaped their spaces. From our research, we have conclude that overall UHSSE is most successful in providing lecture learning environments, while Hooker School prevails in building a strong hands-on learning environment, and GHAMAS prevails in producing social learning environments. It’s imperative to mention that these three schools are only three examples of how learning can be influenced by the space in which it occurs. Most certainly, all schools organize their learning spaces differently and in actuality manifest learning in different ways.

Further Research Suggestions

Our study, due to time restraints, simply acknowledges, but does not examine, that a school’s overall perception and student performance levels are affected by differences in learning environments. Therefore, further research is needed to determine exactly how the school’s space impacts a school’s perception, as well as, how a school’s space influences student achievement. Another facet of research that can be further developed through our web-essay is what type of students are schools trying to attract by manipulating their space? Essentially asking how do schools’ learning spaces affect who applies to which school?

About the Authors

Jorell 'Joey' Diaz Trinity College '13

Jorell ‘Joey’ Diaz is currently a senior at Trinity College majoring in Educational Studies with a self-developed concentration of Latin@s in Urban Education. He currently holds the community service chair for La Voz Latina (Trinity College’s Latin@ student union) and is an active member of Shondaa (Trinity College’s step team). He is also proud brother of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated. He aspires to someday work in the medical field in his hometown of the South Bronx. He is also a member of Trinity Posse 7 (New York).





Photo of Pauline Lake

Pauline Lake Trinity College '13

Pauline Lake is currently a senior at Trinity College with a dual major in Computer Science and Educational Studies. She is currently a teacher and front desk worker at Trinity College’s Trinfo.Cafe. Her career goal is to become a Computer Science/technology teacher one day. She is also a member of Trinity Posse 1 (Chicago).




Learn More

We encourage you to read more about each of the schools we visited. Start by clicking the links (in blue) that we have provided to each of the schools’ websites. We also encourage you to refer to our footnotes below to help further your intended research.

  1. Grace Clark, “Hartford Environmental Sciences Magnet at Mary Hooker: Diversity and the Excitement for Learning Come into Focus,” Sheff Movement: Quality Integrated Education for All Children, June 2012, http://www.sheffmovement.org/environmental_sciences.shtml.
  2. “The Learning Corridor Opens for Learning-New Schools, New Hope for Trinity’s Neighbors”, 2000, http://www.trincoll.edu/pub/reporter/w01/Corridor.htm.
  3. Marrais, Kathleen Bennett de, and Margaret LeCompte. The Way Schools Work: A Sociological Analysis of Education. 3rd ed. Longman/Addison Wesley, 1998. 42-52.
  4. Donovan, M. Suzanne, and John D. Bransford, eds. How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005.
  5. “Hands-On Learning | Definition,” Education.com, n.d., http://www.education.com/definition/handson-learning/.
  6. “Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning”, n.d., http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html.
  7. “Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning”, n.d., http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html.
  8. “Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning”, n.d., http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html.
  9. “Environmental Science Magnet School”, n.d., http://www.qualityattributes.com/portfolio/environmental-science-magnet-school/.
  10. “Home | Mary Hooker Magnet School”, n.d., http://www.environmentalsciencesmagnet.org/.
  11. “Home | Mary Hooker Magnet School”, n.d., http://www.environmentalsciencesmagnet.org/.
  12. “Home | Mary Hooker Magnet School”, n.d., http://www.environmentalsciencesmagnet.org/.