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)
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.
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.
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 http://www.breakthroughmagnetschool.org
Academy of Aerospace & Engineering Elementary School. (2015, May 2). Retrieved from http://www.crecschools.org/our-schools/academy-of-aerospace-engineering-elementary-school/
An Artistic and Academic Immersion. (2015, May 2). Retrieved from http://www.crecschools.org/our-schools/greater-hartford-academy-of-the-arts/
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 http://www.achievementfirst.org/our-approach/achievement-gap-and-mission/
Vision Statement. (2015, May 2). Retrieved from http://hmtca.hartfordschools.org/vision.html
Welner, K. (2013). The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment. Teachers College Record. Retrieved from http://www.tcrecord.org.