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The Magnets' Pull

Specialized Schools Have Drawn Away The City's Best Students

April 2, 2007
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

The magnet schools created over the last several years in an effort to end racial and economic isolation in Hartford are leaving many of the city's children as isolated as ever and contributing to a new, unintended problem:

Academic isolation.

While the magnets are having limited success drawing white students from the suburbs, they are proving highly effective in attracting high-achieving city students looking for alternatives to neighborhood schools.

The result, some city educators say, is an exodus of the neighborhood schools' brightest students, leaving some schools with problems that the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit was supposed to help cure.

"The haves are leaving, they're leaving us with the have-nots," said Paul Stringer, the principal at Weaver High School in Hartford's North End. "Those kids with the most profound behavioral problems are left for us. And we're being judged on the same criteria. It's out of whack."

Sitting in his office at Weaver, Stringer holds up a list of 250 students who performed well last year on standardized tests at Fox Middle School, Weaver's feeder. "Probably a quarter of them are here now. That's what's called a brain drain."

The problem feeds on itself. With magnet schools competing for teachers, experts say, it becomes more difficult for neighborhood schools to recruit the best teachers, which, in turn, makes it harder to keep the better students.

"I had a teacher who was all set to come here, then on the first day of school she got an offer from a magnet school," Stringer said. "She chose the magnet school. It blew me away."

Magnet officials say that the lottery selection process ensures that the magnet schools are dealing with the same kids as the neighborhood schools.

But Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California in Berkeley, who has studied the effects of school choice programs around the nation, said that the highest-achieving students with the most involved parents are the kids who enter lotteries.

"The evidence is quite clear that magnets are designed to attract higher-performing kids and more committed parents," Fuller said. "Research has shown that when we create choice plans, parents who are more committed to education work their way into magnet schools. ... And if you're attracting better students, you're going to attract the more enthused, stronger teachers."

Brain Drain

Kerri Bovell, a senior at Weaver who also attends the half-day magnet school at the Greater Hartford Academy of Mathematics and Science, said the difference between the schools is palpable.

"When I go to GHAMAS, everyone is focused and here I'm automatically in the top spot. There, I do have to work harder to keep up with other students," she said. But at Weaver, she said, "when you see everybody else not quite as motivated as you are, you feel `Why should I excel?'"

While the so-called brain drain can be difficult to quantify, Stringer says the effect of the magnet schools could be seen clearly in declining enrollments in Advanced Placement courses.

In 2002, the year before the Sheff settlement, 44 Weaver students took an AP test in an attempt to earn college credit. By 2005, the number had plummeted to one.

Faced with a declining number of students qualified to take AP classes and the potential elimination of those classes, the district changed the requirements for enrollment to allow any student to sign up for an AP class rather than requiring a teacher's recommendation or a specific grade point average.

Enrollment tripled and the actual number of students passing the AP test went up, though the percentage of kids passing those tests dropped. In the three non-magnet high schools, 218 students took the test with a pass rate of 27.5 percent in 2006. That compares with a 44 percent pass rate in 2002.

Georgia Atkins, a junior who takes AP history, said the culture at Weaver discourages some students from excelling.

"There are kids here who are smart, but they are afraid to show it because they'll get bullied. My parents didn't want me to come to Weaver. They wanted me to go to a magnet school but they missed the lottery."

Joshua Hall, who teaches Atkins' AP class, said the exodus of top students influences the school culture.

"The lack of student role models has severely impacted the school. That's what the school is missing the most - student leaders, student role models. It used to be you could see kids walking down the hall and you knew they were about something. Now you see kids walking into AP classes without books. They may have the aptitude, but the attitude's not there," Hall said. "It's a ripple effect. It's hard to stop. It's a constant battle to have them understand their role. They have a certain responsibility to be those shining examples."

Shion Branford - a senior who said he never considered a magnet school because Weaver awards a tremendous number of scholarships and awards for college - takes three AP classes. He thinks the low enrollment in the classes lowers the level of energy and competition.

"I feel there could be more competition," he said. "It would push people more to try to get to that No. 1 spot. Competition is great. It helps push us to our maximum."

Miriam Morales Taylor, principal of Bulkeley High School, said she's conflicted by the magnet trend. The small, nurturing magnet schools in their beautiful buildings are good for children and for Hartford, she said.

Then, she said, there's Bulkeley - a school that offers academic rigor for those who want it, a wide variety of sports teams and more than $2 million in scholarships for graduating seniors, but it also is in a building with no windows where morale sometimes sags.

"I don't want the students who come to Bulkeley to feel like this is their last choice. It's not good for teachers or students to feel like they're stuck at a comprehensive high school because they didn't win the lottery," Morales Taylor said.

Problem Or Solution?

While the magnets have proved to be a significant problem for many city schools, they may also offer a solution.

The district's new superintendent of schools, Steven J. Adamowski, has vowed to even out the city's two-tiered system of magnet and neighborhood schools.

"Magnets are at a higher level of performance and they're resourced at a far higher level," Adamowski said. "We cannot run a dual system. I have an aversion to rationing quality through lotteries. We're going to create more quality."

That could mean some major changes in the way Hartford schools are set up, with some wondering if there really is a place any more for sprawling schools like Weaver.

"I think ultimately the school will be shut down," Hall said. "That's just the reality of the day."

Adamowski said it is likely that Weaver won't continue to exist in its current form.

"We will not be operating large, comprehensive high schools," he said. "The future will be in small, highly focused, highly personalized high schools."

Since Weaver's building is so large, he said, it will likely serve as a mini-campus for more than one school - either several high school programs or an elementary school, a middle school and a high school under one roof.

Adamowski, in fact, sees the need for change throughout the system, and thinks the magnet schools may offer an important clue. Over the next three years, Adamowski wants the district transformed into a system of all choice schools.

Students would still be able to attend schools in their neighborhoods, but there would be more choices available. The idea is to redesign the lower-performing schools so that over time, more schools would be considered desirable.

"Now the only good choices are the Sheff magnets," Adamowski said. "They provide us with a model for what the entire school system should look like."

Not that that always makes it easy.

In an effort to retain some of the students he's been losing to the magnets, Stringer and the principals of the city's two other comprehensive high schools recently acted to capture some of that magnet school allure by creating small, thematic programs within their schools.

Themes for the "small learning communities" include health careers, arts and technology, business finance, law and public service - keying in on careers in police and fire - and others.

But when the Capitol Region Education Council announced recently that it was developing magnet schools with themes in public safety, aerospace engineering and health careers, Stringer had a meltdown.

Those magnet schools are in direct competition with the high school's academies, he said, adding that there's no point in the high schools converting their thematic academies into magnet schools because they'll just want to break away from the high schools and move into their own buildings.

That's what happened at Hartford Public High School. When two academies converted to magnet schools - Pathways to Technology and the more than 20-year-old Classical Academy - both left Hartford Public with their students and teachers.

Stringer said he's had enough:

"It's driving me to an early retirement."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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