I'm walking through this cool elementary school in New Haven, so cool they've got their own enclosed overpass that students and teachers use to cross busy Ella Grasso Boulevard to get to the park, where they do experiments and take field trips.
At Barnard Environmental Studies School, there are solar panels and weather stations, a greenhouse, gardens and canoes to paddle the nearby West River. They've got all-day preschool and a location convenient for dropping kids off on the way to work.
It's a school-of-the-future attracting families from inside and outside of New Haven.
"Parents want a quality program," said Ed Linehan, a magnet schools consultant, who drove me around New Haven one recent morning. "They want it to be a warm and inviting personal environment."
The problem - for the state and New Haven - is that these expensive new schools with unique programs don't easily erase the substantial achievement gap between white and minority students.
Standardized test scores show that magnet schools, however much they make us feel good, aren't altering the overall differences in student performance that leave white children far ahead of minority children in reading, math and writing.
"Those disparities we see along racial and ethnic lines are still there. That's the bind we are in," said state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan.
McQuillan told me that means we need to look harder at the kinds of programs we are creating, including schools that bring children in at younger ages for a much longer school day and year.
Despite the dramatic growth of magnet schools in New Haven, the overall achievement gap between the city and the rest of the state has grown. In 1993, the reading gap for eighth-graders was 33.2 points, while in 2007 it had grown to 36.3 points.
"People have taken their eye off the ball, which is achievement," said Mark Porter McGee, research director for the corporate-funded school reform group ConnCan. "Integrating schools is not by itself a solution to the problem."
In New Haven - which aggressively promotes its magnet schools without prodding from the courts - there are hopeful signs. It's too early to know at Barnard, but another magnet, Vincent Mauro School, was removed from a state sanctions list this year because of improving test scores.
"It's going to take time to see major gains," Superintendent Reggie Mayo reminded me.
Half of the preschool population at Barnard comes from the suburbs, just a year into the makeover from failing city school to shining magnet.
About 35 percent of the overall school population lives outside of New Haven.
It's all part of New Haven's admirable and longstanding effort to persuade suburban parents to send their children to school in the city.
From Barnard, which completed a $43 million makeover to "green" school last year, to the non-graded Jepson School over in Fair Haven to the stunning $63 million Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School designed by the renowned architect Cesar Pelli and rising just off Chapel Street, New Haven has been busy building schools with an eye toward marketability.
Restless plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation lawsuit say that Hartford needs more of this, at least $100 million to build more magnet schools and create programs. In the Sheff case, lawyers argued that segregated schools are inferior, pointing to Hartford's dismal achievement.
Sleek new public schools are certainly eye-catching. But if they deliver the same old results, what is the point?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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