Just beyond the bodegas painted in tropical hues, past the bleak jail for juveniles and the vacancy signs along Broad Street in Hartford, Connecticut, a startlingly sleek, sterile collection of buildings materializes. Weekday mornings, a chain of yellow buses encircles the compound. Under the eyes of security guards and cameras, kids hop down, saunter into buildings and settle into classrooms where the mix of complexions and family incomes does not match Census data culled from these streets.
Many of the children scattered among the elementary, middle and two high schools have indeed been “bused” in, to engineer the creation of racially and economically diverse schools in this otherwise extremely poor, sharply segregated Latino neighborhood. Some of the children who attend the schools in this “learning corridor” live nearby. Others come from the African-American neighborhoods to the north, and a large share travel up to an hour from the lily-white suburbs that surround the city of Hartford, where 46 percent of children are poor. Several other “magnet” schools in and around the city open their doors each morning to a student body that reflects the diversity of the region, as opposed to the homogeneity found in schools that enroll kids from just one town or neighborhood.
“It has been nothing short of a beautiful experience,” says Mara Whitman, a white mother of four who opted for a magnet in Hartford over the far more affluent and far less diverse schools in her town, West Hartford. “To be honest, it was not the diversity that attracted us. It was the educational program. The theories that drove instruction were well thought, based in evidence…. But it wasn’t long before we realized that the diversity made the experience rich.”
After a state court ruled in 1996 that the region’s public schools were segregated, in violation of Connecticut’s Constitution, magnet schools became the principal remedy. Urban and suburban parents alike were quick to sign their children up for the new schools, which were often (though not always) located in urban communities of color. The waiting lists grew long for the more successful schools. Thanks to an unyielding push by civil rights lawyers, state legislators went on to approve funding for more magnets. Now, in one of the nation’s most segregated and economically stratified regions, tiny centers of racial and economic integration have taken root. Significantly—like students attending magnet schools in California, Nevada, Florida, Illinois and other areas—children in Connecticut’s magnet schools have registered promising academic results, often outdoing those in traditional public schools, which were, by comparison, sharply segregated by race and class. This past December, a study in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis compared academic results between students who’d applied to Connecticut’s magnets and were not selected through the blind lottery and students who were selected and got to attend a magnet school. The magnet school students who lived in urban ZIP codes (these students are mostly Latino or black) made greater gains in math and reading than did their fellow students who stayed in the urban (segregated) schools. What’s more, the suburban students—this group is largely white—attending magnets outdid their peers at traditional suburban (and generally much whiter) schools, too. The “achievement gap” between white students and students of color tended to be smaller in Connecticut’s magnet schools than it was in traditional schools.