Hartford Schools’ Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez last week advised the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on closing the nation’s achievement gap between low-income and affluent students. Segregation by race and income, immigration across more than 80 language groups, locating a launch pad for jobs in the global economy – and other equally serious issues – are banging on the door. How can society responsibly answer?
Unraveling the snarled data matrices of public school financing is complicated, but two thoughtful analyses before the Commission last Friday promoted understanding of the issues:
® Dr. Narvaez, speaking about “Public Education Funding Inequality in an Era of Increasing Concentration of Poverty and Re-segregation,” brought forward the central challenge facing city schools: 85 percent of the District’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals (a key indicator of poverty). Hartford families also live at three times the state poverty rate – 25 times greater than that found in some of the wealthiest CT towns.
By seeking to establish that every student thrives and every school is high performing, Dr. Narvaez elaborated, the District now is emphasizing student-centered learning and developing school leaders.
It is clear, she said of the local situation, that “the challenges faced in cities like Hartford are quite substantial and … require a greater amount of resources to be able to tackle our work while producing more equitable results.” Without question, this is the fight that must be waged for Hartford children.
The magnet school approach in Hartford has been valuable, Dr. Narvaez also told the Commission, but it’s not that simple:
… While we have been successful in driving these new theme schools in favor of our student population, the unintentional outcome has been a concentration of needs in those schools not affected by Sheff. While magnet schools get new buildings and increasing budgets, our historical neighborhood and community schools are lacking in similar investments.
Primary and secondary public education in Hartford reveals a tale of two cities, one for those lucky ones whose number is called for enrollment at their preferred school and another for the rest who must make do with limited options.
Money is an important part of the equation to achieve equity, but we must not forget that providing support and political capital will help us avoid the redundancies and pitfalls experienced in the city of Hartford.
® Phil Tegeler, president/executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council – and a former CT ACLU legal director involved in desegregation cases. Speaking on a separate panel at the Civil Rights Commission, he emphasized that housing and school policy must be dealt with simultaneously if progress is to be made on educational equity. Nationally, the number of families living in concentrated poverty almost doubled from 2000 to 2013, he said – and one-fourth of African American families live in concentrated poverty neighborhoods, according to a new study. However, the number of schools with plus-90 percent non-white enrollments more than tripled from 1988 to 2013, he pointed out.
This is important because attendance in racially and economically isolated schools is linked to a wide range of negative educational outcomes, including lower student achievement results, higher dropout rates, lower college completion rates, less qualified teachers, high rates of teacher turnover, less challenging curriculum, and higher rates of student discipline, Attorney Tegeler said, citing longstanding research.
That message was amplified this week by a federal report on school segregation, which found that students in predominately poor, predominately minority schools had less access to Advanced Placement classes and gifted and talented programs, were exposed to elevated discipline rates, and were suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates than students at all other schools.
The Bottom Line. The testimony that Dr. Narvaez and Attorney Tegeler delivered this past Friday reflected the important evidence-based discussion American cities need to have if we are ever to improve schools for the most disadvantaged students. But it can’t be the cities talking alone; the entire metropolitan region and the State need to be having this conversation if we’re going to figure out how to close the achievement gap and also win the war against poverty. We’d like to think that when you’re as small a city as Hartford, it can be done. But not without some really tough conversations being led by our Mayor and other key leaders. And not without solutions to the problem being clearly articulated, advocated for, and debated. We all know the problem; the question is: What should be done about it?
It bears mentioning that segregation and disparate resources in the U.S. continue to characterize institutional racism at its core. Perhaps no one institution, policy, or person is to blame, yet the problems get worse and worse, and slowly the pain felt by some becomes pain felt by many. In CT, this pain is becoming all too real for way too many.