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Trinity College students' analysis finds state far from promises made to desegregate Hartford schools

Trinity College students, led by Professor Jack Dougherty, refine their data visualizations compiled from school integration information captured under the Sheff v. O'Neil lawsuit.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Trinity College students, led by professor Jack Dougherty, refine their data visualizations they compiled using school integration information from the Sheff v. O'Neill agreement.

A group of Trinity College students spent a semester taking the 87-page Sheff v. O'Neill agreement filled with hard-to-digest numbers and legal jargon and translating it into a few graphics to help the public understand how far the state is from the agreement's goal.

In late January, the state's top elected officials gathered with civil rights attorneys and the Hartford mom who successfully sued the state 26 years ago in hopes of dismantling the city's segregated school system.

"Today, we announce that we have at long last settled and engaged in a final settlement agreement of the landmark desegregation case of Sheff vs. O'Neill," Attorney General William Tong said during a celebratory press conference in the atrium of his office in Hartford.

A few days later and 2 miles down the road, a group of Trinity College students — some who grew up in Hartford — and their professor would meet to discuss the new goal line the state agreed to that will measure whether Hartford City Schools are desegregated.

Their plan: create a series of graphics to help the public understand what state officials have promised Hartford children — and how close the state is to reaching the new goal line and shedding 26 years of court oversight.

To do that, the students spent the semester taking the87-page settlement filled with hard-to-digest numbers and legal jargon and translating it into a few graphics.

Promise #1: Provide every Hartford child who applies a seat in an integrated school

Maria Vicuna grew up in Hartford and attended a well-funded, integrated magnet school after winning the school choice lottery. She has two siblings. Her brother also won a spot.

"It wasn't the same with my sister. My mom did apply for my sister so she would go during sixth grade, but she didn't get in. And she applied for seventh grade and eighth grade, but she didn't get it, either. So that was pretty unfortunate. But you know, it happens."

One of the reasons she enrolled in the class at Trinity was to learn more about the Sheff desegregation case that so heavily impacts her community. She was also curious how often her sister’s story of not winning the lottery happens.

That data was not something the state Department of Education had been releasing, despite frustration among some Hartford residents who feel the odds are stacked against their children winning a seat in a well-resourced, integrated school.

That all changed with the most recent Sheff agreement, which requires the state to now offer a seat to every Black or Hispanic child living in Hartford who wants one. Buried in that agreement is a rundown of the numbers that can be used to calculate how close the state is to reaching that promise.

Dougherty and his students ran the numbers.

"The state has committed over the next decade to meet 100% of that demand. And that's huge. That's a big goal," Dougherty said. "Right now, by our best estimates, the data looks like it's around two-thirds of the way there. I guess that's a glass half full, but still a long way to go.”

The data matches the Vicuna family's experience, with two of the three siblings landing spots in integrated schools.

Promise #2: Drastically increase how many students attend racially, ethnically and economically diverse schools

This promise of providing a seat to every Hartford child who wants one does not apply to students living in the suburbs — but this network of magnet schools is heavily reliant on the enrollment of middle- and high-income students from the suburbs to integrate the schools.

During the pandemic, data shows that suburban applications dropped by roughly 4,000 students.

The Trinity students mapped the likely impact that had, by showing that far fewer Hartford students were attending integrated schools in recent years.

For years, the state was running its lottery and measuring integration by focusing solely on racial and ethnic integration.

Now the new settlement focuses on socioeconomic diversity as well. The new school choice lottery awards seats with the goal of having at least 30% of the incoming magnet school students coming from high-income families and no more than 60% from low-income families.

The state declined CT Public's request to release the lottery algorithm or the data that is used in it to determine which students are low- or high-income students.

In the settlement, the state shared how many low- and high-income students were in each school.

”The big takeaway was that the majority of magnet schools are not yet socio-economically integrated," said Victoria Asfalg. Before attending Trinity, she lived in Rocky Hill. She left her suburban school to attend a magnet school in Hartford to get away from the bullying she was experiencing. At Trinity, she and other students found not enough higher-income students were enrolling in many of the magnets to be considered integrated.

Now that the lottery is run with socioeconomic diversity in mind — state data for this school year shows that every magnet school now meets this integration target.

Promise #3: Drastically increase how many suburban districts allow Hartford students to attend their schools

Many wealthy suburban communities have allowed only a small number of Hartford students to enroll in their neighborhood schools. Research shows that Connecticut is one of the most economically and racially segregated states in the country.

One of the settlement's promises is to drastically increase how many seats these suburban schools open to city students by luring them with even larger financial incentives.

Funding hasn't helped in the past.

"I think that the number of seats that have been available by the suburban districts is woefully inadequate. You know, when you look at Glastonbury, only 1% of their student body is available for Open Choice," said Martha Stone, one of the civil rights attorneys who successfully sued the state in the Sheff case.

Participation in Open Choice is one of the keys to fulfilling the promise in the agreement to offer every Hartford student a seat in an integrated school.

"I think we have obviously a long way to go. So if certain deliverables are not met, then we're going right back into court to enforce it. So you know, when some people say, ‘Oh, Sheff is over,’ well, no Sheff isn't over yet," said Stone.

Dougherty's class understands that and they hope their charts will help the public understand just how close the state is to providing what it has promised to Hartford students in the most recent agreement.

Promise #4: A better education in an integrated school

The Sheff agreement requires the state to publicly release key performance indicators for the public to see how students from Hartford are doing in magnet schools.

Currently, data released combines how both suburban and Hartford students are doing in magnets on things like graduation, suspensions and standardized tests.

In the next couple of weeks, the state plans to release data so the public to look up the outcomes of Hartford versus suburban students in each school.

A screen grab from a presentation by the State Department of Education on the new website that will allow parents to see how Hartford students are doing in integrated schools
This screen grab comes from a presentation by the state Department of Education on the new website that will allow parents to see how Hartford students are doing in integrated schools.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas was an investigative reporter with Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project from July 2021 until August 2022.

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