It turned out Creed wasn’t white enough. So its black and brown students lost everything.
And two decades after a landmark school desegregation lawsuit, Connecticut finds itself with a broken magnet school system and unintended, sometimes bizarre racial consequences.
As Cortlandt V.R. Creed High School’s demise revealed, the state is insisting on steering more white suburban students to regional urban magnet schools in the quest for racial justice — and defunding even successful schools if the numbers don’t add up.
The Board of Education has decided to close Creed after its final class graduates next month. The reason was partly budgetary. But New Haven was also facing a penalty from the state for accepting too many black and brown — rather than white and Asian — students into the regional magnet high school, which received extra funds, in part, to promote racial desegregation.
After a tweak in state law last year, the Connecticut State Department of Education (SDE) is cracking down on New Haven’s entire magnet program for not achieving integration, putting four more schools in jeopardy of financial penalties.
Under the new rules, inter-district magnet schools, which are open to suburban students, must be no more than 75 percent African-American or Hispanic. That’s only 5 percent more racial diversity than the SDE required during the past decade. But reaching that benchmark will be a significant challenge for an urban district like New Haven, which is surrounded by increasingly diverse suburbs. If they don’t meet those benchmarks or show they’re integrating enough in another way to obtain a waiver, they could be cut off from a pool of magnet funds.
After Sheff v. O’Neill, the landmark case that ordered desegregation of Hartford area schools in 1996, the state started funding more inter-district magnet schools. Those magnets receive more state funds per pupil than their traditional counterparts. The idea is that their expanded offerings will entice white suburbanites to sit alongside black and brown city kids.
New Haven voluntarily tapped into the pool of money to open all but two high schools and many elementary schools up to neighboring towns. The flow of cash helped New Haven spend $1.7 billion, mostly from the state, to build or rebuild almost every school in town.
But the extra money hasn’t always worked as intended. Like at Creed, an inter-district magnet school where 92.8 percent of the students are non-white. Creed and other magnets have indeed attracted suburban students. But often students with the “wrong” skin color, pointing to a larger, unanticipated problem with the state’s desegregation model.
“While unfortunately today it’s Creed, it may be another school next year if we don’t fix this broken magnet system,” Mayor Toni Harp warned.
At Creed, still stinging from their school’s closure, students who spoke with the Independent — African-American, Latina and Asian-American — said they’re furious about the way the state’s efforts are playing out. They said they don’t feel racially isolated at Creed, and they questioned whether they’ll be better off at the two big comprehensive high schools, which are more segregated and less resourced.
Blackballed because of their demographics, Creed students will have limited options for where to go next year. Sherri Davis-Googe, the director of New Haven’s school choice program, said they might throw more magnet schools into non-compliance, but she denied rumors the most students are headed to James Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross.
Two weeks ago, exactly 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education held that separate cannot be made equal, Creed students walked out in protest, carrying signs that read, “Education sees no color.”
Creed’s fate shows just how thorny the racial politics around Connecticut’s school segregation policies can be. The biggest irony, Creed students have realized, is that even though magnet schools are intended to benefit black and brown children like them, the money always follows the white kids.
Before the board vote on Creed, during more than an hour of poignant testimony begging to save their school, Creed’s students, alumni and staff said that racial integration shouldn’t have been a goal at all at their magnet school.
“When Cortlandt Creed graduated from Yale Medicine in 1847, he was the first African-American to do so, and yet, here we are in New Haven 161 years later, shutting the doors of a school named in his honor because we have too many black and brown kids,” said Jennifer Sarja, an English teacher at Creed.
Because of the large number of non-white students at Creed, SDE threatened to slap the school with a $121,000 penalty this year and then take away the rest of its magnet funding, approximately $730,000, in two years.
Researchers have consistently found that students at integrated schools, no matter their skin color, perform better. Often, achievement gaps on standardized tests shrink, as in Hartford, where differences in third-grade reading scores at inter-district magnets were eliminated entirely. The effects of desegregation can last for a generation, resulting in more college degrees, higher incomes, lower incarceration rates and better health outcomes.
The exact reason is less clear. Experts argue that racial minorities aren’t getting smarter just by sitting next to white kids; rather, integrated schools are often better-resourced. A school that’s mostly made up of minorities might end up like Creed, pushed around from one dilapidated building to another before being shuttered altogether — a finding confirmed by a national study of 1,500 school closures that showed low-performing schools are more likely to close if they have more black students.
Some current students at Creed said they don’t feel segregated.
“I definitely do not feel this sort of racial isolation. In fact, if anything, I feel as though Creed has been one of the most diverse schools that I have been to,” said Aurea Orencia, a junior. “It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily meet the state’s standards of what diversity is. To the state, we’re only categorized in five different races, but we have students who came from Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East and more.”
Orencia, who’s Asian-American, transferred from Hamden High to Creed her freshman year. There are more racial minorities around her now.
“It’s so diverse that I don’t feel like I’m alone,” she said. “I just don’t see the point in putting race as a category for learning because it should be the same for every single person, no matter what race they are. I don’t think having any more Asian or white people in our school would make our learning any better.”
The larger Creed dilemma emerged from comments made at last week’s Board of Education meeting, when Creed’s closing was on the agenda.
Ariana Buckley, the magnet resource teacher in charge of recruiting suburban students, said that the changing demographics in the towns surrounding New Haven make it difficult to find white students.
The word was out in Hamden, Ansonia and West Haven that Creed was a good school, Buckley said, but those suburbs were diverse. Efforts to recruit in the whiter suburbs of Cheshire, Orange and Guilford — a longer bus ride away — hit a dead end, Buckley said.
“Our suburbs are brown, which I think is fantastic. That is what diversity is. Our kids are multiracial. That is what diversity is,” she said. “I’m sorry we’re too racially mixed.”
Creed’s problems with racial diversity were compounded by the district’s choices, faculty added.
Buckley said central office didn’t provide enough support in her recruitment drives. The district paid ACES $711,000 last year to maintain a website and put up signs across the region; the choice office held several magnet fairs itself. But Buckley said that had not been enough to offset Creed’s lack of a permanent home.
Jonathan Cotten, the dean, added “I’m black and my child would never go to a school that is always talked about as not being around.”
Those problems aside, Tania Hernandez, a recent Creed graduate, told the Board of Ed that it was wrong for the district to scrap a successful school just because it didn’t have enough white kids.
“How are you going to close a school that is pushing minorities into the STEM field? We are trying to get as many students as we can into the medical field, into sciences and math,” she said. “How are you going to take this away from them?”
Her time ran out, but Hernandez refused to yield the microphone. Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, the board’s secretary, called time, and Darnell Goldson, the board president, summoned police officers.
“Because we are Latinos and black, we get to be pushed to the corner like when it was slavery,” Hernandez went on, her voice raising. “It is not their fault!” she yelled, to cheers from the audience. “It is not their fault! It is not their fault!”
Changing the Rules
As an early adopters of the magnet model, New Haven isn’t ready to give up on integration. But district employees want to see reforms to the way the state calculates its numbers, factoring in economics more heavily like the district is trying to do at four of its own schools.
In January, the district brought on a $30,000 consultant to help with the push: Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank, is developing plans to socioeconomically integrate Bishop Woods, John S. Martinez, Roberto Clemente and West Rock Schools, which all received a massive federal grant in 2016 to set up their magnet programs that allows them to design “innovative education methods and practices that promote diversity.”
(Of the four schools, West Rock is the only inter-district magnet open to suburbanites; the others accept students from across the city.)
Currently, the school choice lottery is blind, giving no preference to a person’s race in admissions. Through Kahlenberg’s work, the lottery could eventually split students up equally by socioeconomics as measured by a student’s home census tract.
Chicago adopted a similar model, after being prohibited from using race in school lotteries in 2009. In the Windy City, census tracts are split into four main tiers based on several indicators, like median household income, percentage of single-parent households, college degree attainment rates, home-ownership rates and the number of foreign-language speakers. In many magnet school lotteries, where there’s no residency preference, the seats are equally split up by tier.
The system has integrated even the most selective schools, researchers at the Century Foundation found. In 2013-14, the racial breakdown at the 10 most competitive schools was 22 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic, 35 percent black and 9 percent Asian — far more diversity than in cities like New York and Boston.
Kahlenberg declined to comment.
New Haven is collecting data on applicants to see if a similar model might work here. “We’re still in the pilot stage,” Davis-Googe said. “It doesn’t impact placement at all.” She stressed that socioeconomic integration, if adopted, would be entirely voluntary, meaning that it’s not driven by the state or federal government. “The research tells us all students benefit from attending socioeconomically and racially diverse schools,” she said. “It’s what we’re deciding. This is not in response to the state.”
National experts on school segregation point out that class is no substitute for race — the same conclusion that the Connecticut Supreme Court came to in Sheff v. O’Neill.
“We need to understand why we’re looking at segregation, why we’re looking at these cases and policies that are trying to desegregate. It’s important because there were policies that specifically targeted people of color, and this is why we’re looking at race,” said Alvin Chang, a reporter at Vox who has written extensively about segregation. “When you start to say, let’s just look at economic integration, yes, you will get some overlap, but we’re missing the point here. Talking about economically diverse schools is a completely different goal than we started with.”
In Sheff, the four justices rejected the idea that poverty played a larger role in students’ limited educational opportunities.
“Hartford’s schoolchildren labor under a dual burden: their poverty and their racial and ethnic isolation,” then-Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters wrote for the majority. “The fact that [the constitution] does not provide them a remedy for one of their afflictions — namely, their poverty — is not a ground for depriving them of a remedy for the other.”
The three dissenting justices, on the other hand, worried that Sheff would strike down Connecticut’s municipality-based school system, which laid down school district boundaries along town lines in 1941.
“Every rural and suburban school district, from Litchfield to Pomfret and from Greenwich to Granby, is now either clearly or probably unconstitutional; its boundaries, or the racial and ethnic makeup of its school population, or both, will have to be changed in order to remedy that unconstitutionality,” Justice David M. Borden wrote.
But that sweeping change never came to pass. Instead, kids today cross those district lines only voluntarily, and as New Haven has learned, that’s an increasingly tough sell to white parents. Convincing tony suburbs to open all their buildings up to city-dwellers with a regionalized school system would be even tougher.
“This is a systemic problem, mediated by race and class. We’re asking schools to do something that the larger society doesn’t do,” said Ed Joyner, a Board of Education member. “It really takes a committed person to send their children to a school two or three towns away.”
Others in the district argued that SDE should start with a quicker, short-term fix by updating its racial categories.
When the Sheff ruling was first enforced, schools counted racial isolation solely by the percentage of white students enrolled, setting a minimum of 25 percent.
When SDE brought the case’s racial benchmarks statewide last year, it flipped the definition to the percentage of black and brown students, setting a maximum of 75 percent.
The change helped schools get closer to compliance, by factoring in Asians and Native Americans. But multi-racial students whose parents are African-American or Hispanic still count against diversity benchmarks.
“We all come from different racial backgrounds, some of us mixed,” said Leslie Perez, a junior at Creed. “Requiring us to identify as only one can be upsetting. If they really are aiming for diversity here, why not let us own our diversity as individuals?”
Students who choose not to specify their race can be categorized by a school employee based on their skin color, according to state regulations
“That is antebellum thinking,” added Sarja. “How are we okay with this?”
Board of Education members urged parents to make their views known to state lawmakers.
“What was supposed to be a remedy has now become a penalty, because they’re penalizing students for being black and brown,” Joyner said. “Fight them like you fight with us. Get your facts together, go to meetings and let them know.”