Let’s integrate West Hartford’s schools

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that something’s dreadfully wrong with the racial balance in West Hartford’s schools.

In a town where minorities make up a third of the student population, Smith School’s minority enrollment is just shy of two-thirds of the total and Charter Oak counts four out of five students as minorities.

Those numbers come despite the designation of both as magnet schools that should, in theory, attract students from across town. Smith is focused on science, math and technology while Charter Oak calls itself an “Academy of Global Studies.”

Clearly, the magnet isn’t proving particularly attractive.

According to Robert Frahm’s recent story in The Hartford Courant, West Hartford hopes to reverse the dwindling enrollment of white students in both elementary schools by hiring a magnet school liaison official who would publicize their existence so that both schools would have more appeal to parents.

That’s nice.

But after talking with some parents who would presumably be the targets for any public relations effort, I’d be stunned if the numbers change much.

The reality is that people generally want their young children to go to the same school that other kids in their neighborhoods attend (even in middle school many families oddly turn down the chance to go to Bristow because they’d rather stick with the neighborhood’s mainstream option). Public relations alone can’t make the difference.

School officials are dreaming – and wasting money – if they think otherwise.

And I’m pretty sure they’re not deluded enough to think that the problem is PR. They know the problem is rather more alarming: the neighborhoods around Smith and Charter Oak are becoming increasingly filled with minority families, many of them poorer and less educated than the norm in this town.

Hence, not only are Smith and Charter Oak racially imbalanced, they also have students that need more help than what’s generally true at Bugbee, Norfeldt, Morley, Aiken and the rest.

The truth is that the schools in West Hartford won’t be integrated until district lines are adjusted so that more white students are bused into Charter Oak and Smith and more minority children who currently attend those schools are sent to one of the other elementary schools.

This shifting can be done carefully to try to keep neighborhoods together as much as possible. I’ve looked at the current maps enough to see there are discreet areas that are probably mostly white that are bused now and could be sent a little further to Charter Oak or Smith.

Why don’t we do that?

Because there’s no political will to integrate our schools. It’s not a priority to almost anyone anymore.

But as someone who attended public schools that were quite mixed, I can say that it matters. It makes a difference in this world if you have genuine friends of other races, incomes and outlooks. It matters whether people are educated within an insular mindset or a broad one.

We can teach all the global studies we want. But what’s really needed is to live it, because the world our children are going to inherit is going to be ever further from the days of white privilege.

Even more than the issue of how to jigger the school makeups to make all of our schools more reflective of the community as a whole – and the world that’s coming – is the issue of why these two areas are so much more apt to have minority students than the town in general.

I recognize that housing prices play a role, of course, since if I were buying a house in West Hartford today, it would almost certainly be in one of those school districts unless it was falling apart.

But it’s not just costs. There’s something attractive about that area for minorities and perhaps repellent about other parts of town. We need to take a good, hard look at this whole issue.

West Hartford can’t afford to divide along racial lines. It will cripple us in the long run.

In the meantime, though, let’s at least get serious about integrating our schools fully.

White kids as well as black and Hispanic kids deserve to go to school to learn together, and from each other.

We need to do more to create the kind of world we should live in.




Filed under budget, Charter Oak Academy of Global Studies, Charter Oak School, education, Elmwood, housing, integration, News, racism, Schools, town council, Town government, West Hartford

12 responses to “Let’s integrate West Hartford’s schools

  1. B

    Very good remarks.

    I grew up in town and attended Duffy-Sedgwick-Conard.

    When I went to Duffy, practically the only Black students were a handful from Project Concern. I don’t recall anyone other minorities. In fact, there were also amazingly few Jews. I think it was me and four others (two sets of twins). There were more Jewish teachers than students. Also not too many Democrats. I was a great school, but not exactly great preparation for the real world.

    It was sad to see that Duffy still ranks at the bottom in town for percentage of minorities. I suspect the lack of economic diversity is just as bad.

    We talk about Charter Oak and Smith as being “out of compliance”, but the real problem is with the other schools. I just don’t believe you can get a quality education when everyone in your class looks like you, when everyone’s parents have the same kind of income, when you all shop in the same stores, listen to the same music, and have the same uneasy feeling when you meet someone outside of your daily experience.

  2. B

    Oops, sorry for typo. I actually don’t think “I” was a great school. (insert home schooling joke here: )

  3. Thank you, B. That is exactly the right point. It’s not just that minorities are cheated by herding them into the same schools. It’s that ALL of our students are cheated when they’re not given the chance to learn together.

  4. Our daughter has been going to Smith this year, and we have just bought a house in the Smith area, because we like Smith so much. I agree with B that the problem is not with Smith (and presumably Charter Oak, although I don’t know it as well) but with the other schools. Smith seems to be a terrific school, and the racial balance is very close to what I would ideally want in my daughter’s school. Furthermore, the school is very well-off financially (compared to schools in other places in the country), and given that it is one-third white, I doubt that the city government will cut it off from appropriate services out of racism.

    That said, I think the state is correct to be very suspicious any time a town appears to be hiving off its minority kids into one or two schools. The history of the country and the region show that when that happens, generally the disparity of resources becomes outrageous, and students who are already being unfairly treated due to racial prejudice then have to deal with “fair” discrimination due to their inferior education. So despite my not seeing a disparity of resources at the moment, I would like the state and town to keep a sharp eye on it.

    And to say explicitly what I believe our blogger is implying: integrating the schools is a distant second-best to integrating the neighborhoods. A town that integrates the neighborhoods, with true neighborliness, will have their schools integrated without fuss. A town with segregated neighborhoods will integrate its schools only with great difficulty and expense, and will find the difficulty and expense keep growing over the years, and the reward will be limited and grow less. Or so it seemed from my ten years in Boston.


  5. turtle

    I am a Smith parent, and I agree with your ideal of a fully integrated West Hartford public school system. “Racial imbalance” is an unfortunate expression–strictly speaking, race doesn’t exist. (I’ve heard a few Smith parents express uncertainty as to which race their children actually belong.) Smith and Charter Oak boast diverse, multi-ethnic student populations that are for many people part of the attraction of these schools. But despite the obvious disparity between the number of minorities at the South End magnets compared with the rest of the system, race isn’t quite the issue. People understandably prefer for their children to attend neighborhood schools. But the crux of the matter is class. Hence the kabuki performed around this issue by the Town.

    There is formidable resistance to redistricting in West Hartford. Smith and Charter Oak’s non-compliance with the State’s racial balance regulations provoked a storm of anxiety over such a possibility. It’s my understanding that the Board of Ed assured the public in the strongest terms that redistricting is not an option.

    I might add that we are delighted with our magnet school liaison. (She represents all three magnet schools, by the way, which includes Norfeldt.) Smith and Charter Oak need advocacy, and she is a dedicated and passionate spokeswoman for our schools.

  6. Hey, Very good intentions, but why doesn’t someone write an article on how to Integrate the Political Party’s and the School Boards in West Hartford?
    Looking at the Dems list of district players and knowing many of the Republican Players first hand(no list on line), I think minority representation is close to zilch in both Party’s.
    I call on both Party’s to step up to the plate and try recruiting more minorities from those school districts which are racially out of balance as well as from the whole town for that matter.
    A good old fashion door to door, bi-partisan recruitment campaign and an Online survey can do the trick coupled with your suggestion on using the Internet and it’s popularity.

    This is an excellent issue and perfect time for concensus. Leadership starts at the top.

    Minority Candidates then can possibly be found for each Party from the pool of new minority district members to address these and other racial issue’s in Town.

    As the Town of West Hartrford moves from the 33-34% Minority Student Population today towards a 50% Minority Student Population in the coming 2-3 years , I believe this Issue will resolve itself and Political Party Integration will occur.

  7. turtle

    It would be great to integrate the parties and town government. Can’t argue with that!

    Like V. I’m happy with diversity at Smith and agree that it would be best if the town integrated organically. I do wonder if that will occur any time soon. Meanwhile the Board of Ed is between a rock and a hard place. The people don’t want redistricting, they don’t want to leave their neighborhood schools, and the State is dissatisfied with West Hartford. In addition, it’s expensive to accommodate children who do not speak English as a first language, who are undereducated, and so on. Then there’s the spectacularly unhelpful No Child Left Behind. Enter infuriated taxpayers who complain that the education budget will be the ruin of West Hartford. Why would anybody want to run for the Board of Ed, a thankless job that pays nothing?!

  8. Peter G

    It’s nice to see both this post and the replies. We also recently moved into the Smith School neighborhood and are delighted precisely because it is so much more diverse than we expected of West Hartford. And it is disturbing to see that there is so little political will to integrate the other neighborhoods and schools in this town.

    As to integrating the political parties — look, if the local Democrats stood up and showed some spine on issues like integration, maybe people of color and whites who are opposed to racism would stand up with them.

  9. Fed Up

    We are currently dealing with the possibility of redistricting again now due to overcrowding. Braeburn is one of the target schools. The town proposes moving zone A. Zone A happens to be 49% minority. It is the largest minority zone that attends Braeburn (in fact, it’s one of the only minority zones). Our neighborhood is diverse ethnically as well as socioeconomically. This zone has already been booted from our neighborhood school once. We used to be Whiting Lane, but at that time, Whiting Lane was too saturated with diversity, so we were sent to Braeburn. Now we may be sent to Web Hill, which is already about 44% minority. Braeburn is currently about 22% minority, and by taking us out, they’d fall to about 17% minority, and Web Hill would increase. This disparity does not seem to bother the board of ed in the least. I’m shocked and disheartened that integration does not seem to be a priority in this town.

  10. Disgusted

    Fed Up, and well you should be!


    A couple of Board members have suggested we try and experiment with regionalizng a school.

    The administration appears to be pushing for a $5mill construction plan to solve a problem expected to last 4 years.

    The crowded schools have Project Choice students. The administration claims these students are not affecting the problem but doesn’t release the numbers.

    Last year the Town did poorly on the Mastery Tests. The Administration was supposed to come up with a plan to address the problem. It is now January ’08. Where’s the plan? It is obvious any plan devised will not be implemented this year. So I guess we can expect another year of poor Mastery Test result.

    Rumor is leaking out of very generous contract offers.

    Can anyone verify the rumor of catered meals brought into the BOE on a routine basis?

    Anyone want to add to the list?

  11. Realistic about Human Nature

    You can’t fool Mother Nature or human nature, for that matter.

    I admire all those West Hartford residents who speak so glowingly about the town. But when it comes right down to it, I believe that young parents — of whatever ethnic background — are moving to West Hartford because they are making a shrewd gamble based on self-interest first and community interest second. They are wagering that the people that live in their chosen neighborhood will have the same values they do. Near the top of this list of values is A) willingness to pay for top-quality education and B) maintainance or increase in property values. If the neighborhood happens to be “diverse”, so much the better, but the first two are always the most important.

    These two values tend to sort the wheat from the chaff. Those who are willing to make the sacrifice needed to pay the high fees (taxes) and high mortgage payments generally get what they want. All the others have to settle for less and aspire upward through perserverance, work and sacrifice.

    What upsets the apple cart is when arbitrary zoning changes are made in the name of social engineering and not in the name of maintaining these common values. This leads to the worst kind of situation – unpredictibility – which leads to young parents looking elsewhere to place their bets.

    I’m all for living in a diverse society, but diversity cannot and should not be forced. A top-down, forced regional approach to education will only add unpredictibility and chaos to our educational system and drive away the quality families that have have made West Hartford a nice community, but first and foremost, a sure bet.

  12. Kenesha

    West Hartford has some hidden racism which is highly illegal and violates both state and federal law. I would strongly suggest as citizens from this country that we do NOT tolerate racism. This also include any municipal workers who unfortunately are often under attack particularly part-time workers who are often kept under hidden and subtle harassment angles from employers and sadly general public.

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