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.
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.