Despite the lack of progress in integrating Hartford schools, The Learning Corridor next to Trinity College offers a sterling example of what's possible.
Some have suggested that the answer to the state Supreme Court's Sheff vs. O'Neill integration directive might be to clone the corridor and sprinkle 10 more such complexes around the capital city.
Located on a 16-acre campus between Broad and Washington streets, the corridor is home to four magnet schools that eventually will draw 1,600 students from Hartford and two dozen suburban towns. The magnet, or lure, for parents is the promise of academic excellence in integrated settings.
The corridor opened only last September, so it is too early to measure educational achievement. However, the schools are offering students challenging courses in a clean and safe environment.
Included are two specialized high schools, a middle school and an elementary Montessori school.
One high school, the Greater Hartford Academy of Math & Science, showcases integrated education at its best. The school enrolled about 150 students last September, a number projected to double in the next three years. One-third of the first class came from Hartford, two-thirds from 12 suburban towns. The racial-ethnic breakdown is half white and half African American, Hispanic and Asian American. Notably, the school has achieved the kind of diversity envisioned in the Sheff lawsuit.
Top-notch instructors, including several college professors, teach advanced courses such as endocrinology, astronomy, robotics, bio-ethics and molecular genetics.
One drawback is that the academy is a half-day school. Students spend the rest of the time at their home high school studying English, history and other non-science courses. Converting the academy to a full-day high school should be a priority. It's wasteful for students to spend half a school day in Southington, for example, and half in Hartford.
The second high school is the 16-year-old Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, which moved from its home in a former funeral parlor into breathtaking new facilities at The Learning Corridor. The school's commitment to quality integrated education was on display in the spring when a diverse cast of students from more than a dozen towns put on a dazzling performance of "Oklahoma."
Of the school's 250 students this past year, 200 came from more than 40 cities and towns outside of Hartford. The racial-ethnic mix was: white, 75 percent; African American, 16 percent; Hispanic, 9 percent. Enrollment is expected to grow to 320 this fall.
The two high schools and the Montessori school are run by the Capitol Region Education Council, which also will take over management of the middle school beginning this fall.
CREC has achieved a good record of building and running magnet schools that draw students across town lines. However, the regional agency has been struggling financially and sending out alarms that it cannot continue to expand the magnet programs without substantial new state aid. CREC has no revenue source of its own, and depends on the state and participating towns for money.
"Landlord" magnet schools such as those in New Haven receive money from the local school budget because they are part of the city school system.
CREC's newest magnet school, at the University of Hartford, offers another striking example of what can happen when schools hold out the promise of innovative integrated education.
The school, which will open Sept. 4, received more than 1,400 applications for 276 slots in grades K-3. Half the students will come from Hartford and the remainder from Avon, Bloomfield, Farmington, Simsbury, Wethersfield and West Hartford.
Magnets succeed because they offer a variety of courses not typically found in regular schools.
This fall, CREC will manage eight magnet schools in the metropolitan area, including five in Hartford.
It is significant that not a single magnet is run by the Hartford public school system, which only recently has embraced the concept.
One problem is that the city's school system has had so little credibility that most suburban parents probably wouldn't send their children to a magnet under Hartford's control.
Hartford School Superintendent Anthony S. Amato is properly devoting his energies to turning around the city's ailing public schools. He plans a gradual transition to magnets. He will require that each elementary school adopt a magnet theme by next spring (science, language and the environment are possibilities). City students then will be offered a choice of which Hartford public school to attend. Over the next few years, some of those magnets will open their doors to suburban students.
At the same time he tries to overhaul city schools, Mr. Amato would do well to take a closer look at the success of The Learning Corridor. It is the bright star in Connecticut's magnet school galaxy. With the support of the state, magnet complexes can - and should - be built in other parts of the city.
Magnet schools are in a position to offer the best education possible to all the region's children - and to meet the constitutional mandate set by the Supreme Court.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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