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Covering Segregation Through Storytelling

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Nationally, politicians and others frequently tout Hartford, Connecticut, and its magnet schools as a model of school integration. But in reality, the city has a system of haves and have nots, as Vanessa de la Torre and Matthew Kauffman, reporters at The Hartford Courant, revealed in their 2017 series, “Hartford Schools: More Separate, Still Unequal.

At a conference this month, the two reporters juxtaposed photos of a magnet school with its planetarium and butterfly vivarium with pictures of an aging neighborhood school with profanities spray-painted on the playground set.

The magnet school is high performing and a lure for white and Asian students. By contrast, the neighborhood elementary school struggles with high teacher turnover, high stress, and trauma in the students’ lives, not to mention mouse droppings in the building.

“I get emotional just thinking about it,” said de la Torre, a Courant education reporter, during the panel on covering segregation through storytelling at the Education Writers Association’s national conference. “The fact is, there is not a single white student going there. The segregation is just so intense.”

The U.S. has struggled for decades to respond to charges that it had created separate but unequal school systems for blacks and whites since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court. In the 1970s, Boston was center stage as riots broke out after court-ordered busing began between the predominantly white South Boston and predominantly black Roxbury neighborhoods.

By the 1990s, most desegregation orders had been lifted around the country as fewer whites remained in city schools. Most urban school systems have become majority African-American and Latino, in part due to white flight.

Hartford became the subject of a new desegregation order in 1996 with the Sheff v. O’Neill decision. The ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court led to the creation of magnet programs, which many have praised for high-quality education in an integrated setting. The 20th anniversary of the Sheff decision led The Hartford Courant reporters to take a closer look, they explained during the panel.

Several journalists discussed their reporting for The Baltimore Sun and The Hartford Courant during an Education Writers Association panel on June 1. (Linda K. Wertheimer for EWA)

Analyzing School Lottery Data

About half of Hartford’s public school students are in integrated magnet schools today, but nearly half are in highly segregated schools with crumbling buildings, noted Kauffman.

Using data analysis of the magnet-school lottery, the reporters found that the school system was doing everything imaginable to benefit white and Asian students to meet the integration standards. Empty seats were going to whites and Asians before blacks, for example.

In Baltimore, meanwhile, The Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Erica Green were driven to investigate segregation in the city’s schools partly because it seemed like people had simply accepted that the city schools had become 85 percent African-American.

The pair won a reporting fellowship from EWA to help with data analysis and other resources for their series, “Bridging the Divide: The Struggle to Move Past Segregated Schools.” It examines the issue in public schools in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County, and also provides some statewide analysis.

Blunt Talk About Race

They examined the school system’s efforts to use redistricting to create more integration and found a community divided, Bowie said. She and Green, who recently was hired as a national education reporter for The New York Times, would re-interview parents many times to get to the root of their views on why they did not want their children to go to a different school. Parents would mention property values and walkability as issues, then eventually become more frank, Bowie explained.

“What is so shocking was the degree people were willing to talk in an upfront, blunt way about race,” she said at the EWA seminar. “The white folks were saying, ‘We don’t want ‘those’ children. We don’t want kids who come from the other side of a big highway.’”

Green scrutinized segregation within a school and showed the disparity between black and white students enrolled in honors and Advanced Placement courses at Hammond High School in the Howard County school system in Columbia, Maryland. Columbia is often heralded as a model in Maryland and the country because of its integrated schools and community, said Green, who herself attended high school in Howard County.

But in advanced classes, there is a “de facto system of segregation,” according to the Sun series, published in March. Mostly black students are in remedial and regular classes at Hammond High, and white students are primarily in honors and AP classes, a scenario common in other school systems around the nation, the story explains.

“You can integrate all you want. You can put them in the same schools,” Green said. “But if they don’t have access to the same classes, it doesn’t matter.”

The EWA panel was moderated by Sarah Karp of WBEZ. You can read her reporting on school segregation in Chicago here.

The speakers shared many useful tips for other journalists exploring the issue of school segregation in their own communities:

  • Look at proposals for redistricting and whether they say demographics must be considered.
  • Examine schools with high teacher turnover to see if and how race plays a role.
  • Investigate what’s happening with charter schools and analyze their demographics.
  • Check out reverse busing programs or voluntary integration efforts and their progress.
  • Analyze racial breakdown in AP and honors classes in local high schools as well as gifted programs at all levels.