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Courant: City Needs Diversity In Magnets

Wednesday March 5, 2008

City Needs Diversity In Magnets
by Stan Simpson
March 5, 2008
©The Hartford Courant

It was indeed a long shot for Jacob Komar. But the 15-year-old Burlington resident is on track to graduate from college just a year after he completes high school. Komar is a gifted, precocious computer whiz who I introduced to you three years ago.

His parents, Alicia and Andy Komar, looked far and wide to find a rigorous curriculum that could challenge their prodigy.

They decided on the city of Hartford–University High School of Science and Engineering to be exact. The new magnet school appealed to the family because Jacob could take college classes at the University of Hartford while attending a high school. He would also be surrounded by like-minded peers from different racial and ethnic cultures, something the Komars valued. Jacob will graduate this year from the high school and is projected to have enough credits to graduate next year from UHart.

As the latest rounds of negotiations continue in the decades-long Sheff v. O’Neill court case to desegregate Hartford schools, there is concern about how to attract more white suburban parents like the Komars to the new city magnet schools.

One proposal is to build more magnets in the suburbs, something that obviously makes sense. But there should be no misunderstanding: Many white parents are already sending their kids to magnets, including some in Hartford. Magnets are being run by the city and the Capital Region Education Council. CREC, so far, is doing a better job attracting whites.

Four of the seven traditional magnet schools run by CREC have majority white student populations–Greater Hartford Academy of Mathematics and Science in Hartford, Great Path Academy in Manchester, Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford and the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts in Hartford.

University High, a city-run magnet, has a white population of about 20 percent. Breakthrough Academy, a city-run elementary school with a theme of character development, has a white population of about 30 percent.

Two years ago, I talked to a frustrated, white, suburban Breakthrough parent. She had recruited five of her white suburban friends, including a relative, to enter the school’s lottery-application process. Somehow, none were selected.

Most parents would send their kids to Timbuktu if they were convinced it would give their child an educational edge–and if the school were safe and had discipline.

Jacob Komar’s bus ride from Burlington is 1 1/2 hours each way. The upside is that Jacob, who runs a nonprofit business refurbishing old computers, is thinking about MIT and Stanford for grad school.

“If it weren’t for the ability to have him take college classes while he was in high school, it probably would not have worked for us,” Alicia Komar said of the magnet school. “If it were just another high school, he wouldn’t have gone because, educationally, there wouldn’t have been any advantage to him at all. That educational advantage really had to be there to make it worth while.”

Successful magnets will be ones that partner with a university or a corporation and prepare students for college and the work force.

For example, CREC is consulting with police and fire organizations to form a public safety-themed high school. Another CREC magnet would focus on jobs in the medical field and be linked with St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center. A third CREC magnet would have an aerospace and engineering niche.

Jacob Komar could be the next Bill Gates. And a Hartford magnet could take a little of the credit.

Stan Simpson’s column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be heard live Saturday on WTIC NewsTalk 1080 from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.