MANCHESTER — The controversial issue of racial disparities in city schools was at the center of spirited discussion at City Hall on Wednesday.
The occasion was the first meeting of the school board’s newly formed Committee on the Office for Civil Rights. The OCR is the federal Department of Education agency that is reviewing the district’s treatment of minorities after finding that black and Hispanic students were “disproportionately under-enrolled” in advanced high school courses.
Mayor Ted Gatsas called for the creation of the special committee with the goal of publicly airing the OCR allegations, with which he strongly disagrees. Last month, district officials agreed to voluntarily enter a settlement with the OCR that compels the district to further assess minority participation in college-track programs and take concrete steps to increase their involvement.
Gatsas and other school board members have also found fault with the data OCR used to support its review, which they noted was four years old and excluded Asians and other nonwhite minority students in AP courses.
“As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think the Manchester School District discriminates in any way,” Gatsas said. “I think the new logo brought forward by Manchester School of Technology students — the logo with the hands up — shows the diversity we have in this district.”
In its report, the OCR noted that black students in the 2011 school year made up around 7 percent of high school students while holding 4.5 percent of the seats in AP courses; Hispanic students, who made up 11 percent of the student body, held no AP seats in two of the high schools and nine seats (6 percent) at Memorial. White students, by contrast, made up about 75 percent of total students, but held about 85 percent of the AP seats.
The district’s data analyst, Donna Crook, presented the committee with AP enrollment figures for the past three school years. They show that Hispanic enrollment in AP courses has increased considerably since 2011; this school year there are 56 Hispanic students in AP courses at the three high schools, or an average of 6.6 percent.
The enrollment of black students, meanwhile, has declined since 2011; they held about 2 percent of the AP seats this year.
Over the past three years, Asian students have held about 12 percent of AP seats, while making up 5 percent of the total high school student body.
More than numbers
Several people at the meeting stressed that parsing the numbers obscured the larger point — that not enough is being done to increase the participation of black and Hispanic students in college-track programs.
“I understand it’s important for students to ‘do for self,’ but it’s also important the school district support all students, and I’m saying that’s not been happening,” said Brenda Lett, who represents the Manchester branch of the NAACP. “And I’m not just saying today; I’ve been saying it. My own children went to the Manchester district, and they had their issues, and those have not been resolved.”
However, school board member Ross Terrio said the focus on two racial groups was misplaced. “I think if you look at what students are getting into AP courses and succeeding, you’ll probably find higher than average income, two-parent homes, and parents who went on to higher education,” he said.
Eric Moy, a junior at Central High, said motivation was a big factor in who takes AP classes. Some students “just don’t want the workload and they’re not planning to go to college,” said Moy, who is of Asian descent.
Mike Porter, a parent, faulted district officials for entering into an agreement that could be used by the federal agency to bring a future lawsuit against the district. “We’re under the hammer,” he said. “Is it really wise to enter an agreement without any findings?”
The attorney representing the district in the OCR case, Elek Miller, confirmed that the district had a binding contract with the agency. But he stressed that the OCR is generally cooperative and not out to sanction school districts.
“OCR is pretty darn good about working through that process. They have this agreement in place, and they could take action on it, but one of the benefits ... is you are able to resolve OCR involvement without any finding of wrongdoing,” he said.
No OCR representatives were present at the meeting.
Superintendent Debra Livingston said the main focus of the district’s efforts would be to make minority students more aware of college-track opportunities and courses.
Alderman Pat Long said there was no need for city officials to get defensive about the federal review. “They’re not saying there’s racism here,” he said. “I hate the fact the federal government is in our business, but we’re taking their money, so they have the right to do this.”