OP-ED | Capital Prep Admissions Debacle Teaches Valuable Lessons
The first news bomb hit on May 3 when the Hartford Courant reported “10 cases of student-athletes who were admitted” to Hartford’s Capital Preparatory Magnet School “outside the blind lottery system.”
The second — and much bigger — bombshell landed the very next day when state Auditors of Public Accounts reported that Capital Prep “permitted 116 students to enroll over a two-year span without winning seats through the normal lottery process.”
That Capital Prep was caught cheating was not exactly unforeseen. But the scope of the scam was. Many observers had long suspected the school of shirking the lottery system to place talented athletes on its teams, considering the school had won five state championships since 2013. But this latest newsflash expanded the pool of handpicked youngsters to include “high achieving students, who disproportionately improve the school’s average test scores.”
Capital Prep — which requires a “social justice project” for graduation — had been considered a success story among Hartford’s magnet schools following the Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation lawsuit. Now, the school serves more as a symbol of what’s wrong with public education, including:
1. Athletics too often detract from, rather than supplement, public schools’ chief mission of education.
In addition to teaching English, I coach high school football. I have played team sports from my elementary school years through college. I love sports; I understand the integral role they can play in education. But school sports sometimes become more important than school itself — like when Capital Prep improperly admitted student-athletes to enhance the school’s profile.
As Middletown Press columnist Jim Bransfield noted, “Many educators around the state were not surprised. Many suspected — make that more than suspected — that the great teams that came out of this tiny high school just couldn’t have happened with a lottery.”
Clearly, we must draw a definitive line between the arenas of sport and public school.
2. Beware the self-serving “education guru” with “the answer” for public schools.
Steve Perry helped start Capital Prep in 2005 as a charter school, but transformed it into a public magnet school because “he didn’t have enough resources to do what he wanted as a charter.” When the Hartford Board of Education rejected his 2012 proposal to run the school “through a nonprofit charter management company that he founded,” Perry’s reaction on Twitter was eye-opening:
“The only way to lose a fight is to stop fighting. All this did was piss me off. It’s so on. Strap up, there will be head injuries.”
Three years later, Perry resigned as principal of Capital Prep to expand his crusade and the “Capital Prep brand” by opening two charter schools: the Capital Preparatory Harbor School in Bridgeport and, with co-founder Sean “Diddy” Combs, the Capital Preparatory Harlem Charter School. In addition, Perry has written books, embarked on speaking tours, and appeared on cable news shows as a “unique and powerful voice” for education, according to his website.
Ironically, that same voice once “scoffed at the idea of hand-picking students.” Specifically, “On social media and in his 2011 book, ‘Push Has Come to Shove,’ [Perry] has asserted repeatedly that Capital Prep had no control over the makeup of its student body or championship-caliber sports program.”
So this educational messiah has all the answers for public schools? Hardly.
3. The competitive model for public schools is counterproductive and harmful.
Capital Preparatory Magnet School — like other public magnets — requires a lottery for potential students. Charter schools do the same if demand outstrips available space. Vouchers — which do not exist in Connecticut — provide parents public dollars to “shop” for their children’s school, including private ones. In all of these scenarios, schools essentially “market” themselves like businesses.
Unfortunately, this “business model” means that certain schools succeed and others do not. The strategies that some schools employ, obviously, are corrupt. And what about the schools that lose? They can’t “go out of business” because they still must educate the remaining students. The divide between the educational winners and losers only grows. Competition, plainly, is not a sustainable model for public education.
In the end, students in Hartford are the latest victims of a defective system. Let’s hope the lessons of the Capital Prep saga are not soon forgotten.
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