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Spotty Sheff Enforcement


November 09, 2007

Over the years the state has helped develop a comprehensive plan to desegregate Hartford's schools, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the efforts, appealed to suburban districts to open their schools to city students and offered training to suburban districts to help city students succeed, state witnesses testified Thursday in the Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation case.

But cross-examination of those witnesses in Superior Court in Hartford revealed that shifts in management have resulted in spotty results and murky accountability since 2003, when the plaintiffs in the Sheff lawsuit reached a compromise agreement with the state on integration goals.

During those years, changes in oversight included five state education commissioners, multiple reorganizations of the state Department of Education, four Hartford superintendents, a transition from state control over Hartford schools to local control and the creation and disbanding of a magnet school office in Hartford.

The lawsuit, filed in 1989, resulted in an order by the state Supreme Court in 1996 to end the racial, ethnic and economic isolation of Hartford's minority students. The court left it to the state and the plaintiffs to decide how to do that, and sent the case back to Superior Court for monitoring. Now, 11 years later, the plaintiffs say desegregation efforts have fallen short, and they are in Superior Court appealing for help.

Marcus Rivera, a consultant for the state education department, testified that he helped Hartford create a plan for integration that included developing magnet schools, improving all of Hartford's schools and sending city students to suburban schools. After Hartford's school board approved the plan, the state left it to the city to implement it, he said.

But during his cross-examination of state witnesses Thursday, the city's lawyer, John Rose, pointed out that Hartford is not a defendant in the Sheff lawsuit and therefore not responsible for carrying out its mandate.

After his testimony, Rivera said he isn't sure how much of the plan he helped create was carried out, though he believes some of it was.

Some of the testimony suggested the state is not entirely to blame for failure to reach Sheff goals to enroll specific numbers of Hartford minority students in suburban schools through the Open Choice program. Rivera said that Hartford hasn't always cooperated.

For example, Rivera said, when there were openings in suburban schools for kindergartners and first-graders, then-Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg asked then-Hartford Superintendent Robert Henry to include information about the vacancies in a letter to Hartford parents that the district was required to send anyway as part of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Henry refused to include information about the vacancies, Rivera said, telling the state, "We really would not like to have these letters go out because we want to keep all Hartford students in Hartford."

Under cross-examination by Sheff lawyer Martha Stone, Rivera said the state did not take it upon itself to send the letter to parents.

"What we were not able to do is get information into the hands of all parents that this was a choice open to them," Rivera said.

Stone pressed the point that the state had repeatedly made participation in desegregation efforts voluntary by asking districts to help, but never setting benchmarks for individual districts to meet.

When the state realized it would fall short of its requirement to place 1,600 Hartford minority students in suburban schools - last year 1,070 students were enrolled in the Open Choice program - Sternberg wrote a letter to superintendents "strongly encouraging" them to open more seats, Rivera said.

The July 2006 letter said that 469 new students must be added to the Open Choice program - a total of 18 in each of the 27 school districts governed by the Sheff compromise - to reach the state's ordered obligation of placing 1,600 students in the program by 2007.

Each district has decided to heed or ignore that recommendation on its own terms, Rivera said. While some districts have renewed seats for Hartford students, others have not opened a single new seat in years.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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