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SETTLEMENT: A Four-Year Effort Begins To Help Undo Hartford's School Segregation

January 23, 2003
by ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

After 14 years of court battles, political maneuvering and heated public debate, the two sides in Connecticut's historic Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case signed a four-year truce Wednesday. Now comes the hard part.

The agreement between the plaintiffs and the state already is being hailed as a national model for voluntary school integration, but its success or failure will hinge largely on whether Hartford can attract hundreds more white suburban children into the city to attend proposed new magnet schools. A key provision of the agreement is the creation of eight new magnet schools in or near Hartford over the next four years - something both sides see as essential to changing a stubborn, longstanding pattern of racial segregation in schools in Connecticut's capital city.

Hartford public schools, where more than 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic, remain as segregated today as they were when the Sheff lawsuit was filed in 1989. Under the proposed settlement, the state for the first time would establish specific goals for increasing the number of Hartford children attending integrated magnet schools or enrolling in suburban schools under a voluntary transfer program.

The inclusion of specific goals and timetables was a key objective for plaintiffs, but the plan - which depends upon parents making voluntary choices - falls short of the original vision of the plaintiffs, which included the possible redrawing of boundary lines between city and suburban school districts. Even if the goals are met, 70 percent of the city's children would remain in mostly segregated schools.

"Is it the vision we started with 14 years ago? No. Is it a giant step forward? Yes," said Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the mother of lead plaintiff Milo Sheff. "It's a good thing. This isn't the end of it. We'll come back and we'll see where we are in four years."

About 10 percent of Hartford's schoolchildren currently attend integrated magnet schools or enroll in suburban schools under a voluntary choice program, but the new agreement calls for raising that figure to 30 percent - or about 7,000 students - by 2007, a challenging target.

"Implementing this [settlement] ... is probably harder than agreeing to it," state Education Commissioner Theodore S. Sergi said moments before he and other officials signed the agreement in a room packed with TV cameras, reporters and plaintiffs. The plan calls for the state to spend an additional $45 million over the next four years to help operate the new magnet schools, and to expand a program, called Open Choice, allowing Hartford parents to enroll their children in predominantly white suburban schools.

The state now spends about $65 million a year on magnet schools and other programs to promote racial integration. If it wins the approval of the state legislature, the settlement would resolve at least for four years a case that led to a state Supreme Court ruling in 1996 saying that racial isolation in Hartford schools violated the rights of schoolchildren to an adequate education.

Following that ruling, the state spent hundreds of millions of dollars on magnet schools and other programs to promote integration, but the Sheff plaintiffs returned to court last spring, saying those programs were making only minimal progress. The issue has been before Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma, who also will have to approve the settlement.

Wednesday's agreement also includes state funding for additional after-school and summer exchange programs for city and suburban schoolchildren.

Gov. John G. Rowland, who announced the agreement Wednesday, predicted the legislature would approve it. "I think there will be almost unanimous support for it," he said. The plan could involve the use of existing buildings, renovation of some classrooms or the construction of new school buildings - something Rowland estimated could cost as much as $200 million in state bond funds over several years. He called it a good decision, saying the state did not want to leave the matter to the courts.

In addition to doubling the number of city children voluntarily enrolling in suburban schools, the settlement calls for roughly tripling the number in integrated magnet schools by 2007. "We have a lot of work to do," Sergi, the education commissioner, said. "We have a very good chance of meeting that target, but it will be difficult."

In Hartford, where public schools have struggled to overcome a reputation as being among the worst in the state, skeptics believe magnet schools will be a difficult sell to suburban parents. Nevertheless, educators point to the popularity of magnet schools such as the Breakthrough Magnet School and Montessori School in Hartford and the Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield.

At the University of Hartford Magnet School, more than 1,000 Hartford children and about 900 suburban children are on waiting lists, said Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, which runs that school and eight other magnet programs in greater Hartford. "There is definitely a great demand" for magnet programs, he said. State officials also cite the success of magnet programs in New Haven, a mostly black and Hispanic school system that draws hundreds of suburban students to city schools.

"There is every reason to believe Hartford can replicate our success," said Edward Linehan, supervisor of New Haven's magnet programs. Parents have choices to enroll in more than 20 of New Haven's 48 public schools. Among those are eight magnet schools and one regional vocational agriculture school drawing about 1,100 students from the suburbs. To attract parents, "there has to be no question about the quality of instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic," Linehan said. "If it's a high school, you have to have strong electives."

The agreement comes as schools in many states are becoming increasingly segregated. A Harvard University study released this week says that a growing number of black and Latino students nationwide are attending schools consisting mainly of minority groups while white students are increasingly likely to attend schools that have few minorities.

Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor who led the study, said the Sheff agreement is a compromise that "really expands opportunity for some of the kids in Hartford, but leaves most of them behind."

"It's not the final solution," he said. "The issue will come back."

As officials signed the agreement Wednesday, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said, "At a time when many are doing less to reduce racial isolation, we will do more."

State Rep. William Dyson, D-New Haven, called the agreement "a noble undertaking" but said many questions remain. The agreement may resolve the Hartford case but does not directly address problems of racial isolation and poverty elsewhere, he said.

"How do you deal with it in the context of all the other towns that have the same problems?" he said. "What do you say to Bridgeport? What about Waterbury?"

In Hartford, however, the families who filed the case in 1989 were clearly pleased even though the matter took more than a decade to reach Wednesday's resolution. One of the plaintiffs, Neiima Best, was 11 years old when the case was filed. She is 25 now, a college graduate and the mother of three children. "I knew when I got involved, she probably would not benefit personally," said Denise Best, her mother. Now Denise Best has a granddaughter who is on waiting lists at two different magnet schools in Hartford but has not been selected so far.

"Hopefully, this plan will benefit her," she said.

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.
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