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As Some Hartford Schools Focus On Integration, Others Seek To Affirm Community

Josh Nilaya
Hartford parents and citizens rallied to demand more choices for students who are on a waiting list in 2014.

Tyqua Gibson thought her 12-year-old daughter wasn't being challenged in Hartford Public Schools. So she sent her to Bloomfield through the Open Choice program -- a state-funded system that allows Hartford students to attend schools in one of 26 surrounding towns.

She said her daughter's now being challenged academically, but there's also a complicated cultural challenge -- one that happens when the school community doesn't look like, or understand, a student's home community. 

"I do believe that if [teachers] come from our area, or where we come from -- which sounds so cliché, where we come from -- but I totally understand it," Gibson said, "because, as a village, you've known my baby from a baby. And that familiarity helps them understand, 'Oh you know where I'm coming from.'"

As Hartford schools continue a decades-long desegregation effort, many new schools have popped up in and around the city. But while some are built to encourage integration, others, mostly charter schools, are created simply to meet the need of Hartford families who remain frustrated with entire system.

Gibson said she'd like to bring her child back to Hartford if the schools were better. This is where people like Tim Goodwin are looking step in. 

For the last year, Goodwin and his team have been designing the Community First School. He's a former teacher and principal, and he said much of the school's design came from a listening tour he did around Hartford's North End, an area with high poverty. He recognized the benefits of an integrated school, but he said the North End simply needs a better option for parents who want their kid to go to a school in their neighborhood.

"The parents know their children best," Goodwin said. "Not the district, not some theme from some other part of the country, so our goal was to listen to the parents and given them voice, give the students voice, and then build up from there."

Parent involvement is often something that is given lip service in traditional public schools, but for Goodwin, it rarely materializes into something meaningful. 

"Districts move slowly , methodically, and traditionally," Goodwin said. "Traditional education works fine in a [wealthy] district because it's just part of the whole, but in an urban district -- where you have the potential for generational poverty -- you need a different model. You need a much more evolved model. You need the community to be involved much more deeply." 

Gibson added that if parents were allowed to be involved more, especially Hartford parents whose children attend schools in other towns, that could help bridge the cultural gap. But in many schools, administrators usually limit parent involvement, prioritizing classroom order while citing concerns about disruptions from overly-eager parents. 

Charter schools are often billed as an antidote for traditional public school woes. However, the proliferation of charters -- public schools that are run privately, often by for-profit companies -- has also been controversial.

Many point to a lack of oversight, a culture of cherry-picking the best students, and high suspension rates as reasons to limit charter expansion. To address that, Goodwin said his school will have a "zero-suspension policy" and that discipline will be "firm, but not punitive." 

"That's what most of the community wants," he said. "So we listened."

Then there's concern about segregation. Charter schools in Hartford are among the most segregated in the state, even though the city is under a court order to ensure that all public schools are integrated. An integrated school is one where no more than 75 percent of the student body is a single race.

Increasingly, and sometimes controversially, charters are focused more on school quality than on integration, choosing to gravitate toward a school climate that is culturally-affirming.  

Desegregation of education remains an immensely polarized and current conversation. In an interview with The Hartford Courant earlier this year, Governor Dannel Malloy expressed his own frustration with the state's desegregation efforts, saying "this solution is no longer working for the Hartford kids who it's supposed to benefit, and is hurting them more severely." 

Elizabeth Horton-Sheff, a plaintiff in the landmark 1996 Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit that ordered Hartford to desegregate its schools, expressed her disappointment with Malloy on WNPR's Where We Live in March.

"The whole issue is to provide quality, integrated education for students," Horton-Sheff said, noting that research has shown that integrated classrooms often lead to positive academic achievement for all students. Regionalization and consolidation of districts would have been a better option for the region, she said, instead of implementing the magnet and Open Choice system, which has been hampered with numerous problems.

"If you're asking me should we give up on integration? Then the answer would be, no," she said. 

Community First expects to apply for its charter this year, and open next school year if it's approved by the state.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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