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Sheff v. O'Neill: Striving toward education equity

A High school classroom in Connecticut.
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
A high school classroom in Connecticut

Kyon McCray gets up on weekday mornings at 5:30 and seldom eats breakfast before he hugs his mother goodbye and catches a school bus for the half-hour ride north to school.

The CREC Civic Leadership High School in Enfield was his first choice when he entered the state magnet school lottery back in sixth grade, and though his bus takes him far from home in Hartford’s Asylum Hill neighborhood, the 12th-grader considers the daily trip worth it.

“You know, here, I’m away from everything,” he said one day during a lunch break at Civic. “I can just be myself and go to school.”

On those same mornings, Louis Sulsona, who lives in Hartford near Trinity College, gets up at 5 a.m. to beat his two brothers to the shower, and by 7 a.m., the three of them set off to Bulkeley High School’s temporary quarters in the city’s South End.

Louis, a sophomore whose mother came from Puerto Rico, wanted to go to a magnet school but says he was “unlucky” in the lottery. He worries that his education at Bulkeley is not adequately preparing him for his hoped-for career as a neurosurgeon.

“I believe that the lottery isn’t fair at all, to not just me,” he said. “Seeing the results made me feel very disappointed but also devastated as well.”

And then there’s Henley Solomon. Now 24, he’s from Hartford but went to school in West Hartford. And he sees his experience both ways.

“This district is so rich in relationships and opportunities and resources and faculty members that ... just go the extra mile,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the West Hartford public school system and it wasn’t for Open Choice, I would not be where I am today.”

But as he explains it, along the way, he struggled with identity issues in elementary and middle school. Very few students looked like him.

“In the midst of the successes, there was a hidden battle that I was experiencing every single time I’d walk through those double doors,” Solomon said. “They didn’t know it of course, no one knew it. I put on a show. But yeah, it was difficult.”

Students like Louis, Kyon and Solomon have taken very different educational paths because of the decades-old school desegregation lawsuit, Sheff vs. O’Neill, which argued that Hartford students were being denied an equal education due to racial segregation and economic disparities.

Kyon McCray in class at CREC Civic Leadership High School in Enfield, September, 2021. Kyon is a resident of Hartford and attends Civic Leadership through the Magnet program.
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
Kyon McCray in class at CREC Civic Leadership High School in Enfield, September 2021. Kyon lives in Hartford and attends Civic Leadership through the state magnet program.

In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the case, with Chief Justice Ellen Peters writing for the majority: “Every passing day denies these children their constitutional right to a substantially equal educational opportunity.”

Peters wrote that the court was confident that the “appropriate remedies can be found and implemented in time to make a difference before another generation of children suffers the consequence of a segregated public school education.”

But while the court identified the problem, it did not define a solution. Instead, it simply directed state lawmakers to come up with a plan to reduce the racial isolation of Hartford students.

Now, 25 years later, the remedy is still very much a work in progress. The highest percentage of students enrolled in integrated settings since the Sheff remedy began is 49.1%. That means that even in the best of years, more than half of Hartford schoolchildren have been enrolled in schools where test scores are significantly lower than at the magnets. And last year -- perhaps an anomaly because of COVID, perhaps because of the revamped lottery system that followed a recent agreement with the state -- just 37% of students were in integrated settings.

Meanwhile, opinions about the success or failure of the lawsuit are so at odds, it’s hard to believe people are speaking about the same case.

‘Half full, half empty … We just need a bigger glass’

Elizabeth Horton Sheff’s then-10-year-old son Milo was the lead plaintiff in the case that was filed in 1989. She says that when the court left the remedy up to the legislature, “it was the biggest mistake ever.”

“They just threw it into the political arena where it was up for grabs and remains up for grabs, left to political whim,” Horton said.

The situation inevitably prompts conversation about whether the Sheff remedy is a glass half full or half empty. She looks at the number of applications filed each year -- 19,014 in 2020 -- and the number of Hartford and suburban students on waitlists -- often more than 10,000 for magnets alone -- and reframes that discussion.

“[H]alf full, half empty, I think the glass is full,” Sheff said. “We just need a bigger glass … If the state provided seats for all the children who apply, there wouldn’t have to be a lottery.”

Elizabeth Horton Sheff, mother of the lead plaintiff in Sheff v. O’Neill Milo Sheff, is photographed in June, 2021.
Julianne Varacchi
Connecticut Public
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, mother of Milo Sheff, the lead plaintiff in Sheff v. O’Neill, is photographed in June 2021.

With Boston’s desegregation busing fiasco fresh in memory and the realization that redrawing district lines would not be well-received by voters, legislators opted in 1997 for voluntary measures to address the Sheff problem. Those solutions centered on giving students a chance at going to integrated, higher quality schools.

Magnet schools were built to attract a mix of urban and suburban kids to schools in Greater Hartford. The Open Choice program, which had been known as Project Concern, was expanded to allow more Hartford students to attend schools in the suburbs and vice versa.

Today, there are 40 magnets built and renovated at a cost of more than $1.5 billion with themes ranging from aerospace and engineering to environmental science and the arts. The state spends about $250 million annually to operate those schools and the entire school choice program. Over the years, the effort to integrate has depended on whether white parents and their children could be lured away from generally good suburban school districts by the offerings of appealing new magnet schools. It has also depended on the willingness of suburban towns to open their seats to Hartford students through Open Choice.

A critical component of the discussion is this: Just what has it meant for a child to be in an integrated setting?

To be considered an integrated magnet by Sheff standards over the years, at least a quarter of the school’s population had to be “reduced isolation” students, or white. In 2013, that definition of reduced isolation students was expanded to include students who are Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian or Alaska Native to help magnet schools reach the 25% target.

The numbers show how sought-after the programs are for city and suburban students alike. About 6,000 Hartford students applied to magnet schools in 2020 and 57% were offered seats, while about 2,500 applied to Open Choice and about 38% were offered seats.

The competition was even stiffer for suburban students, with almost 12,000 applying to magnets in 2020 and only 35% getting a seat offer, while almost 1,200 applied to Open Choice and 12% were offered seats.

If the number of students in an integrated setting is one measure of Sheff’s success, another might be test scores. And the data is clear -- test scores, however limited a measure, are better for Hartford kids who are not in the city’s neighborhood schools.

Eric Scoville, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said, “Test scores are important, but they are only one dimension of a quality educational experience.”

But he says the data demonstrates “that achievement is higher for Hartford resident students in interdistrict magnet schools and Open Choice schools as compared to those in neighborhood schools.”

The Hartford Public Schools allowed Connecticut Public to film and interview inside one magnet school, but it did not grant the same permission inside the rest of its schools. The district also declined an interview with Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, citing ongoing litigation in the Sheff case.

Agreement on the problem, but not the solution

But Hartford’s leaders are split on the question of whether it’s all been worth it.

“My feeling about Sheff is that it’s been a unique and interesting failure. It was born out of great intentions,” said Craig Stallings, a longtime member and former chairman of the Hartford Board of Education. “… [T]rying to resolve and solve integration issues is a noble thing, but I think this has been an extremely poor experience for the majority of Hartford children.”

That’s because more than half of Hartford children don’t win the lottery and wind up in neighborhood schools, where, he said, they get an “underfunded, under-resourced … marginalized education.”

Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of the nonprofit educational advocacy group Achieve Hartford, acknowledges that much remains to be done to improve the Hartford neighborhood schools. But he also says this:

“If we were to say, the goal of this lawsuit was to achieve a certain number of kids in a desegregated setting, I think many people would look at Hartford and say: ‘Wow, like that is an incredible accomplishment to have gotten as close as they have to meeting their goal. I don’t care how much it cost, that is incredible.’”

Sophomore Sequoia Turcotte Briggs lives in Andover and attends Classical Magnet School in Hartford.
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
Classical Magnet School in Hartford

Still, others emphasize that the discussion shouldn’t be about whether Sheff has worked. They say it should be a matter of whether Connecticut has the political will to fulfill the state Supreme Court’s order.

“People often ask, ‘Did Sheff succeed or fail?’ but that informal language misses the broader point about who is accountable,” said Jack Dougherty, a professor of educational studies at Trinity College. “So let’s reframe the question: ‘Have Connecticut’s elected leaders succeeded or failed in implementing a remedy to meet our constitutional obligation to provide children with quality integrated education?’”

Asking the question that way puts the accountability where it belongs, Dougherty contends, “on our elected leaders -- and also brings it back to all of us who are eligible to vote, because we elected them into these positions of power.”

Matt Ritter, Democratic House speaker and lifelong resident of the West End of Hartford, whose two children attend magnet schools, said the feelings about Sheff in the city are mixed and passionate.

“The rhetoric on both sides can be polarizing,” he said.

“No question countless thousands of kids have better schools” because of Sheff, he said. But he also gets “heartbreaking calls” from families who moved to Hartford to “invest in the city” but lose in the lottery, only to learn that the magnet seats have been offered to children from Glastonbury or West Hartford.

“People are beginning to get frustrated with what they see as an outdated, stale system that needs to better reflect Hartford today, the suburbs today,” Ritter said. “Everything has changed since 1988.”

With growing numbers of Black and Latino families living in the suburbs and increasing numbers of mixed marriages, Ritter said he thinks it makes sense to eliminate racial targets for the Sheff schools and focus on socioeconomic diversity.

“At the end of the day, that is the new reality of the world,” he said. “Race is such a different construct than it was 40 years ago.”

“I’d say it ultimately tends to come down, in my opinion, on whether your kid got into the school,” Ritter said. “If your kids got into the school, you like the system. If your kid didn’t, you’re not happy.”

What it means to get lucky with the lottery

The stakes in the Sheff case are nowhere more apparent than in the lives of young Hartford students.

Kyon and his mother, Katrina Davis, got interested in having him enter the lottery to attend a magnet school when he was in sixth grade.

He was attracted by the brand-new hallways and gymnasium at the Capitol Region Education Council’s Civic Leadership High School -- then called the CREC Public Safety Academy -- and the chance to learn about law enforcement. Davis submitted a lottery application, and she says now, after years of hearing from other parents who had trouble getting their children into a magnet school, “I guess we got lucky.”

Kyon enrolled in seventh grade in Public Safety’s middle school, which has since closed, and he liked it well enough to stay through high school when the school became Civic Leadership. He could have switched to a school like Hartford Public High School when he got to ninth grade. It’s barely a five-minute walk from his house, but Kyon thinks it’s been better for him to be at Civic.

“This school is really great. I think personally, the teachers want to see you succeed,” Kyon said.

He thinks the environment is better for him than a big city high school would have been, explaining, “It’s a small school, not as crowded as a regular high school would be. … I’d say the atmosphere is a little more calm.”

Kyon hopes to one day start his own business and is applying to colleges. UConn, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Howard University are among those on his list.

As he strolls around the school, everyone knows him. He’s friends with kids of all backgrounds, though he notes there are more Black and Hispanic students in his school than white and Asian students. Civic Leadership is one of the magnets that has been having trouble maintaining a 25% balance of reduced isolation students.

Still, Kyon said, “I’m lucky to go to a school that is integrated. When you go out for a job, people of all races are going to be there. If you haven’t been exposed to that, it’s kind of like a culture shock. You kind of lose some real-world communications skills.”

Kyon said people are always surprised to hear he goes to school in Enfield.

“They automatically think: ‘Oh you go to Weaver or to Hartford? No, you go to school in Enfield? Why do you go all the way out there?’” Kyon recounted during his lunch period. “I was like: [So I can] stay away. Stay away from all the stuff that happens. Come out here and get a break from all the distractions.”

‘Outcast’ in her neighborhood

Not every student sees attending a magnet school as the answer.

Moriah Allen of Hartford attended magnet schools from elementary through high school, starting with Breakthrough Magnet School, South in Hartford and graduating from Connecticut IB Academy in East Hartford. She’s now a junior at the University of Hartford.

And as a young child, she said the expectation that a magnet would lead to cross-cultural friends was accurate. But as she got older into later elementary and high school, the kids divided up into racially and ethnically aligned groups.

Moriah Allen attended magnet schools from elementary through high school, and graduated from Connecticut IB Academy in East Hartford in 2019.
Dave Wurtzel / Connecticut Public
Moriah Allen attended magnet schools from elementary through high school and graduated from Connecticut IB Academy in East Hartford in 2019.

“So like I, for example, could be friends with the Black girls, but then inside of that I would probably be more friends with the Jamaican girls because I’m Jamaican,” she said.

In addition, she said, there were fewer white students in her classes in the upper elementary and in the later high school grades.

A large downside of magnets for Allen was the lack of neighborhood friends as well as the difficulty in having magnet school friends over to visit, either because of distance or, in some cases, misperceptions.

“I always felt like an outcast in my neighborhood because I went to a completely different school,” Allen said. “The things that I experienced in my schools, the people around me did not experience.”

That was especially true in high school.

“Nobody was going through what I was going through,” she said. “They didn’t have the same assignments that I had. They didn’t have the tests that I had.”

All through school, Allen said, she also experienced microaggressions, many subtle and some going back to her earliest years -- before she understood why she felt bad.

“One of the first ones I experienced was probably preschool where this girl, she told me that my hair was ugly because of how it was,” she said. “And that bothered me because I had always grown up around like Black people. So I never had anybody say anything about my hair, so I didn't know exactly how to feel or react. I didn’t tell my mom, because I didn’t know if the girl did anything wrong. I just knew I didn’t like it.

And there was the fact that in elementary school, she never had a playdate -- ever -- at her house.

“Nobody ever came to the general area of my house because everybody was scared or they live too far away,” she said. “They were scared of Hartford. They would say they were scared to get shot. They were scared they were going to get stabbed, robbed. And I would always be very confused because none of that has ever happened to me, but it was just fear that was put into them, usually by their parents or the people around them, based off of stereotypes and … statistics.”

Reflecting back, Allen said she doesn’t think integration is that important when it comes to a child’s education, and she doesn’t like the idea of magnet schools.

“I don’t think you should have to pull a child out of the area to … get a good education,” she said. “What you should do is work on the [neighborhood] schools instead of having to move children all over the place, because at the end of the day, people are going to be left behind.”

An ‘obstacle I have to go through’

Bulkeley High School was far from Louis’ top choice. He had been disappointed with his experience at MD Fox Middle School. He said there were too many distractions, and he missed much of a year of seventh grade math at Fox when his teacher left and was replaced by what he said was a substitute who didn’t actually teach them any math.

“It made me very angry with the school because we need all the subjects: math, English, science, history,” Louis said. “I was a straight-A student and I want to become a neurosurgeon and make my mom proud, but in the environment I was in, it was very hard to accomplish that.”

So when Louis was in eighth grade, he was determined to go to a magnet school, which he felt would offer him a better environment and more challenge. He applied to several magnets, including his first choice, the Hartford host magnet, Sport and Medical Sciences Academy, but was devastated when he didn’t get in.

“It’s by chance and luck that you get into them,” he said. He thinks merit should be a factor. “I guess we were unlucky.”

Louis Sulsona, a sophomore at Bulkeley High School poses for a video portrait outside his home in Hartford.
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
Louis Sulsona, a sophomore at Bulkeley High School, poses for a video portrait outside his home in Hartford.

At Bulkeley, he said, “there are some teachers that are really good, but there are other teachers, they get your hopes down because they are talking about leaving … There’s this teacher that keeps reminding me that this is his last year.”

On the other hand, he said, there was a teacher last year who really helped him understand math.

“I’m taking all the available honors classes,” Louis said, but in some classes the curriculum seems the same as it was freshman year. “I’m kind of worried because I’m not getting the kind of education I need to be a neurosurgeon because the classes are either slowed, like backed up, or the kids are being distracted.”

Louis said there are other “really, really smart kids” in his classes who he thinks also could have benefited from going to a magnet school.

Last year, Louis took extra classes online and hopes to graduate at the end of his junior year.

“Being at Bulkeley is an obstacle I have to go through,” he said. “I really want to graduate next year because that’s a way to leave and get out of Bulkeley really early.”

‘I’m happy where I am’

Marcus Ortiz, on the other hand, has had a more positive experience at Bulkeley.

It didn’t start out that way. Marcus, a junior who enjoys music and art, wanted to go to the CREC Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts.

So he applied to the lottery and got in. However, Marcus says his mother couldn’t get him to the high school to register because she was sick.

“And then, all of a sudden I get a call saying, ‘Dear Bulkeley High School students, uh, come pick up your backpack, school uniforms and all the stuff,’” he said. “And I was like, I don’t go to Bulkeley. I go to this school, and it was just, I was just very surprised, and I was very angry at the time.”

Marcus said he felt like he had worked hard to go to the arts magnet, and now he felt as if he had wasted his time.

“Whenever a [neighborhood] school kid thinks about a magnet school, they think about a big fancy school that you’re going to,” Marcus said, “and you’re learning … all the new stuff that no one else gets to learn in [neighborhood] schools.”

So his story begins with that disappointment. Then, when his mother died during his freshman year, he said, his grades slid.

“I just stopped showing up, stopped doing my classwork,” he said.

But then he thought about how his mother always wanted him to finish school. And his Bulkeley community gave him the support he needed.

Marcus Ortiz, a student at Bulkeley High School in Hartford is interviewed outside his home. Ortiz entered the magnet school lottery in hopes of attending the Hartford Academy of the Arts.
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
Marcus Ortiz, a student at Bulkeley High School in Hartford, is interviewed outside his home. Ortiz entered the magnet school lottery in hopes of attending the CREC Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts.

“I had a lot of motivation to go back to school, keep going,” he said. “And I feel as if Bulkeley made it easier because I had more friends there, and I had a bunch of teachers that supported me and a bunch of counselors.”

At a magnet, he says, he would have had fewer friends and, he feels, less support. In addition, he thinks the work would have been harder, and he might have just dropped out.

“I’m happy where I am right now,” he said.

From the suburbs to the city

Sequoia Turcotte Briggs lives in Andover, a tiny Connecticut town that is almost entirely white. But each school day, she hops on a school bus at 5:50 a.m. to go to school in Hartford.

The high school sophomore usually naps or delves into her phone during the 90-minute ride to Classical Magnet School, where she is definitely the minority -- there are about three or four white kids in each of her classes. Classical is another school that has struggled to reach the 25% standard for reduced isolation.

Sequoia has gone to magnets for all of her educational life -- starting with CREC’s Montessori Magnet School in Hartford -- and she says the experience has been positive and enlightening.

“I personally think it’s good to go to a diverse school ... It trains you for, like, real-world situations,” she said. “Not everything’s going to be segregated. So it’s good to know people from different backgrounds and … people with different religious backgrounds, ethnicities, races.”

Sophomore Sequoia Turcotte Briggs lives in Andover and attends Classical Magnet School in Hartford.
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
Sophomore Sequoia Turcotte Briggs during class. Sequoia lives in Andover and attends Classical Magnet School in Hartford.

At Classical, she said, “there’s a bunch of people that are from different countries, and they share different experiences and they have different home lives. And I think that’s really interesting.”

Had she gone to her regional high school, RHAM, where there are very few Latino and Black students, Sequoia said she probably would have liked it because she wouldn’t have known anything different.

But she said, “Looking where I am now, that’s not something I would want.”

“I think that the long-term effects of me going to a magnet school are all good effects,” Sequoia said. “I’m exposed to, like, how a lot of places in the real world are outside of my tiny little town. And it will definitely help me with relationships with people, getting to understand people.”

“I’ve known most of my classmates since middle school, and I’m like friends with all of them. I have no issues with anyone within the school,” she said. “A lot [of] my closest friends are not white. I like getting along with everyone. It’s not an issue at all.”

‘I don’t feel like I fit in’ 

Katerina Soto, a resident of Hartford’s South West neighborhood, says the chance to go to Plainville schools through the Open Choice program has been a great opportunity academically but has come with an array of stresses that don’t always make it easy.

“I really like it over there,” said Katerina, who is a sophomore at Plainville High and has a mother from Puerto Rico and a father from Ecuador. “It’s a really good education.”

Betzaida Soto, Katerina’s mother, said she decided to enroll her daughter in Open Choice because, as a young child, Katerina had an attention disorder and was doing poorly in kindergarten in Hartford. In Plainville, she quickly caught up to grade level.

“She did a lot better … ever since we moved to Plainville,” her mother said. “She’s never had any problem ... She’s actually an honor student now.”

Katerina Soto, left, and her mother Betzaida Soto, at their kitchen table before Katerina leaves for school. Katerina is a resident of Hartford and attends Plainville High through the Open Choice program.
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
Katerina Soto (left) and her mother, Betzaida Soto, at their kitchen table before Katerina leaves for school. Katerina lives in Hartford and attends Plainville High School through the state's Open Choice program.

As Katerina strolled through the halls on her way to classes at Plainville High recently, she seemed bubbly and happy, stopping to greet friends in classrooms along the way and also participating in her classes.

But Katerina said that while she is glad to be in school in Plainville, she thinks her life there is far more difficult than it would have been in Hartford.

“I have friends and stuff like that,” Katerina said. “It’s just, I don’t feel like I fit in because like, you know, I come from Hartford, I’m Hispanic. There is a decent amount of diversity here. It’s not the best, but there still is diversity, but it still doesn’t feel like I belong.”

She said she feels as if she “always has to be a bit more careful compared to everyone else just because you’re Hispanic and there are stereotypes. Say you get into a fight -- like I don’t get into fights -- and you’re Hispanic and the other person is white, someone could be favored a bit more than the other.”

She also has experienced small microaggressions at times, but not often.

“Like the time, the boy was like, you don’t seem like the type to be in honors [classes]. And I was like, what’s the type, like because I got mad. What’s your type?” she recalls asking. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know. You just don’t seem like …’ I’m like, you have a type in your head. So tell me what’s the type?”

Katerina said she told the teacher, but the teacher just told her to ignore it.

“And I was like, no, you don’t ignore it,” she said. “It just really made me mad. And then I felt bad for him too because, you really gotta be really ignorant to think that I don’t seem like the type. You don’t even know me.”

All that said, her mother has offered Katerina the chance to come back to a Hartford school if she wants, but Katerina is staying in Plainville.

“It’s definitely worth it, if you’re getting a better education overall,” Katerina said. “I feel like high school and [younger] is where you really start your foundation.”

‘You can’t have that crayon’

And then there’s Henley Solomon.

He’s an Open Choice success story. But he also knows the challenge of being the only Black student in a West Hartford kindergarten classroom. He recalls how desperately he tried to fit in at the West Hartford schools from the time he arrived at Braeburn School in 2002.

The assignment was to make a picture of himself, and he went to color his skin and -- like everyone else -- he went to grab a tan crayon.

“My friend looked at me and said, ‘You can’t have that crayon. You’re not tan, you’re Black,” Solomon recalls. “And I said I’m not Black, I’m brown.”

At that moment, he recognized that he was different.

“And it was something about how my friend said Black that made me feel like, OK, I’m different,” he said. “And I felt some kind of shame from it because I was looking for friends, trying to make new friends. And as a child you look for similarities ... and here I was like, OK, this is a difference.”

His life changed when he got to Conard High School, where there was a higher percentage of Black and Latino students who weren’t trying to “fit in” but were proud of their racial and ethnic heritage.

Henley Solomon, 24, an assistant teacher at Conard High School in West Hartford is interviewed. Henley attend Conard as an Open Choice Student.
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
Henley Solomon, 24, is an assistant teacher at Conard High School in West Hartford. Solomon attended Conard as an Open Choice student.

“I didn’t have any Black friends growing up, so high school was like when I had my first Black friends, which is crazy, you know?” he said. “I made friends who were very comfortable in their skin. They were very proud to be Black. And they were proud of their culture and they weren’t conforming.”

They helped him learn to also be proud.

As a senior he was elected by his class to give the commencement speech. Solomon recalls that one of the lines was, “I’m a Black, male, Open Choice student from Hartford.”

“Those are just basic facts,” he said, but to him “it was a declaration” because, for so long, he had hidden the fact, as much as possible, that he was an Open Choice student from Hartford.

“It was my sign of freedom and liberty,” he said, “and me also recognizing that there are others who are like me, who are struggling.”

The future of Sheff, the future of integration

A major challenge for Sheff advocates in the coming years will be maintaining a racially and ethnically mixed student body.

Statistics show that the percentage of white students in the magnet schools has steadily dropped from 28.2% in 2012-13 to 16.1% last year. If the definition of “reduced isolation” students had not been expanded, many more magnet schools would be far below the longtime 25% target.

Tim Sullivan, superintendent of CREC schools, said he thinks the decline in the number of white students in magnets is related to several factors, ranging from the move of many Black and Latino families to the suburbs to societal divides on integration.

He said many families in the nearby suburbs can now find diversity in their own local neighborhood schools. It’s the outer towns that tend to be whiter, he said, but many of those families may not want to bus their children for long distances.

In addition, he said, the voices raised in Connecticut this year against critical race theory and other issues may signal a change in thinking among some on integration itself.

“If you look around Connecticut, you have more outspoken white people who are saying, ‘We need to protect white culture. We should not be made to feel guilty about historical racism,’’’ Sullivan said. “Are the people who are saying that going to want to send their kids to an integrated setting where social justice is being taught? Maybe not. But then again, I’m not one of those people. I can’t speak for them ... but I suspect that may be part of the problem.”

In 2018, Sheff faced a major legal challenge that is also reshaping its future. The Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group, filed a lawsuit, arguing that Sheff’s efforts to maintain an integrated student body were actually discriminatory.

Lawyer for the Sheff Plaintiffs, Martha Stone, is interviewed in the Connecticut Supreme Court, August 2021.
Julianne Varacchi
Connecticut Public
Martha Stone, a lawyer for the Sheff plaintiffs, is interviewed in the Connecticut Supreme Court in August 2021.

Lawyers for the Sheff plaintiffs dodged the Pacific Legal Foundation lawsuit with a settlement in January 2020 that shifted the lottery selection process to one based solely on socioeconomic demographics. In the past, the lottery had used towns as a proxy for race. The foundation dropped the lawsuit within a few weeks of the announced settlement.

Under the new settlement fewer than 60 % of the incoming students in a magnet school should be low-income and at least 30% of incoming students must be upper income. The socioeconomic goals also take into account a family’s level of education.

The 25% target for reduced isolation students will be used as a benchmark to assess the success of the socioeconomic approach.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and the state are optimistic that the shift in the lottery will maintain racial integration, but they are concerned that last year the percentage of Hartford students in integrated schools dropped from the mid-40th percentiles to 36.9%. They aren’t certain if the drop was the result of the new lottery system, the COVID pandemic or some combination, but they hope to see that number bounce back.

A key part of the 2020 settlement is also a provision for the future: For the first time, the state has agreed to come up with a long-term plan to provide an integrated setting for any Hartford student who wants one. The plan is in development now and is expected to be completed in the coming months.

Martha Stone, a key lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the upcoming long-term plan is welcome after years of returning to court regularly for incremental gains.

Every time she’s gone back to court, Stone said, she repeats the line in Justice Peters’ decision: “Every passing day denies these children ... equal educational opportunity.”

“You know, ‘every passing day.’ Do these three words mean anything? Because now, [25] years later, I’m still looking at not even 50% of those students in Hartford in a quality integrated education,” she said. “So I ask myself every day, do those three words ring hollow?”

She said the plaintiffs will be looking for a “bold plan” for the coming years.

“We’re going to be focused on [ensuring that] 100% of all students who want a quality education from Hartford shall be able to get it,” she said.

But there may be no convincing people like Craig Stallings when it comes to Sheff, though he has children enrolled in magnet schools. He says that while he supports integration, he doesn’t support the Sheff approach.

“The impression [Sheff advocates] gave my community is that in order for your kids to learn, they have to be sitting next to a white kid,” Stallings said. “And I remember a parent saying to me, ‘If our kids were in the ocean and the white kid has the preserver, I’m gonna tell my kid to hold on to that white kid!’ For me, that was heartbreaking because our kids should have their own life preservers. Yeah, and they should have their own quality of life.”

John Brittain, also a key lawyer for the Sheff plaintiffs, said he sees improving educational opportunities as a two-pronged effort.

John Brittain
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
John Brittain, a lawyer for the Sheff plaintiffs, is interviewed in his law office in Washington, D.C.

He said some academics argue that “the pursuit of school integration” only leads to a “cycle of frustration” and “that more money should be spent on increasing performance in segregated school districts.”

But Brittain said he “stuck to the other side, where the goal was to break up segregation because of its inherent inequality.”

Still, he said, “I do believe that the pursuit of educational equality, both for seeking integration in schools as well as for improving educational achievement in overwhelmingly nonwhite and very poor schools, is like two wings on a bird flying with the wings flapping in unison.”

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