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The Children In Room E4

If You Think The Segregation Problem Is History, Read This Book.

March 1, 2007
By MAUREEN TURNER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

In 1989, a third-grader named Milo Sheff sued the state of Connecticut for the right to a decent education.

The lawsuit, Sheff v. O’Neill, argued that Milo Sheff and all Hartford schoolchildren were receiving a woefully inadequate education in city schools, the result of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. The suit — which included 18 other children and their families as co-plaintiffs — contended that state officials bore the blame for the failures of the city schools.

“The defendants have recognized the lasting harm inflicted on poor and minority students by the maintenance of isolated urban schools districts,” yet had failed to remedy the situation, the suit charged.

Eighteen years later, Milo Sheff is a 28-year-old father and hip-hop artist who dropped out of high school but got his diploma through an adult education program. His home town, and its public schools, are poorer, more segregated, and struggling even harder. City teachers find their lesson plans dominated by relentless prep for new, high-stake standardized tests. And the lawsuit bearing his name, meanwhile, is still slogging its way through the courts.

On paper, at least, the Sheff plaintiffs were victors. In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state did indeed bear responsibility for improving the condition of Hartford schools, where students “suffer daily from the devastating effects that racial and ethnic isolation, as well as poverty, have had on their education,” conditions created by an existing school district system the court found to be unconstitutional. The court directed the state Legislature and executive branch to “put the search for appropriate remedial measures at the top of their respective agendas.”

But the court’s directive had no teeth, no power to force legislators to take any real action. A decade after the ruling, the state and the plaintiffs have continued to revolve back in and out of the legal system. Settlements have been reached; desegregation goals set; new programs created — but all have fallen far short of what needs to be done, sending the plaintiffs back to court charging that the state hasn’t kept up its end of the deal.

Sheff was filed by a group of dedicated civil rights attorneys who “believed it could revive the ideals inspired by Brown v. Board of Education,” journalist Susan Eaton writes in her new book, The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial (Algonquin).

A revival was long overdue. That 1954 Supreme Court decision, a watershed moment in the American civil rights moment, outlawed racial segregation in public schools; the ruling, in essence, declared that the existing “separate but equal” doctrine was a farce that in fact resulted in inferior treatment of and opportunities for African-Americans.

Twenty years later, though, Brown was significantly undercut by another Supreme Court decision in a case called Milliken v. Bradley. In that case, the court overturned a plan to desegregate Detroit schools through an inter-district bussing plan that would bring city kids to suburban schools and suburban kids to city schools. The court found that the outlying school districts bore no responsibility for segregating the Detroit schools and therefore could not be required to participate in urban desegregation plans.

While de jure segregation — segregation caused by explicit laws — was still considered unconstitutional, the court’s ruling made it clear that de facto segregation — segregation caused by seemingly voluntary actions, such as where people live — was exempt from the Brown ruling.

“The world was made safe for white flight,” legal historian Lawrence Friedman wrote of the Milliken ruling. “White suburbs were secure in their grassy enclaves. … Official, legal segregation indeed was dead; but what replaced it was a deeper, more profound segregation.” Certainly that’s what happened in Hartford and many other American cities, where mostly white, middle-class suburbs ring increasingly poor, black and Hispanic cities.

To write The Children in Room E4, Susan Eaton — a veteran journalist who began her career at the now-defunct Holyoke Transcript-Telegram and now lives in eastern Mass. — spent four years tracking a group of third- and fourth-graders at Simpson-Waverly Elementary School in Hartford’s North End. Eaton was initially drawn to Simpson-Waverly because for a time it appeared to be beating the odds, posting high standardized test scores that earned it recognition from the Bush administration as a model urban school in 2003. That glory, however, was short-lived; within a few years the school’s scores had plummeted, an indication of the challenges facing its students and educators.

Eaton interweaves those students’ stories with the story of Sheff, and with a larger story that echoes in Springfield, Holyoke and countless U.S. urban centers, of how once-thriving communities have faltered, how racial and economic segregation have become so commonplace as hardly to warrant notice, and how those cities’ children, in particular, suffer, locked into a future as the permanent “underclass.” Eaton recently talked to the Advocate about her research.

Advocate: You write that in the North there’s this sense of “no-fault segregation” — that Northerners tend to say, “What segregation? That’s a Southern thing.”

Susan Eaton: We sort of have this idea of “segregation” as being real and true segregation. We have this image of this white, pig-faced guy blocking the schoolhouse door. Well, we didn’t have that in the North. [Southern segregation] was a much easier story to tell: there were bad guys and there were good guys. Well, in the North there were a lot of bad guys. They weren’t as prominent, but they did help to shape the situation we have today.

Then we have people on the right saying [segregation] is just a matter of choice, people living where they want to live; it’s nothing to do with the government. But even people’s supposed choices have been shaped by a legacy of discrimination. When I was writing this book …one of the kid’s grandmothers [told me], “Well, I want to leave; I just don’t know where to go.” Well, why doesn’t she know where to go? She doesn’t know where to go because she’s this second, third generation of people who’ve been segregated in this incredibly isolated corner of America that’s completely cut off from the rest of society, and there’s no link to the other world. …

We as a nation are so fixed on this idea of triumphing over adversity — we focus so much on those stories, and they are beautiful stories, and they should be told. I think we focus on those things because they’re more pleasant, whereas the truth of the matter is, most poor people get stuck, and they never get out. …

I think we focus on [the exceptional success stories] to the point where that’s all we’re focusing on. It obscures the depth and seriousness of the real problem, and then we generalize from them, and we begin to base our public policy on them, which is truly troubling. … We’re creating our public policy around exceptions. We’ve got a president saying things like, “Any school can be a beat-the-odds school; you just have to try harder; it’s just a matter of these teachers and kids and families working harder and taking more tests.” Which is, of course, absurd.

A: So is there a workable blueprint for real change?

E: It’s not one we’re pursuing or drawing right now, sadly, and that’s one where a region feels some collective responsibility for all of its children, so that the suburbs see themselves as interdependent on the city that has been left behind. …

We are looking at a future not very far from now — 2050 — in which whites are going to be in the minority. It’s really important to not just get everybody up to a certain standard, but to connect children who are completely disconnected from that society, and one way to do that is through schools. Another way is through programs that help families obtain and maintain some economic stability. Programs, for example, for the increasing immigrant population. Funding has been cut from adult education programs that teach people English. It’s very basic. I’ve never met an immigrant who doesn’t want to learn English, but opportunities for that are declining.

All of these things are connected. If I were a policy maker, I would look at every single policy and say, “Does this help connect the disconnected to the large population?” That’s the first question to ask. Instead, we pursue these kinds of band-aid solutions, especially in our educational policy. Now, under the Bush administration, we act as if everything else is already equal in our society, and therefore anyone should be able to live up to high standards if we just set them, which is ridiculous.

It’s not that I’m a pessimist. It’s that I’m a realist. I was reading the newspaper, the Hartford Courant, a month or so ago, and there was a little item in there about a school bus that had been fired upon by some teenagers with a pellet gun, and a window had smashed and one of the little girls on the bus had to be taken to the hospital. In the world of urban America, in the world of Hartford, Connecticut, this is not a big deal; that’s why it was a small little story. Then at the end of the story it said, “School spokesperson Terry D’Italia confirmed that this was one of several pellet gun and bus incidents since the beginning of the school year.” And I’m thinking, “This is one of several?”

We have kids getting fired upon while they’re on the school bus with pellet guns, windows are smashing, kids are having to be taken to the hospital, but our education policy is saying all children are ready to learn and they all can live up to a high standard. Any child who was just on a school bus whose window was smashed is not mentally prepared for fractions, I don’t care how good your teacher is. It’s incident after incident after incident after incident like that that just speaks to the absurdity of certain elements of No Child Left Behind.

A: You mention the idea of collective, regional responsibility for educating kids — what about the idea of regional school districts? Which is an idea that’s obviously politically —

E: Unsavory.

A: If more kids from Hartford and Glastonbury went to school together, kids from Springfield and Longmeadow went to school together, how different would those worlds be? But of course if you’re in Glastonbury, you’re probably not too excited about the idea of having your kid shot at on the school bus with pellet guns.

E: You’ve hit on the key problem here, in terms of doing some sweeping, huge solution. That doesn’t mean that some things can’t be done. There are probably a lot of parents in Longmeadow who’d like their kids to go to a racially diverse school. We’ve seen evidence of that in Hartford, waiting lists for parents from the suburbs who want their kids to attend schools that approximate the real society in some way. I think there’s most definitely a call for that type of education out there. … We’ve got the charter school movement — OK, if we’re going to go ahead with charter schools, why not have some charter schools whose explicit goal is to create a school that looks like the rest of America and draws kids from all different communities and backgrounds?

There’s actually a lot of things that can be done. I’m not really optimistic that there’s going to be any huge sweeping solutions like regionalization. However, I also think that if, when the Sheff case was originally filed in 1989, if they had done something like merged some school districts, gone about things that way, everybody would be pretty used to it by now. I mean, it’s 18 years later. It wouldn’t even be an issue anymore. We’d be writing stories about: “It’s 20 years since the merger, and how is it working, and, well, in some cases it’s working and in some cases it’s not, but generally things look better.”

If all of the intelligence and the money and the passion that was put into the state of Connecticut fighting this case from the very beginning, with every last breath that they had, if that energy had been put into devising a real solution to this economic and racial isolation and inequality we have, I think things would be so much better. Instead, there’s no evidence that things are getting any better — there’s evidence that things are getting worse.

A: Why do you think there’s been such resistance?

E: There’s been an enormous amount of research done on the benefits of integration for everybody, and also on the harms of racial isolation and segregation, especially in its extreme forms, like we have in neighborhoods in Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford. There’s been so much done on these questions [that lingering resistance] is amazing to me.

I think it’s in part because state legislatures are dominated by suburban interests. I think it’s hard for a suburban legislator to see what the interests of desegregation would be for his or her constituency. It takes a really strong person of exceptional moral character to stand up and say, “This is a policy that benefits everybody and I’m going to support it; we all should support it.”

People talk a good game about: “All children can learn; we need to educate all children.” But when it comes down to it, the suburbs still say, “Oh, that’s the cities’ problem.” Well, it’s not just the cities’ problem. It’s everybody’s problem. It would be a far better city, society, region, country if we started to see things in that light.

A: What about funding? You point out that Simpson-Waverly, for one, isn’t this stereotypical run-down school with rats scurrying around the kids’ feet and plaster falling on their head, that it’s more that just a question of putting enough money into city schools.

E: It’s much more complicated than just money. One of the reasons why you need more money is that these kids are impoverished in so many ways. It’s a different reality than suburban life. Money is really important. … But to see the inequalities, you can’t just look at the numbers or the test scores. You’ve got to go to both your classic segregated urban school and then go to a suburban school and see what the differences are.

The differences aren’t necessarily in material things. They’re in the curricular differences, the culture of the school, the way the children are treated. … The nature of education in the two places is qualitatively different. It’s not just a matter of the style of the teacher or even the real material that’s being taught. It’s that one prepares kids for what life is like out there and the other one just doesn’t.

The urban one is about meeting this incredibly basic, narrow thing that we call a “standard.” And the suburban model, or the white, middle-class model, is all about getting kids ready to be articulate and worldly and conversant, and problem-solvers and entrepreneurs and creative thinkers and independent, and tapping into curiosity and individual interests, and respecting the kids, taking them very seriously. Whereas in the urban community, some of the educators do that, but the general culture of this supposed model school I was in was one that was punitive, and often a place where contempt for the children, if not the rule, was tolerated as a kind of behavior control.

A: How much of a problem is attracting and retaining the kind of teachers you’d want teaching kids? You read stories about how many new teachers are not considered qualified. And certainly there aren’t a lot of incentives that are going to make a lot of bright, ambitious college kids say, “Sign me up; I want to go teach in the Springfield schools, or the Hartford schools.”

E: Right, and that is a symptom of racial segregation and concentrated poverty. Everybody acts as if, “Oh, it’s a challenging environment; it’s an urban environment.” Well, it’s an environment that’s man-made, created through racial discrimination that corrals the most stressed-out, exhausted, disenfranchised members of society into one little corner. And then we say, “Well, of course we can’t attract professionals to come into an environment like this.”

It’s not just a constant challenge because of all the social problems of poverty that come in and weigh on the school — you’ve got children there who are in trouble because of their exposure to violence, because they’re unhealthy, because of environmental issues; I mean, you name it — you also have the federal government putting incredible pressure on these schools.

The game’s rigged from the beginning. You come in and even if you’re a great professional, a creative person, and you’re committed to this population of kids, you’re basically told, “Well, you can’t really be a real teacher. You can be a person who teaches to this test.” Of course, why would anyone stay except for people who can’t get a job anywhere else, or people who are so extremely dedicated … [they] can’t imagine going anywhere else?

There were a lot of educators in Simpson-Waverly who were amazing, so dedicated. But it’s a situation now where a kid can’t even benefit from that kind of creativity and that kind of nurturing because it’s all about the test. In the current structure we have, where you’ve got these schools that are segregated and cut off, and you’ve got all these challenges, the tests make sense, because if you’ve also got generally unqualified, inexperienced teachers, the test tells them what to do in their job. It’s this catch-22: it’s going to run off the really good teachers, and it’s going to allow really unqualified teachers to do a good enough job. …

There’s a group of progressive educators who are so opposed to any kind of testing or standards at all; most of these educators are white. I don’t actually agree with them. I don’t agree that the only good type of education is the progressive type of education where you focus only on the child’s creativity. I think there’s all types of educational philosophies and methods that show evidence of working with different types of kids. … My argument is that the structure has rigged the game so that it makes the possibility of receiving a balanced, full, enriching, high-quality education almost impossible.

Yes, I’ve seen it happen; yes, there are exceptions. But generally speaking, it’s just a sham to say we’re going to achieve equality without really looking at these big social problems like segregation and concentrated poverty.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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