Suburban Magnet Schools May Ease Hartford’s Endemic Segregation Problem
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB FRANK, Courant Staff Writer
March 03, 2008
In an acknowledgment that attracting white students to Hartford has been a tough sell, the focus of court-ordered desegregation efforts in Greater Hartford may soon be shifting to the suburbs.
State education officials are talking about channeling more than $100 million toward building new magnet schools in Hartford-area towns and increasing the number of slots for city students in suburban schools through the Open Choice program.
Officials are scrambling to meet a deadline to either withdraw or revise an outdated agreement between the state and the plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit to see if a legislative, rather than judicial, solution can be found to the problem of unequal, segregated education in the capital region.
The idea of basing magnet schools in the suburbs, broached last year by Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan, has garnered support from key legislators. At least three suburban districts have endorsed the idea for the preschool and early elementary grades, according to state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, co-chairman of the education committee.
But significant hurdles remain, not the least of which is that McQuillan does not have authority to force suburban districts to accept city children through the voluntary Open Choice program.
"There may be a need for some additional authority for the commissioner to open more seats. That issue, among others, will need to be addressed if that option is adopted," said state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who would not discuss the specific proposals under discussion.
The decades-long case to integrate city children in schools with their suburban peers returned to court late last year after the legislature failed to ratify an agreement between the state and the plaintiffs on how to proceed with desegregation. In January, the Superior Court judge hearing the case ruled that the prior agreement was still pending in the legislature and would take effect March 6 if not withdrawn or voted down.
McQuillan could not be reached for comment last week. But Fleischmann, who has been meeting with McQuillan, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, other key legislators and representatives from Blumenthal's office said that McQuillan's ideas are included in written proposals submitted to the plaintiffs.
To date, Blumenthal said, the only consensus reached is that dates in the agreement submitted to the legislature last year must be updated.
Other components of the original agreement — including the funding of charter and vocational technical schools — remain in the revised version that the state is hoping plaintiffs will approve and then send back to the legislature for ratification.
The newstrategy recognizes that suburban parents have been reluctant to send their children to Hartford.
The original Sheff settlement, which was reached in 2003 and expired last year, set a target calling for 30 percent of Hartford students to be enrolled in racially integrated schools by 2007, but the effort fell short.
A study by Trinity College researchers shows that just 9 percent of the city's students attend schools that have enough white students to qualify as racially integrated. Meanwhile, enrollment at many Hartford schools, including some magnets, remains almost entirely black and Hispanic.
Safety in the city is a concern that holds some suburban parents back, state officials have found.
In November, McQuillan conceded that the assumption that suburban youngsters would be drawn to magnet schools run by Hartford was mistaken, but said that six or seven magnet schools run by suburban towns and focusing on children in pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade could work.
Parents who otherwise would pay to send their preschool-aged children to day care would find the offer of an all-day public preschool school program enticing, McQuillan said.
Key legislators support McQuillan in his bid to carve a bigger role for the suburbs. "Magnet schools in the suburbs — that makes sense to me. We've tried the Hartford magnet experience and that hasn't worked that well toward reducing racial isolation," said Sen. Thomas Gaffee, D- Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.
"Parents are extremely reluctant to send their kids into Hartford except for some of the unique offerings like the school for the performing arts," Gaffee said. They're concerned about the crime rate and kids getting killed. I know that would weigh on my mind as a parent. Suburban parents will feel a lot more secure sending their children to a magnet school in the suburbs."
"It's a multi-pronged approach that is less reliant on Hartford," said Fleischmann.
Hartford officials declined to comment.
At least three suburban districts have expressed interest in building magnet schools for young children, Fleischmann said. Windsor, for example, formed a task force to examine the potential for building a magnet school for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.
Students who live outside Windsor would return to their town's schools for first grade. Simsbury is also forming a task force to explore the option of building a magnet school in the town.
The state pays 95 percent of construction costs and contributes to the operating costs of inter-district magnet schools.
Now the plaintiffs must sign on.
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, mother of the case's first named plaintiff, Milo Sheff, said magnet schools probably would be more successful in the suburbs than in Hartford. Waiting lists for successful magnet schools and for Open Choice slots show that there is demand among Hartford youngsters, she said. What troubles Sheff is the limited age group that the magnets would accommodate.
"What happens after third grade? They go back to their neighborhood schools?" she asked. "You have to talk about the 'what next?' There should be a path all the way through."
As further incentives for towns to create more room for Hartford students in their schools, Fleischmann and Gaffee said they would support increasing state aid tied to children who enroll in suburban districts.
The additional funding, coupled with an emphasis on enrolling children beginning at an earlier age, addresses the concerns some districts express about accepting older urban children who are years behind in their studies, taking the hit for their low test scores and providing enough support to help them catch up.
"If you get to educate a child from the age of 3, it's easier to make sure they progress the way you like them to," Fleischmann said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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