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Magnet Schools Not The Answer For Hartford


March 19, 2008

I have followed the saga of the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit for as long as I have been old enough to understand it. It is no secret that the Hartford public school system has been locked in a perpetual cycle of underachievement for decades. The settlement reached in the Sheff case in 2003 was purported to be a solution to the school problem.

I have never been a fan of that settlement. One of the inherent problems with the magnet school and busing agreements is that the plaintiffs seem willing to sacrifice the many for the few. The settlement called for 30 percent of Hartford's students to be in "racially integrated" schools by 2007. What about the other 70 percent?

Even this scaled-back goal was unachievable. Once it became clear that suburban whites did not want to send their children into the city, a new idea was suggested. Instead, the magnet schools would be placed in the suburbs to draw black students out. This is yet another well-intentioned continuation of ineffective policy.

A prime example of the failings of voluntary integration efforts comes from my own family. When my brother and I entered elementary school, I was accepted into Project Concern, the forerunner of today's Open Choice busing program. My brother was not. As a result, I attended Latimer Lane Elementary School in Simsbury, where I received a top-shelf education.

Meanwhile, my brother attended R.J. Kinsella Elementary School in Hartford, where a particularly dedicated teacher was forced to make photocopies of textbooks to hand out to students. This disparity was present in 1991, and 17 years of bargaining and negotiating have done little to alleviate it.

The other fundamental flaw of the settlement is the belief that integrating the school system is the silver bullet to cure Hartford's education woes. What the plaintiffs ignore is that the most racially isolated group of students in the state is white students, yet there is no call to desegregate Simsbury or Avon.

The implication of the settlement, then, seems clear: white students make schools better. I am not sure what this conclusion is based on. Perhaps there is a belief that white students will bring their white parents who will attend PTA meetings, hold bake sales and pour money into an area where they have no other vested interest.

I, however, was in full agreement with Hartford School Superintendent Steven Adamowski when he stated that there is no evidence to suggest that minority students learn better when a white student is sitting next to them.

Efforts to improve Hartford schools must be focused internally. Adamowski is on the right track with his plan to redesign and strengthen Hartford's existing schools, so that all may reap the benefits.

Take a look at the magnet schools that failed to reach the settlement's definition of racial integration: The waiting lists are years long in some cases. Hartford parents are demanding good schools, integrated or not.

The plaintiffs in the Sheff case had legitimate concerns about the quality of education in Hartford, but they seem to have lost sight of the forest for the trees. Instead of building magnet schools that will serve only a fraction of Hartford students, we should redirect that money to improving existing schools, hiring more tutors, increasing after-school activities and other programs that will have tangible results for everyone.

It is time we asked ourselves what the true goal is: integration or improvement?

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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