Suburban Schools Could Absorb More Hartford Children, Say Sheff Supporters
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
September 28, 2007
A long-running program allowing Hartford schoolchildren to enroll in nearby suburban schools has been underused but could be a crucial means of promoting school desegregation, says a report being released today.
Fewer than 1,100 black and Latino children from Hartford are enrolled in predominantly white schools in nearby suburbs under Project Choice, but those suburban schools appear to have the capacity to enroll thousands more, the report says.
Despite slow growth in recent years, the program has produced encouraging academic results and has potential to help meet goals established in the Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation legal case, says a report sponsored by a group of Sheff supporters known as the Sheff Movement Coalition.
The report, called the "Project Choice Campaign," calls on the state to take a more aggressive role in expanding the program and prodding suburban schools to enroll more Hartford students.
Efforts to place Hartford children in desegregated schools have fallen far short of goals established in a 2003 court-approved settlement in the Sheff case.
With the state spending millions of dollars creating and supporting magnet schools as the centerpiece of its racial integration efforts, the suburban school choice program has been largely overshadowed, today's report says.
Unlike magnet schools, which can take years to develop fully, the city-to-suburb program "is the most efficient means of placing students in integrated school placements," says the report written by Erica Frankenberg, a graduate student at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.
"The slow growth and low suburban participation rates in Hartford's Project Choice program stand in sharp contrast to similar programs in Boston, Minneapolis, and St. Louis," Frankenberg wrote.
If the program were to expand, "I'm sure many parents would benefit," said Norma Richards, whose son Cedane, a second-grader, has been part of the choice program at Noah Wallace School in Farmington since kindergarten.
"In kindergarten, he was the only black child in the classroom," she said. "If he had two or three more children from the choice program, he'd probably feel more comfortable."
Of 27 suburban districts in the program, 10 provide less than one percent of their seats to Hartford students, and no district provides more than 3 percent, the report said. A review of state data suggests "there is significant room available in many suburban districts" for additional Project Choice students, the report said.
However, the capacity of districts to take Hartford students "is a moving target," said Robert M. Villanova, superintendent of schools in Farmington. He agreed there appears to be room to expand the program throughout the Hartford region, but said, "Capacity is determined to some extent by the will and desire of people who live in the community."
In Farmington, there has been strong support for Project Choice, he said. According to the report, Farmington schools enrolled 95 Hartford students last year, just over 2 percent of the town's overall enrollment.
Project Choice is an outgrowth of a student transfer program that began more than 40 years ago and was then known as Project Concern.
Project Concern survived financial problems in the 1980s and '90s and nearly closed down after being hailed as one of the nation's first voluntary school integration programs. The program started with 266 Hartford children bused to schools in Farmington, Manchester, Simsbury, South Windsor and West Hartford.
Along with magnet schools, the suburban choice program was part of a court settlement four years ago to comply with a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling ordering the state to desegregate Hartford's schools. However, enrollment in the choice program stagnated, and many of the magnet schools failed to attract enough white students, causing the settlement to fall far short of its goals.
After the settlement expired earlier this year, the two sides agreed on a new settlement that calls on the state to speed the pace of integration, but the legislature has balked at approving the agreement.
Still, lawmakers did approve a budget that includes additional money for integration programs related to the Sheff case, including Project Choice.
"What has to happen is Project Choice has to be marketed more effectively," said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.
Suburban participation in the program is voluntary, but Gaffey said the state Department of Education should be given authority to require suburban districts to set aside a specific number of seats for Hartford children.
Today's report calls on the state education department to "play a lead role as the champion for expansion ... of Project Choice" and says the department should establish goals for the number of Hartford children each suburban district is expected to enroll.
Although state financial support for Project Choice has increased, the report said the extra funding is not enough to provide teacher training, academic support and other services to assist students, the report said.
George A. Coleman, deputy commissioner in the state Department of Education, had not seen the report but agreed that "in many ways [Project Choice] is underutilized."
He said the state hopes to begin discussions with local districts about their level of participation in Project Choice, magnet school programs and other efforts to promote integration.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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