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Sheff Case Turns Into A Classroom

College, Magnet School Students Are Court Observers

By MAGDALENE PEREZ, Courant Staff Writer

November 19, 2007

Before Jared Chase took a course on educational inequalities at Trinity College, he never thought much about the challenges city students in public schools face.

Chase grew up in Farmington, where his family of four had a house and five cars. He went to a good school where the work was challenging, the teachers supportive, and there was enough money to pay for state-of-the-art facilities.

But then Chase enrolled in "Cities, Suburbs and Schools," a class taught by Jack Dougherty, director of education studies at Trinity.

Dougherty is a witness for the plaintiffs in the landmark Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case, which was recently back in court for a hearing. And Chase like students from many colleges and high schools across the area sat in as a way to learn more about educational equality and the legal process.

In fact, research by some of Dougherty's students was key in creating a report on the state's desegregation efforts and where it falls short that Dougherty presented in court earlier this month.

For Chase, what really brought the differences between city and suburban education home was a book he read in Dougherty's class, "The Children in Room E4," that chronicled the experiences of fourth-graders at Hartford's Simpson-Waverly Elementary School.

The book describes a rare field trip the children took out of the city. Some students were amazed to see the Connecticut River. They pointed and cheered.

"You get an understanding of the isolation city students experience," Chase said. "A lot of things you might take for granted."

Chase was one of several dozen students from Trinity, the University of Connecticut and other schools to visit Hartford Superior Court over the past two weeks as the Sheff v. O'Neill case returned to court. Teenagers, graduate students, city magnet school children and first-year law students attended the hearings with notebooks in hand. Even two undergraduates studying psychology sat in the benches.

The reasons behind sending students into the courtroom is simple, educators said: The case is being fought on behalf of educating every Connecticut student fairly, and the hearing is an opportunity to give students an up-close understanding of educational and legal issues.

In the nearly two decades since Sheff v. O'Neill was filed in 1989, it has been the subject of many a master's thesis, Ph.D dissertation and high school writing assignment, said Eugene Leach, a co-plaintiff in the case and history professor at Trinity College.

"It's still a very innovative suit," Leach said. "I think students of education have a lot to gain by studying it."

A former student at Wesleyan University, Ana Weibgen, wrote her senior thesis on the Sheff case in 2005. She is now a paralegal for the racial justice program at the American Civil Liberties Union, part of the legal team representing the plaintiffs.

The long-running case aims to end the racial and economic isolation of Hartford children. The plaintiffs, 10 families representing 19 children, first brought the case in 1989. The state Supreme Court ruled on their behalf in 1996, but left it up to them to reach a compromise with the state. A decade later, the plaintiffs are still arguing that the state has not done enough to improve city education and integrate schools.On the hearing's opening day, so many high school students filled the courtroom that the judge called a recess to provide more seating. Among those attending were 23 juniors and seniors from Capital Preparatory Magnet School, accompanied by their social studies teacher, Juliet Sullivan.

The trial provided a perfect opportunity for the city magnet, which engages students in issues of social justice, to teach about a legal battle that is important to the lives of its students, Sullivan said.

"We want the students to understand how decisions are made," Sullivan said. "Everything that they were doing there could potentially directly affect us."

Some educators have made the Sheff v. O'Neil trial a part of their curriculum. At Capitol Preparatory, Sullivan is following the field trip with a math and geography lesson that will study minority enrollment in suburban schools.

And at Trinity, it was student research on the Project Choice program and other desegregation efforts in the Hartford region that produced the report Dougherty presented at the Sheff v. O'Neil hearing. Students interviewed parents, created computer tables and even analyzed data on the distances children travel to school.

"One thing we're trying to do is get students out of the classroom," Dougherty said. "I want them to not just read, but interact with real people."

And students have appreciated leaving the chalkboard behind.

"It's actually kind of cool to see the things we've been reading about in real life," said Mari Zigas, a student in Dougherty's class. "We got to meet Elizabeth Sheff and some of the other plaintiffs. It's like what we read come to life."

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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