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A Shift Of Minorities In Schools

18 Years After Sheff Suit Filed, Noticeable Change In Suburbs

By MICHAEL REGAN, Courant Staff Writer

December 26, 2007

In the early 1980s, as the state engaged in a school desegregation debate that would lead to the landmark 1989 Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit, Bernice O'Neal's daughter was one of the few black children enrolled in Manchester's Verplanck Elementary School, where the minority student population was less than 20 percent.

"There wasn't a whole lot of African American children there at all," O'Neal recalls.

Today, O'Neal's granddaughter is among more than 220 minority students who make up about 70 percent of the pre-K through sixth-graders at Verplanck.

And the Sheff case is back in front of a judge, who last month heard arguments that there has not been enough progress in reducing the racial isolation of Hartford schoolchildren.

But if not much has changed in Hartford in the 18 years since Sheff was filed, dozens of schools in the region look much different than they did then.

While the number of minority students in Hartford's schools has declined slightly since then, the number in the rest of the region has nearly tripled. Outside of Hartford, school districts within the 36-town Capitol Region Education Council enrolled almost 38,000 minority students in the 2006-07 school year, up from a little more than 14,000 in 1988-89.

And while some schools outside of Hartford have themselves become overwhelmingly minority, three out of four minority students in those districts attend schools that would meet the Sheff goal of having a minority enrollment below 75 percent.

They include schools such as Manchester's Verplanck, where parents like Lilliam Irizarry, whose son Alejandro is in the fifth grade, say the diversity makes their children's educations richer.

"He has black friends, he has Spanish friends, he has white friends, he has Asian friends, he has friends from Pakistan, from India, from Africa," Irizarry said. "He would be able to deal with any kind of people."

But with the town's minority population growing steadily, Manchester officials already are grappling with the issue of balancing the racial makeup of its elementary schools.

Longer term, some wonder if an individual town can maintain integrated schools on its own.

"Given the small size of suburbs in Connecticut, the suburbs are going to need regional plans as well if they're going to maintain reasonable residential stability," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and a witness in the original Sheff lawsuit. "If you are going to have stable integration, you usually have to have policies for it."

Moving To The Suburbs

The movement of minority families to the suburbs is a major factor in the findings of two recent national studies: While Connecticut remains one of the more segregated states in the country by several measures, it is one of very few to have made any progress in reducing the racial isolation of black and Hispanic students. One study, by the Pew Hispanic Center, found that the proportion of Latino students attending schools that were more than 95 percent minority fell from 24 percent in the 1993-94 school year to 18 percent in 2005-06, the largest decline among six states. Black enrollment in the nearly all-minority schools dropped from 28 percent to 23 percent, fourth among seven states and the District of Columbia.

But the other study, by Orfield's Civil Rights Project, used the same national data to conclude that Connecticut was among the 20 most segregated states on three measures: the proportion of black and Latino students in schools that are more than 50 percent minority; the proportion of blacks and Latinos in schools more than 90 percent minority; and the percentage of white students in schools attended by the typical black or Latino student.

Orfield said there's no inconsistency between the studies: The desegregation effort mandated by Sheff, while "small potatoes" in his estimation, is better than what's going on elsewhere. "There are very few places that have any policy encouraging them to think about this issue at all," Orfield said. "Almost anything that you do can make a small improvement in the statistics."

What's improved the statistics most, however, is suburbanization, an analysis of state numbers shows:

肘nter-district magnet schools the principal means of reducing urban segregation in Hartford and statewide first opened in the early 1990s. Since then, enrollment has grown to more than 18,000, including almost 13,000 minority students.

肘n the seven school districts that were more than 50 percent minority in 1988 suburban Bloomfield and the cities of Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, New Britain, New London and Waterbury total minority enrollment in traditional, non-magnet public schools was about 75,000 in the 2006-07 school year. That represents an increase of about 8,000 less than 12 percent.

筆eanwhile, the number of minority children attending traditional schools in the remaining districts increased by almost 60,000, or 156 percent, to more than 98,000. Orfield and Richard Fry, author of the Pew study, said the growth of minority households outside central cities is part of a national trend.

"All groups of students are suburbanizing," Fry said. "That's true both of public school enrollments and of the whole population."

Fry's study noted that in past years the most racially isolated students nationally have been white, and the same was true of Connecticut: In 1988, almost half of the state's white public school children went to schools that were at least 95 percent white. Last year, that proportion was about 12 percent. The number of almost-all-white schools those with minority enrollment of less than 5 percent has fallen from almost 400 in 1988 to just over a quarter that number in 2006, almost entirely because of the increase in minority students in the suburbs. In Wethersfield, for example, where only one school had minority enrollment over 5 percent in 1988, none of the schools now has less than 18 percent.

But that "suburbanization" doesn't occur uniformly. Of the 77,000 minority students enrolled in districts that were less than 50 percent minority in 1988, more than half live in just 12 communities.

"Are those places going to remain integrated, or are we just seeing a temporary process, a transitional process?" Orfield said. "That's the billion-dollar question here."

The Right Way To Go

The original Sheff lawsuit was premised on the idea of a largely minority city in the center of a largely white region, said Jack Dougherty, an assistant professor at Trinity College who has studied the Hartford-area desegregation efforts and was a witness in the latest Sheff hearing.

"It's less clear now if that's the right way to frame things," Dougherty said. "There are more suburban communities that have much more in common demographically or fiscally with the city of Hartford."

"Should the remedy be reorganized to include different suburbs in different ways? That's the question," he said. "A great opportunity to make a cognitive shift here is to think about both city and suburban schools, and to recognize the variety of suburban schools. Not all suburbs are alike."

Hartford lawyer Wesley Horton, an attorney for the plaintiffs in Sheff v. O'Neill, said changes in the region are irrelevant to the case. "The fact that the suburbs are more integrated isn't any use for the kids still in Hartford," he said. "Certain kids are lucky enough that their parents can move to the suburbs. That's wonderful. But what about the kids that can't?"

And Elizabeth Horton Sheff, a Hartford city council member and mother of named plaintiff Milo Sheff, said it's too soon to be tinkering with the settlement. Although the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1996, it was another 5ス years before the state legislature approved a plan to settle the case.

"When we started in 1989, yes, things were different," she said. "But we didn't really get cracking with Sheff until 2003 that's four years ago."

Years before the settlement was approved, though, the two main remedies of Sheff development of magnet schools in Hartford and the region and voluntary busing of students from Hartford to the region were in the works.

Last year, fewer than 10 percent of Hartford's minority students attended schools that actually met Sheff's goal of having a minority enrollment below 75 percent, according to Dougherty's study.

Progress has been "very discouraging," Horton Sheff said. But, she said, where the settlement's goals have been met, there have been promising results, like higher test scores.

Still, she said, Sheff is only one means of reducing racial isolation. Improved economic and housing opportunity would give parents of minority students more choices of school districts.

"I believe that affordable housing should be on the plate," she said. But, she added, "if you think that talking about providing quality integrated education raises hackles, talk about putting affordable housing in the suburbs and see how far you get."

A Limiting State Law?

Meanwhile, many suburban towns are themselves forced to deal with the racial makeup of their schools under a 38-year-old state law that prohibits racial imbalance within any district. The state says a school is out of balance if the minority student population is 25 percent or more above or below the district average in the same grades.

Dougherty, the Trinity professor, said the imbalance law is of limited usefulness in promoting racial balance on a regional basis.

"The state really has no mechanism for dealing with racial change in suburbs if Sheff doesn't address it and if the suburban racial change is uniform," he said. "All we have right now is a mechanism that says, 'If one part of your suburb is out of whack with the rest of your suburb, that's a problem.' But that's a limited mechanism, because that talks about each box independently."

The most recent list released in the spring by the state Department of Education says six schools in four districts are not in compliance with the law because the minority student populations are 25 percent or more above or below the district average.

Districts with schools that are out of compliance have to submit plans for ending the imbalance.

Another 30 schools are approaching racial imbalance, the department says, because their minority enrollments are 15 percent to 25 percent above or below the town average. Of the 13 towns on that list, Manchester is the most often cited: six of its 10 elementary schools have an impending imbalance, including Verplanck.

The prospect of coming under state scrutiny doesn't sit well with many in Manchester. "They sit there and say Verplanck might be out of balance," said Louise Svalestad, president of the Verplanck PTA and mother of two students at the school. "You're looking at [a school in which] 30 percent are Hispanic, 30 percent are white, 30 percent are black how much more balanced can you get?"

Diane Kearney, supervisor of equity programming for the Manchester schools, said the district is looking at options for improving racial balance in the schools so they reflect the world Manchester's children will live in.

"School is a microcosm of what it used to be, so from that perspective, it's important to maintain racial balance. But it shouldn't be forced on us, that's the problem," she said. "I think it becomes counterproductive and divisive when the law says, 'You have to do this.'"

Longer term, though, the district is more concerned with improving race relations townwide than with counting heads school-to-school.

"It's about building good race relations, so ultimately it doesn't matter," said Kearney, who also has been a teacher and assistant principal in Manchester. "If you better your race relations, then difference becomes healthy and not divisive. Then it doesn't matter if there's an imbalance."

To achieve that, Kearney said, the town has been engaged in conversations about race involving students, faculty and parents for the last several years.

"I think Manchester really is moving in a direction in which hopefully race doesn't matter, because we are having conversations about race," she said. "Once you begin that conversation, I think the rest becomes easy." "We have an advantage because we have to work together."

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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