Hartford: Integrating Schools in a Segregated Place
Hartford, Connecticut, is home to arguably the most successful voluntary system of school integration in the county, and the rare place that joins kids from city and suburbia in some of the same schools. More than 45 percent of Hartford’s black and Latino K-12 students attend schools (mostly magnet schools) where they make up between 25 and 75 percent of the student body (officially known in desegregation parlance as “reduced-isolation settings”). As recently as 2002, an estimated 90 percent of such students—compared to 55 percent today—were enrolled in hyper-segregated schools.
That progress is hard won. As Elizabeth Horton Sheff puts it, “The magnet-school fairy didn’t just decide to visit Hartford.” She would know: Her son Milo, now a 37-year-old artist and entrepreneur, was the lead student plaintiff in Sheff v. O’Neill, the landmark 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court case that declared Greater Hartford’s segregated public schools unconstitutional.
That ruling was not prescriptive. In other words, the court ordered the state legislature to address the problem but didn’t mandate how to do it. Rather than redrawing school district enrollment lines, the legislature devised a voluntary system of magnet schools and school choice transfer options, constructed to serve a mix of mostly white suburban students and Hartford-resident minority students. Thanks to vigilance on the part of the lawyers and advocates behind Sheff, who have repeatedly returned to court to force the state to do better, today more than 9,000 non-white (and non-Asian American or -American Indian) students in Hartford attend integrated schools. (Those minority/majority racial categories were defined by the Sheff settlement.)
But if Hartford is a shining example of successful school integration, it’s also a sobering reminder that “most successful” is graded on a curve in a country where schools and cities remain, by and large, profoundly segregated. In Hartford, few people celebrate the current conditions brought about by Sheff v. O’Neill, not even its plaintiffs. Discontent among the families of the 55 percent of minority students who are not enrolled in reduced-isolation schools—by choice or because they didn’t win a seat in the lottery—runs high.
To some members of the Sheff Movement coalition—a multi-racial advocacy group founded by plaintiffs and advocates involved in the Sheff case—the fraught debate is encouraging. It affirms that their fight has positioned school integration as a central issue in Hartford, unlike the many other cities where it remains theoretical. And coalition members have faith that their progress will compound over time as students who attend racially and socioeconomically integrated schools grow up to believe in their value.
“Over the long term, that’s how the system shifts: more and more people having positive experiences in [diverse learning environments],” says Gina Chirichigno, an organizer with the Sheff Movement coalition. “It’s a big deal that more than 45 percent of the students here are part of these learning environments. But we’re not done.”
Why the Complaints?
To understand the continuing debate, it’s important to be able to picture Hartford, a poor central city surrounded by suburban wealth, with students crisscrossing lines to attend school. It’s the 47th largest metropolitan area in the United States, with more than 1.2 million residents, but only 125,000 people live in the 17-square-mile city itself. More than 30 percent are below the poverty line, making Hartford the fourth-poorest city with more than 100,000 residents in the country.
Yet Greater Hartford—which includes elite suburbs like West Hartford, Farmington, and Simsbury—has the nation’s seventh highest median household income. Hartford is far from the only city with such a glaring urban-suburban disconnect, but the city’s small physical size means that some of Greater Hartford’s most affluent suburban neighborhoods sit just a few miles from its poorest inner-city corners.
That condensed geography is one reason the more than 45 magnet schools that draw from both city and suburbs have worked as well as they have in Hartford. But the lottery system that determines entrance to those magnets has ended up shifting recruitment priorities, critics say, and in some ways reinforcing white privilege.
The lottery is “blind.” It does not take student race into account. But in order for a school to qualify as integrated in compliance with the Sheff decision, magnets must enroll at least 25 percent non-minority students. To attract enough non-black or -Latino families for magnets to meet that threshold, the Greater Hartford Regional School Choice Office and individual schools blitz the white suburbs with marketing, investing time and significant resources—$350,000 in 2015.
Over time, thanks both to the success of the magnet program and demographic changes in some of Hartford’s inner-ring suburbs, recruiters have had to reach farther and farther out from the urban core to attract enough white students. Meanwhile, thousands of black and Latino children in Hartford are denied entrance to magnets every year, even as a handful of open seats remain unfilled in order to keep non-minority student enrollment above 25 percent.
The stakes are inherently uneven, considering how clear the research is that students who would otherwise attend racially isolated, high-poverty schools experience academic and social benefits when they attend integrated schools. For many black and Latino students, winning the lottery provides an exit from some of Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools and access to a place like Hartford’s Breakthrough Magnet School, named the best in the nation last year by Magnet Schools of America. For suburban white students, a magnet school organized around an interesting theme is one excellent option among many.
For Beayanka Pinckney, a realtor whose two daughters attend a Montessori magnet school in Hartford, the exclusive focus on voluntary school integration lets Greater Hartford off the hook for the underlying injustice: housing inequity, in particular suburban zoning laws that stand in the way of affordable rental housing. “I’ve always said it’s been a housing issue, that if people of color had the opportunity to move into other communities—Avon, Simsbury, Glastonbury—we would have equity in our schools,” she says.
Critics also note that the poorest and highest-need students in Hartford are least likely to enroll in magnet schools, in part because of the difficulty of navigating the lottery application process.
And as always, there’s an issue of cost. Since 2003, the state of Connecticut has poured more than $1.4 billion into the construction or renovation of magnet schools in order to implement the Sheff decision. But as Connecticut grapples with a years long fiscal crisis and constant threats of state budget shortfalls, political will to keep funding construction has dried up.
Meanwhile, the cost of operating magnet schools has ballooned to a yearly budget of $325 million. Some critics, including HPS teacher Syeita Rhey-Fisher (Connecticut ’07), argue that money is needed in Hartford’s traditional district schools, which have faced budget cuts and school closures over the same period.
A Hartford native and mother of two young daughters, Rhey-Fisher testified at a recent Hartford board of education meeting that budget cuts to in-school suspension and intervention specialists were making the school where she works, Global Communications Academy, less safe and less just.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming Sheff for these inequities,” says Paul Diego Holzer, the executive director of the nonprofit research and advocacy group Achieve Hartford! “State money won’t magically go to districts if magnet school funding goes away.”
Teach For America–Connecticut Executive Director Nate Snow does not discount the progress made by Sheff advocates, nor the benefits that progress brings to tens of thousands of kids—urban and suburban—who have the increasingly rare American experience of attending integrated schools. But he questions whether the way the legislature responded—by overlapping magnet and district schools—may be too expensive to “remedy the problem at scale.”
“Why not implement region-wide school choice for all kids, which would eliminate the cost of two competing systems?” Snow says. “Using our current approach, we’re paying a premium to stay segregated.”
Elizabeth Horton Sheff didn’t become involved with the Sheff v. O’Neill case for her own children’s sake. Even 28 years ago, she wasn’t that naïve—unlike her then 10-year-old son Milo, “who thought it would be like Judge Judy and take 30 minutes.”
“I didn’t expect Milo to benefit at all from this, knowing how long court cases take,” Horton Sheff says. “I did it not for my child; I did it for our children.”
Almost three decades later, Horton Sheff says she continues to spend many hours visiting with students and community leaders of all kinds, explaining Hartford’s integration history to people familiar with magnet schools but unfamiliar with the 30-year struggle. It’s essential to “not let people forget how important this is,” she says. “Once you let public discourse die, then oftentimes the issue dies.”
Thanks to Horton Sheff and a multi-racial band of integration allies who have persisted together for decades, re-litigating for justice in court and also in the court of public opinion, the discourse around Sheff and racial justice in Hartford is far from dead. On a Saturday morning in February, more than 700 Greater Hartford residents came out to a forum sponsored by Hartford Public Schools in which they discussed critical race theory and shared their own experiences with racism in small group discussions.
Horton Sheff doesn’t consider the continued demands of advocacy a burden. This is what it takes to make real social change, she says, and it’s what she signed up for all those years ago. “A court decision alone is not going to change everything,” she says. “A court decision is a nice thing, but if you don’t have people staying on top of the court decision and implementing it, it’s moot."
“We’ve been at this 28 years, and it gets difficult at times,” she says. But “until every family in our area who wishes to have a placement in a quality integrated setting gets that placement, we’re not finished.”
None of these issues are new to the Sheff Movement coalition, which has been meeting once a month for the past 12 years, diligently working to ensure that integration progress does not stall or reverse course. Their response is “Yes, but…”
“You shouldn’t have to win the lottery to get a good education. We all agree with that,” says Gina Chirichigno of the Sheff Movement coalition. The costs and unintended consequences of implementing Sheff, she says, are really consequences of Greater Hartford’s civic, economic, and educational segregation. “Sheff gets blamed for creating these inequities,” she says, “when really, it’s making them more visible.”
And like Nate Snow, she raises the reminder that the state legislature—not the court or the plaintiffs—chose to use voluntary magnets and school choice to desegregate. The Sheff Movement coalition’s commitment above all is to honor the Supreme Court’s ruling that school segregation is unconstitutional, not to endorse the specific methods by which progress has been made.
As Elizabeth Horton Sheff likes to say, “This is a constitutional question that’s been asked and answered.” The conclusion to be drawn from Sheff v. O’Neill’s implementation so far should not be, “Well, we tried,” but instead, “What next?”
Last summer’s This American Life series “The Problem We All Live With,” reported by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Chana Joffe-Walt, is the most acclaimed and prominent recent example of journalism about school integration. Some others that informed our reporting were:
- The Dream Long Deferred by Frye Gaillard: a history of Charlotte’s school desegregation from the 1950s-70s.
- “The Fall of the Lions” by Lisa Rab, in Charlotte magazine: a profile of West Charlotte High School.
- The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial by Susan Eaton: the story behind Sheff v. O’Neill and its implementation in Hartford.
Nationally, advocacy and research groups working to advance the dialogue around school integration include:
- One Nation Indivisible, co-created and -directed by Gina Chirichigno
- The University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights
- The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA
Those organizations are three of the dozens of members of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which hosts in-depth, downloadable policy and research briefs on school integration on its site School-Diversity.org.
About the Author
Tim Kennedy (Mississippi ’11) is the former editorial manager of One Day. He joined the magazine in 2013 after teaching English in Marianna, Arkansas.