It Takes All Kinds
Published in Annual Report - 2009
Sixteen-year-old Alicia Robinson lives in three worlds.
There’s Hartford, a city that is more than 90 percent black and Latino, where she lives with her mother, younger sister and brother.
There’s Simsbury High School, an overwhelmingly white school in an upper-middle class suburban Connecticut town, where Robinson is a junior.
And there’s the special bus that Robinson rides for nearly two hours every day with 25 other students from Hartford, getting up at 5:30 to wait on her corner and arriving home after six on days when she stays late for chorus, multicultural club or the mentoring she does with incoming ninth graders.
“I’m getting a better education,” says Robinson, who wants to be a pediatrician. “A lot of people say, ‘You’re such an overachiever, you’re always doing homework’—but I’m very focused on what I’m doing.”
Robinson is one of more than 1,200 students living in Hartford who participate by lottery in Open Choice, a statewide program that allows them to attend public school in neighboring suburban towns. A related program enables both Hartford and suburban students to attend special magnet schools in Hartford. Open Choice, which builds on an earlier effort in Hartford called Project Concern, was created 21 years ago as a result of a landmark court case, Sheff v. O’Neill, brought by a group of Hartford parents who charged that Connecticut’s system of separate city and suburban school districts had created racially segregated schools and violated their children’s rights to equal opportunity. At the time the suit was filed, a staggering 74 percent of the city’s eighth graders needed assistance in remedial reading.
Nationwide, there are only seven other “inter-districts” (Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Rochester, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and East Palo Alto) that, like Hartford’s, enable students to move across district lines with the specific aim of attending integrated schools. The programs are dinosaurs—vestiges of a time that, for many, is recalled by images of angry protesters denouncing enforced busing. That era began to end in 1974, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal judges could not order desegregation remedies that send students across urban-suburban district boundaries without substantial, hard-to-document evidence that the suburban districts actually create racial segregation. It officially closed with an exclamation point in 2007 when the Court struck down voluntary racial balancing plans in Seattle and Louisville.
Now, though, there is compelling evidence that inter-districts—which are voluntary—are worth another look.
“The separateness and inequality that characterizes U.S. education along racial/ethnic and social class lines is increasingly circumscribed by school district boundaries,” concludes “Boundary Crossing for Diversity, Equity and Achievement: Inter-district School Desegregation and Educational Opportunity,” a study led by TC faculty member Amy Stuart Wells that was released in November 2009. “Despite the fact that [inter-district] programs are out of sync with the current political framing of problems and solutions in the field of education, the research suggests they are far more successful than recent choice and accountability policies at closing the achievement gaps and offering meaningful school choices.”
The study, which draws on previous research, newspaper articles and court documents, finds that inner-city students who attended suburban schools through inter-district programs have significantly outperformed peers who stayed in city schools. The inter-districts have also improved racial attitudes and led to long-term mobility and further education for students of color. And, perhaps most interestingly, suburban residents, educators, school officials and students grow to appreciate the programs more the longer they continue. In fact, the study reports, many former opponents are now defending inter-district programs against threats of curtailment, even when continuation would entail reduced funding.
All of which is in keeping with other findings by Wells, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on segregation issues. In hundreds of interviews she has conducted during the past decade, graduates (both black and white) have reported that the experience of attending an integrated school provided them with superior preparation for life and work. And in a recent study of school districts on Long Island, Wells found that schools in more affluent, largely white districts were better financed, had better resources and attracted better teachers.
“Once a district is perceived as mostly minority, white families begin to move out, teachers don’t apply for jobs and the poor quality associated with an apartheid school becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Wells, who wrote a widely admired brief that the Supreme Court considered in its ruling in the Seattle and Louisville cases. “So, simply by attending school in a district with more white families, poor students of color are more likely to have access to a better education.”
At Simsbury’s Henry James Memorial Middle School, for example, Michael McFolley, an eighth grader in the Open Choice program, is taking honors math and a social studies course that looks at the concept of the American Dream from multiple viewpoints and at different stages of the nation’s history. Michael’s after-school options include musical composition, a “MathCounts” competition team and a range of sports, including volleyball, badminton and weight lifting.
“I have a cousin my age in Hartford, and he’s doing stuff I did two years ago,” says Michael, who began commuting to Simsbury in first grade. “And he has no textbooks. He asks me to help him with his homework.”
Towns like Simsbury also typically offer safer and calmer environments than schools in the inner city.
“If I have six disciplinary cases here in a week, that’s a lot,” says Sue Lemke, principal at Henry James. “I have a colleague who’s an urban principal, and that’s typically the first two hours of her day.”
But Lemke believes other factors are required to make Open Choice a success. At Henry James, she and her team closely monitor students’ academic performance, intervening whenever any child receives a grade of D or F. The school also has a behavioral code, the HJ Way, which holds students accountable for being respectful, kind, responsible, fair and trustworthy. Lemke holds weekly ceremonies to honor students who model the code’s behaviors. In addition, Henry James Memorial employs three counselors who work with all students, particularly on the transition into middle school, where, for the first time, Simsbury students have a different teacher for each subject. There are also guidance classes within homerooms on topics ranging from tolerance and appreciating differences to career exploration.
Beyond that, the school makes a special effort to reach out to families of Open Choice students, holding dinners for parents that are prepared jointly by students and teachers, sponsoring a movie afternoon in Hartford and providing transportation out to Simsbury for school plays and other events. And recently the district, together with three others that participate in Open Choice, created a position for an “interventionist” who advocates for the Choice families and acts as a liaison between them and the schools.
“Open Choice has very specific expectations of parents, and the parents are extremely supportive—they’ve enrolled their children because they know education is the way to make a difference in their lives,” Lemke says.
Still, parents are often beset with other problems, particularly in a recession economy, and calls home sometimes go unreturned or reveal disconnected numbers. And even in Simsbury, Open Choice students—like students everywhere—can present more challenges as they grow older.
“Nearly all of our kids graduate and go on to some kind of post-secondary schooling, but some of them do struggle,” says Neil Sullivan, principal of Simsbury High School. “We offer a lot of supports, but some of them have very tough home lives. Also, at the high school level, unlike in the earlier grades, all the Choice kids ride the bus together, and that’s when the ‘too cool for school’ attitude can take over.”
Sullivan says he’s a fan of the program because all parties benefit. “The fact that we can bring 25 Hartford kids here is good for the Simsbury kids, because there are probably only about 25 other kids of color here,” he says. “So they’re getting a superior educational opportunity versus what they’d get in Hartford, and we’re getting diversity.”
For the most part, he says, Open Choice students fit in well—but inevitably there are kids who feel that teachers treat them differently because they are black or Latino.
“There are kids whose behavior is challenging, and the teachers get irritated,” he says. “The kids read it as, ‘teachers don’t like me because I’m black,’ but it’s not the kid, it’s the behavior—not doing homework, or something more belligerent. And we have white kids who act like that, too.”
The Open Choice students who fare best, Sullivan says are those who get involved in extracurricular activities. “It gives you a chance to get to know kids you wouldn’t necessarily meet if you just sit with the same group in the cafeteria every day.”
Alicia Robinson agrees with that assessment. “I have friends at home who say, why do you want to be with all these rich, white people, but I’m like, it’s not really like that. When I came, everyone was friendly and welcoming—it was pretty smooth.”
On the other hand, Open Choice kids do run into some stereotyping—for example, the assumption that they come from poor families. For the most part this is true, but there are middle-income students from Hartford who participate, too.
“All students from Hartford are eligible for free and reduced lunch, so when they come out to the suburbs, the assumptions are already made,” says Sylena Ellison, the interventionist who works in Simsbury.
Whatever the pros and cons of the Open Choice program, one thing is clear: both are likely to be more apparent in the future. A recent resettlement in the Sheff case calls for suburban towns to increase their participation in Open Choice, either by taking more students from Hartford or sending more students to Hartford magnet schools.
“We held a meeting of Simsbury and Hartford parents to decide how we wanted to respond to Sheff, and the consensus was that rather than send more students to magnets we wanted to take more Choice students in Simsbury,” says Diane Ullman, Superintendent of Simsbury Schools. “That was the decision even though doing so is financially burdensome—it costs about $12,000 [per year] to educate a student, and we are reimbursed only about $2,500 for Choice students. We’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do, both for the Choice students, and because it’s good for students in Simsbury. But with the economy, we’re cutting teachers, programs and services everywhere, so the question is, how can you add kids? That’s something the legislature hasn’t addressed.”previous page