Despite protests, Hartford won’t abandon ad campaign for schools

Hartford school officials refused Monday to end an advertising campaign that has spurred protests from civil rights groups who contend it undermines a key strategy for desegregating the city’s schools.

A coalition of groups supporting a court order in the Sheff vs. O’Neill desegregation case asked the school system to cease a campaign that discourages parents from applying to suburban schools or magnet schools that are fundamental elements of the desegregation plan.

“That the city of Hartford would orchestrate this campaign is wholly inexplicable and inappropriate,” said a letter to city officials from Dennis D. Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation.

The letter drew a sharp response from Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, who described Parker’s complaint as “inappropriate.”

The exchange between Parker and Adamowski reflects an ongoing tension over the methods used to achieve the goals of the Sheff ruling. Adamowski has said the city supports the Sheff ruling but believes it has drained too many students from a system that has made significant strides to improve.

Hartford Public School officials launched the campaign earlier this year with television, radio and print advertisements urging parents not to gamble on a lottery for seats in suburban or regional magnet schools that are fundamental elements of the desegregation effort.

Instead, the ads advise families to choose among several career-oriented high schools and various restructured elementary and middle schools that are part of the city school system’s school reform program.

Parker and other lawyers representing plaintiffs in the long-running Sheff case contend that the “Choose Hartford” campaign will undermine efforts to reach goals established under a court-approved settlement.

Regional magnet schools and suburban schools are the central elements of the state’s effort to comply with a 1996 state Supreme Court order in the Sheff case seeking to reduce racial segregation among Hartford’s mostly black and Hispanic student population. Since then, the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars building and operating racially integrated magnet schools in the greater Hartford region. In addition, state officials are encouraging predominantly white suburban schools to accept more Hartford minority students under a transfer program known as Open Choice.

The City of Hartford was not a party in the original case but moved to intervene in the case four years ago to help shape desegregation remedies.

“Therefore, we were dismayed to read about the ‘Choose Hartford’ campaign which urges parents to accept their placement in Hartford Public Schools and conveys the message…that any participation in interdistrict programs or Open Choice poses an educational risk for children,” Parker wrote in a letter to city Corporation Counsel Saundra Kee Borges.

The ads refer to the risk of being rejected for admission to a suburban or magnet school because of the long odds in a selection lottery. Although many children are placed on waiting lists for those schools, Hartford can guarantee parents a spot at one of their top four choices of city schools, the ad campaign said.

“Why risk [your children’s] future on a lottery and then a waiting list?…They don’t need to go anywhere else,” the ads say.

The campaign, Parker said, “will deter parents and children from exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to a broad range of high quality, integrated educational opportunities.”

Adamowski said the school district supports the goals of the Sheff settlement but disagrees with the plaintiffs’ view of how to achieve the goals.

Under a reform program led by Adamowski, Hartford schools have shown encouraging progress, but the school system still ranks among the state’s lowest-performing districts on statewide achievement tests.  Last year, for example, just 43 percent of the city’s elementary and middle school students reached the proficiency level in reading on the Connecticut Mastery Test, and 57 percent met the proficiency standard in mathematics.

About 28 percent of Hartford’s minority schoolchildren now attend integrated magnet schools, charter schools, regional technical and agricultural high schools or suburban schools. However, under terms of the agreement with the Sheff plaintiffs, the state must increase that number to 41 percent by the 2012-2013 school year or meet at least 80 percent of the demand for seats.

As more parents choose city schools, the level of demand for seats in magnet and suburban schools will decline, making it easier to meet the state’s 80 percent threshold, Adamowski said.

In a statement released Monday, Adamowski said Parker’s letter appears to reflect “the ACLU preference for the manner in which the goals of the Agreement are achieved for the inexplicable purpose of extending the Sheff case and reducing the City of Hartford School District.”