Op-Ed: Hartford families need some Sheff course corrections

Connecticut is not alone in having so many dramatically different communities abutting each other, just a few minutes and miles separating them into their small towns, suburbs and densely populated cities.

Throughout U.S. metro areas, thin lines on the map reflect a wide, national divide.  Fortunate students who attend the highest-performing schools are just up the road a piece from those unfortunately at the other end of the spectrum.

Op-ed submit bugIt’s not a good situation … and everybody knows it, especially those of us in Connecticut.

Greater Hartford is blessed to have unique backing for quality integrated education, in the form of the Sheff v. O’Neill case.  In fact, to rectify past segregation, the State has delivered more options and opportunities for Hartford children than almost any place you can name.

Still, as strong as they have been, the state, city, and Hartford Public School efforts over the past decade have fallen short of securing the upgrades necessary at neighborhood schools.  We simply have not elevated the quality of education in Hartford as much as our next generation deserves – and our economic future requires.

Amazingly, still less than one third of Hartford students perform at grade level.

It’s time to re-think things.

While Sheff was never meant to solve all of Hartford’s problems, it’s time for all Sheff parties and affected citizens to better address the perceptual and real issues of low-performing Hartford schools, as Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez and her colleagues have pointed out in their transition report.

For what we believe are necessary course corrections, we have detailed eight recommendations on our website at achievehartford.org.  Here are just a few of these guideposts:

  • Expand the number of magnet and open choice seats for Hartford residents.
  • Revise racial-balance limits to allow more Hartford residents to use the unfilled seats at schools that turn away local children merely because not enough white students attend.
  •  Deal with the PR nightmare, under which parents year after year “lose” the lottery and cannot send their children to the great schools they look at every day, right down the street.  Advancing integration as a two-way street by allocating marketing dollars towards the promotion of certain Hartford neighborhood schools – and investing in their improvement – would go a long way toward reducing cynicism.
  •  Ensure that Sheff strategies touch Hartford’s neediest children, by funding transportation for Hartford families who win a seat in a magnet Pre-K, and mandating that all magnet schools achieve special education and English language learner enrollment percentages that mirror the District average.

The original promise and remarkable progress of Sheff should not be lost to bureaucratic inflexibility or heedlessness toward Hartford families’ experiences.  At most Board of Education meetings, including the one Dec. 16, parents come forward to express their frustration at losing the lottery year after year.  Thousands of others, never in attendance, don’t even apply.

By listening, learning, and revising approaches on behalf of Hartford children, we can identify and implement changes in policy that would allow more Hartford families to be touched positively by Connecticut’s unique acknowledgment of – and determination to step up and remedy – past segregation.

Another iteration of segregated and low-performing schools won’t do it.  With Sheff and the leadership at every level on board, our state and Hartford could be different.  We could be even smarter about how we tackle our state’s biggest constitutional obligation – and more successful.

Paul Diego Holzer is executive director of the independent, nonprofit education advocacy organization Achieve Hartford!

 

 

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