Whether 9-year-old Nejaughn Ware Jr. ever gets to enroll in a suburban school or continues to attend Hartford’s public schools could depend on more than just the annual school choice lottery.

The fourth-grader’s future also could hinge on a bill pending before the state legislature.

Lawmakers appear poised to substantially bolster financial incentives to expand the state’s Open Choice program, a longstanding school desegregation program that allows children from Hartford to enroll in nearby suburban schools.

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Nejaughn Ware Jr., a 4th-grader at Hartford’s Wish School, has applied for a suburban school in the state’s Open Choice program

Until now, many suburban schools, citing a lack of space or money, have accepted only a trickle of students from Hartford, leaving thousands of others, such as Nejaughn, on waiting lists.

“For three years, he’s been put on a list,” said Jacqueline Gamble-Ware, Nejaughn’s mother, who also is hoping to land a spot in a suburban kindergarten class for her 5-year-old daughter, Jahara.

Nejaughn and Jahara are black. Moving some of Hartford’s largely minority student population to integrated or mostly white suburban schools is part of the state’s strategy to comply with a 1996 state Supreme Court order in the Sheff vs. O’Neill desegregation case. But enrollment in the suburban choice program has remained largely stagnant while the state has put most of its emphasis on building racially integrated magnet schools with popular specialty themes such as science, performing arts and international studies.

Now, however, in light of the state’s deep fiscal crisis and the high cost of building and operating magnet schools, many educators and politicians believe the suburban choice program is a far less expensive alternative.

The choice program was known as Project Concern when it began 45 years ago with 266 Hartford children bused to schools in Farmington,, Manchester, Simsbury, South Windsor and West Hartford. The program reached about 1,200 students in the 1970s but fell on hard times and nearly closed.

Today, enrollment is about 1,300 students in 28 districts in the Greater Hartford region, but growth has been slow even though a state study two years ago said suburbs have the capacity to enroll nearly three times that number.

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 a court-approved 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.

“Open Choice is one of the most efficient policy tools the state has to achieve the goals of Sheff vs. O’Neill,” said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee. “It’s far more costly to put [children] into magnet schools.”

Since 2007, the state has offered $2,500 per pupil to encourage suburban districts to accept urban children under the choice program, but a proposal pending in the General Assembly would raise the stipend to $3,000 in districts where urban transfer students make up less than 2 percent of enrollment, $4,000 in districts exceeding 2 percent and $6,000 for those above 3 percent.

“I am extremely optimistic about [the bill] passing,” said Fleischmann.

That would be welcome news to school districts that have supported the program and probably would encourage others to bolster their participation, particularly as public school enrollments in many districts have begun a gradual decline.

“I really think this is the most powerful incentive we could move forward right now,” said Becky Tyrrell, school board chairwoman in Plainville, where 47 Open Choice transfers account for just under 2 percent of the district’s enrollment.

“We had planned on increasing our [Open Choice] enrollment pretty considerably this year. If this [legislation] goes into effect, we’re certainly going to try to hit the 3 percent figure.”

Martha Stone, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Sheff case, said Open Choice “is a cost-effective means of meeting the Sheff goals, but suburban districts are not coming forward in the absence of any incentives…There hasn’t been strong enough leadership from the state and from local boards of education to make it happen.”

Although public schools in Hartford have made academic progress in recent years, the school system, like other urban districts, still struggles with low test scores, high dropout rates and growing financial strains, prompting many parents to seek alternatives.

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State Department of Education IT analyst David Williamson launches the computerized Open Choice lottery program

The state has received about 12,600 applicants for magnet schools and about 3,600 for suburban seats in the Open Choice program in the Hartford region. Many applicants have put their names on both lists. Slightly less than one-third of the magnet applicants are expected to be offered seats, but the odds are much worse for Open Choice, where only about 200 new suburban slots are expected to be available in the fall.

Nejaughn’s parents were lucky last year when an older son, Deshawn, was offered a spot at Cromwell Middle School after four years on a waiting list. Because siblings are given preference in the lottery, that improves the family’s chances that their younger children also will be offered seats in Cromwell.

“I was shocked when I got the [acceptance] letter” for Deshawn, Jacqueline Gamble-Ware said, adding that she believes her son, who has struggled in school, will get a better education in Cromwell. Deshawn, now a freshman at Cromwell High School, gets up at 5:45 a.m. to catch the school bus from his home in Hartford’s North End. The ride to Cromwell, with numerous stops, takes nearly 90 minutes, his parents said.

“They get so much more out there, more choices,” Gamble-Ware said. “A lot of stuff is being taken away in Hartford’s schools.”

On Tuesday, a State Department of Education information technology analyst, with a few computer keystrokes, started a software program that randomly assigned numbers to Nejaughn, his younger sister and the thousands of other applicants for the Open Choice program. The process took about two minutes. A separate lottery was held for magnet school openings.

Soon, families will begin receiving letters offering seats in magnet schools or suburban schools–or spots on waiting lists. Much hangs in the balance as parents pin their children’s futures to a process akin to rolling the dice at a casino.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Gamble-Ware, who hopes that suburban school districts, with the possibility of new incentives, will improve the odds. “A lot of parents would be happy if they can open up more seats.”

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