Under a racial desegregation order, a popular magnet school near Damaris DeLeon’s home in Hartford draws many of its students from outside of the city but remains a distant dream for her 6-year-old son.

Magnet schools are at the center of the desegregation effort, but as they reach deep into the suburban towns to find enough white students to balance Hartford’s largely minority student body, they sometimes must turn away children such as Latino kindergartner Adrian Perez, DeLeon’s son.

“Right now, I feel like there is no hope,” said DeLeon, who has an older son at Hartford’s Environmental Sciences Magnet at Mary Hooker but has been unable to enroll Adrian since she first began trying to get him into Hooker’s pre-kindergarten program for 3-year-olds.

“He was number seven [on a waiting list] at one point, [then] number nine, number 11. Now he’s number 23.”

DeLeon’s frustration is shared by officials such as Hartford Superintendent of Schools Christina Kishimoto, who has urged state officials to rethink the racial benchmarks that are at the heart of the state’s effort to comply with the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation order.

Kishimoto, along with state officials and lawyers for the Sheff plaintiffs, is involved in negotiations over the future of a court-supervised agreement in the case – a legal case that has produced profound changes in Connecticut’s public school landscape since 1996. That was when the state Supreme Court ordered state officials to reduce racial isolation in Hartford’s impoverished and mostly black and Hispanic school system.

However, shifting population patterns, a color-blind selection lottery and the unexpected flow of minority applicants from the suburbs have complicated the effort for some Hartford magnet schools to qualify as integrated under the standards outlined in the Sheff agreement.

“We’ve got to start thinking differently,” said Kishimoto, who suggested that the strict racial requirements in the Sheff order have produced unintended consequences and should be loosened. “We’ve got to get to the point where we start talking about things such as socioeconomic factors – not just race – because there are too many conditions that have changed,” she said.

Despite spending billions of dollars to build magnet schools and operate a voluntary school choice program that allows children to enroll in neighboring school districts, the state routinely has fallen short of Sheff’s overall racial goals, and many families remain on waiting lists.

In some cases, Hartford families have been shut out of magnets because the schools had reached their 75 percent limit of minority enrollment even though some empty seats remained, Kishimoto said. One of the ironies is that a black child from suburban Avon might win admission to a magnet, taking a spot that otherwise might have been available to a black child from Hartford, she said.

She said the dilemma of parents such as DeLeon should be taken into account as officials chart the future of the Sheff case.

“If there is no public dialogue, then it is once again … a set of lawyers making decisions on these counts of seats and not [considering] what is our vision of the impact we’re going to have on Hartford and Hartford families,” she said.

In April, state officials and Sheff plaintiffs approved a one-year extension of the Sheff settlement, agreeing to open four new magnet schools and expand the voluntary city-suburban school choice program. But Kishimoto said it is time for a new strategy.

“We can’t keep building new [magnets],” she said. “It’s going to keep putting a strain on the state, keep putting a strain on the city.”

Ironically, although Kishimoto remains part of the discussion about the future of the Sheff agreement, she will not be around to oversee any changes. The Hartford Board of Education this week denied her request to extend her contract, and her job will end next year.

One impediment to meeting the Sheff goals is that the open-enrollment magnets have proven to be popular choices among suburban minority families. Because of legal restrictions, the lottery selection process for admission to magnets cannot explicitly single out applicants by race. As a result, the influx of minority children has made it increasingly challenging for some magnet schools to attract enough white students to meet the Sheff goals.

That is the case, for example, at the Environmental Sciences Magnet at Mary Hooker, said Principal Peter Dart, who has had to scramble to reach the 25 percent minimum threshold of white children required under Sheff.

Years ago, the thinking was that “if you simply cast your net to the suburbs you’re going to get non-minority children,” Dart said. Now, however, many of those suburban applicants are members of minority groups, including a growing number of Indian children from towns such as Glastonbury and South Windsor, he said.

Like many other suburbs, those towns have seen dramatic growth in minority populations since 1989, when the Sheff lawsuit was filed. In Glastonbury, for example, members of minority groups accounted for 6 percent of public school enrollment in 1989 but made up 21 percent by 2011, according to state figures. South Windsor’s minority enrollment grew from 8 percent to 24 percent over the same period.

Of the suburban applicants who listed a Hartford public school system magnet school as their first choice in the lottery, nearly three out of four, or 72 percent, are members of minority groups, according to the Regional School Choice Office.

As Hooker School reaches farther into the suburbs to fill seats, it diminishes the chances for children such as DeLeon’s kindergarten son. He remains on a waiting list even though his older brother is a sixth-grader at Hooker, where he started before the school was converted to a magnet four years ago.

“We, sadly, have a long waiting list of Hartford kids who want to get in,” Dart said. “It’s frustrating. It’s hard for parents to understand. It’s hard for me to explain it, and to be honest it just doesn’t feel right.”

Martha Stone, a lawyer for the Sheff plaintiffs, said there is a sufficient supply of magnet school applicants, including white children, but contends that state and Hartford school officials have not marketed the magnets aggressively enough.

Magnets are voluntary enrollment schools designed to draw a racially mixed student body by offering programs focusing on the arts, math, science or other specialties. Some magnets under the Sheff order are part of the city school system while others are operated by the Capitol Region Education Council, a regional agency known as CREC. Many have succeeded in attracting both white and minority families, Stone said.

“Why are some schools having problems and other schools having no problems?” she said. “The state needs to put in place a 12-month marketing campaign.”

Bruce Douglas, executive director of CREC, said the agency’s magnet schools “are not having any problem attracting white students.” Nevertheless, he said the changing racial and economic makeup of the Hartford region requires a careful review of the Sheff strategy.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is: 10 years out, what do we want the Sheff settlement to look like?” he said.

In Hartford, Kishimoto, the superintendent, thinks the Sheff goals would be within reach if schools could use factors such as socioeconomic status in measuring progress. It is not immediately clear, however, whether the Sheff plaintiffs would agree to alter their approach in a legal case that originally focused directly on race.

“It’s important to remember this is about a [state] constitutional decision by the highest court in the state, and that it deals with racial and ethnic isolation,” said Dennis Parker, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the Sheff legal team.

Parker said he could not discuss specific elements of the negotiations on the Sheff agreement but added that the discussions would touch on a broad range of topics.

“In general, we obviously have concerns about whether enough has been done” to comply with the court order, he said.

The Sheff case has been one of the most influential legal decisions in the history of Connecticut’s public education system. Most observers agree the results have been mixed.

Today, thousands of Hartford schoolchildren are enrolled in racially integrated magnet schools or suburban schools, but many others are on long waiting lists. Meanwhile, many of Hartford’s regular public schools remain as racially isolated as they were two decades ago.

Parker said the Sheff case has had a dramatic impact, citing studies by CREC showing that CREC magnet school students of all racial and economic groups consistently outperform similar groups on statewide tests of reading and mathematics. “It has created schools that are models of high educational attainment,” he said. “We have produced opportunities … that people want, and we share the frustration that there aren’t more seats in magnet programs and suburban programs.”

Under the Sheff ruling, the state supports 39 magnet schools in the Hartford region.

That, however, has done little to ease the frustration of parents such as DeLeon, whose younger son attends Parkville Community School, a neighborhood school serving a predominantly Hispanic and black student body. Parkville has performed below state and city averages on statewide tests. DeLeon said the magnet program at the Environmental Sciences Magnet at Mary Hooker offers advantages such as tutoring and afterschool programs that would give her son a better education.

What would she like to see?

“Either add more seats or take out the race [requirement], or change the school system so the schools [are equal],” she said, “because every kid should have the same chance.”

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