A sign directed Hartford-area parents to a school choice fair last weekend, where they could enter their child in the lottery to attend a magnet or suburban school. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror
A sign directed Hartford-area parents to a school choice fair last weekend, where they could enter their child in the lottery to attend a magnet or suburban school.
A sign directed Hartford-area parents to a school choice fair last weekend, where they could enter their child in the lottery to attend a magnet or suburban school. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

Nearly home after dropping her two children off at school in the North End of Hartford, Shonta Browdy began to cry as she watched a group of little boys from her neighborhood walk to school.

“I know for a fact that the school they are going to is not a quality school,” she said.

Guilt surrounds Browdy, who said she has constant reminders of how lucky she is that her children attend what she considers “high-quality” schools. She was able to get her children seats in magnet schools while thousands of Hartford students are stuck in traditional neighborhood schools identified by the state as some of the lowest-achieving.

The state has spent nearly $2.5 billion over the last 10 years opening new magnet schools that attract suburban white students along with children who live in Hartford. It has been the state’s primary strategy to comply with an order from the Connecticut Supreme Court to reduce educational inequalities in Hartford by providing an integrated education for children who live in Hartford.

But 17 years after the court ruled in the landmark Sheff vs. O’Neill lawsuit, parents disagree on the effect it has had. While many parents flock to sign their children up in the annual lottery that gives their children a chance for a seat in a magnet school, opponents point to the struggling Hartford schools left behind.

“The lawsuit is killing our city. We cannot continue this way,” Browdy recently told the State Board of Education.

Hyacinth Yennie, whose three children have graduated from traditional Hartford schools, said today problems linger with Sheff.

“We are worse off now than before the Sheff vs. O’Neill issue. Our children are more segregated now than ever. They are cast aside like they’re not really important, ‘Oh, only magnet schools are important, because you know what? We are funding them more money,’” she said. “It’s not fair to our children.”

State data show that Hartford students who attend a magnet or suburban school significantly outperform on state standardized tests those who attend their neighborhood schools run by the Hartford Public School system.

This has led many parents to be thankful that they have the option to enroll their children in another school.

“I had to get them out of there,” said Linda Teal, whose daughters used to attend Mark Twain Elementary School run by Hartford. She knew it was an emergency when she read in one of her daughter’s diary significant doubts about whether she would make it through the school year.

As Teal walked around a School Choice fair over the weekend in Manchester, she pointed to the various booths of people pitching their schools and said, “These schools are something my kids can fall back on. They can have a future with these schools.”

And it seems others parents feel the same way. In the first week the state lottery opened this year, more than 5,000 children were signed up to attend a different school.

But some opponents have raised concerns before the state board, arguing that these schools are more effective because they are not teaching as many students requiring special education services as are Hartford schools.

However, data provided by the State Department of Education show no major difference in demographics between the magnet and Hartford schools. Preliminary enrollment data from the beginning of the current school year show that 13.3 percent of traditional Hartford Public School students are identified as needing special education services compared with 10.1 percent of those attending Sheff magnet schools.

The excitement for the schools that have opened as a result of the Sheff lawsuit, is not limited to Hartford parents.

“They have swimming. They have a class in Greek mythology. This school is the best thing ever,” 10th-grader Allison Furlong said as she ran up to her mother. Her family was at the weekend school choice fair, and Allison had been leafing through a magnet school’s brochure and talking with officials from the school at their booth.

Furlong’s family sent her older siblings to Loomis Chaffee, an elite $40,000-per-year private school in Windsor, before these magnet schools were around.

“If this had been available we might not have had to spend that,” her father, Jim Furlong, of Somers, said.

But many who apply to these schools will not win the lottery that gives them a seat.

Nearly 5,000 students from Hartford who attend segregated schools — one-quarter of the city’s students — applied to leave their current school this school year. Seventy-three percent of city students who applied to attend at least three schools with diverse student populations were granted a spot; another 1,354 students opted to be put on a waiting list in case a seat opened up at the last minute.

“This concept of a lottery for an education has to end. We have to strive for all children to have a quality education,” Hartford parent Millie Archinegas told the state board. “No child deserves to be subjected to staying in a school that you know is bound to fail.”

At the rate the state is going in offering students enrollment in a “Sheff” school, another Hartford guardian estimated it will take another 13 years for every Hartford student to be attending an integrated school.

“Why is that?” Neil Barry, a grandparent with children in Hartford-run schools, asked the state board. “We just want you to know that we want good schools for our kids — our kids.”

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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