Amid the protestors chanting “change your vote” outside the school board offices in the wealthy shoreline town of Darien stood 5-year-old Vivi Witthuhn holding a sign asking officials to be kind — and reverse course and allow a few kindergarten students from the overcrowded urban district next door into her school.
Talking with a slight lisp after one her front teeth fell out that morning, this kindergarten student reads what’s on her sign.
“Everybody pay attention. Please be nice and not mean.”
This rejection from a wealthy suburban community to open its borders even slightly is a trend in Connecticut — which research shows is one of the most economically and racially segregated states in the country.
This year, it was Darien’s school board rejecting a plan that would have enrolled 16 Norwalk kindergarteners throughout its elementary schools. The wealthy suburban districts surrounding Danbury decided earlier this year they wouldn’t be opening their classrooms, either.
In 2017, when more than 1,000 Puerto Rican children showed up in Waterbury after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, neighboring suburban districts ignored the pleas for help from city officials. They were asking suburban school leaders to use their empty classrooms because there was no room in the city’s schools.
”I was really disappointed with either the lack of response or no response,” said state Rep. Geraldo Reyes, who chairs the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “This spoke volumes of how some of the suburbs perceive our children from Waterbury.”
This rejection from the suburbs to open their doors — either to school busing programs or to allow more affordable housing to be built in their communities — has been going on for generations.
In 1989, the year a coalition of civil rights leaders sued the state over the segregation that was thriving in the Hartford region, nearly 1,500 city children were enrolled in nearby, well-resourced suburban schools through a program called Project Concern.
Three decades later — and after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled children "suffer daily" from the inequities caused by the racial and economic isolation — the program, now called Open Choice, has only grown by about 700 Hartford students.
“It tells me it's not working," said John Brittain, one of the original attorneys involved in the Hartford Sheff vs. O’Neill desegregation lawsuit. "It tells me there's a need to increase [the] degree of diversity."
Brittain grew up in Norwalk, the town whose students Darien and other nearby suburbs seem reluctant to open their doors to.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Open Choice was supposed to be a tool that suburban districts could use to help integrate their schools instead of the state redrawing school district boundaries, as the Supreme Court pointed to as the culprit of segregation in the Sheff case.
But year after year, millions that the state has set aside to pay for Open Choice go unspent when suburban districts decline to offer more seats, despite declining enrollment in their towns. In New Haven and Bridgeport, fewer than 300 kids from each city land a spot in Open Choice.
The wait lists are long.
Martha Stone, one of the attorneys in the Sheff case, homed in on this at the press conference in January announcing the historic agreement with the state that aims to expand the program by 450 Hartford kids over the next seven years.
"Just last year, there were 896 Hartford kids that wanted to go to the suburban schools in a non-entry grade and never had that opportunity because there were no suburban districts that would allow them to have educational opportunities in their district," she said. "And that's the issue of the suburban districts being willing to have some kind of a real self-examination. We've all had issues and demonstrations after George Floyd, but we still haven't had districts come forward and say 'Yes, we want to be part of the solution. To be able to open up our doors to all students.'”
Gov. Ned Lamont also promised in that agreement that every Black and Latinx student from Hartford who wants a seat in a high-quality integrated school would be offered one.
”This is an opportunity for Connecticut to get it right," he said during the press conference. "This is a way that we're going to make sure that no kid is left behind, regardless of race, color, or creed. This is a way to make sure they have choice. Parents have choice. Kids have choice. They can go to the school of their choice. Nobody’s going to be kept out."
Governor embraces the carrot, not the stick to integrate
The Democratic governor was the driving force behind the Open Choice program becoming an option in Norwalk and Danbury instead of just the Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport regions as it has been.
He first proposed the expansion one year ago in his budget address before the General Assembly.
”With many of our urban schools crowded and their suburban schools with extra capacity, my budget proposes an expansion of the Open Choice program beginning in Norwalk and Danbury. So these kids and those in surrounding communities can go to school in a more diverse environment with greater opportunity," he said.
But despite the General Assembly providing more than $1 million to roll this out, the program will not be launching in the Danbury area next year as originally planned. Shortly before Darien voted down the plan to enroll 16 kindergarten students from Norwalk, the school board heard from Charles Dumais, the executive director of the organization that has been tasked with running the Open Choice program in those parts of the state.
”At this point, there's not a critical mass that would put us in a position where providing transportation would be reasonable at this point. So we're going to push out Danbury one more year," he said.
This approach of Lamont offering districts financial incentives to step up followed a wave of backlash he received to a previous proposal of his that would have penalized tiny school districts whose officials wouldn’t consider regionalizing some administrative-level positions.
Several residents from Darien were the leading voices behind that movement — branded “Hands off our Schools." They organized dozens of protests around the state and at the Capitol to defeat the plan.
Darien School Board member Tara Ochman waited hours to testify at the state Capitol complex against that proposal.
“I went up to Hartford," she said. "I testified against regionalization. I made the argument that we could do it better ourselves if you let us. I think we're going to have to answer the state if we turn down choice programs.”
After voting in favor of allowing roughly one Norwalk student in each of the district’s kindergarten classrooms, she began receiving hate mail. One accuses her of “turning Darien into the woke slums.”
State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff has also been receiving emails from Darien residents, where just 7% of the students are Black or Latinx compared to 67% in Norwalk, where he lives. One of those emails told him, “You can keep your troubled school system and troubled minority students in your own troubled town … full of poor schools and welfare recipients.”
Duff attended the rally, and said during an interview after that, ”I think in some ways that email represents some of the reasons why people voted ‘No.' Part of this vote, I think, is rooted in that email.”
The reasons to say 'no'...
Opponents cite a host of reasons why Darien schools can’t accept these students: Classrooms don’t have the space; enrollment is projected to increase as more housing is built in town and as families relocate from New York City during the pandemic.
Kindergarten enrollment in the district has dropped by 21% since 2007, enrollment has not increased during the pandemic, and projections do not forecast an uptick in enrollment.
John Sini voted against the plan. Until recently, he was the chairman of Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission, which determines what type of housing gets built in town.
“There is some uncertainty around the class number of sections. I think we are going back to normal, but I think we actually have to focus on our kids," he said before the vote. "I know the three apartment complexes are coming along, and a few others, I'm confident that they're developed so it's going to mitigate the number of families in terms of how they're developed and their sizes.”
Although the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits people with children from being discriminated against, many civil rights attorneys and housing advocates believe that some affluent suburban towns only allow one- or two-bedroom apartments to open to avoid erecting affordable housing options for families.
Nearly half of the 366 housing units that will soon open in Danbury are one bedroom and the remainder two bedrooms, a review of approved housing units by CT Public’s Accountability Project shows. Research shows few children move into such housing.
"Multifamily housing does not yield high numbers of children. The effect on the schools are de minimis," Evonne Klein, the state's former Housing Commissioner, said after the rally in Darien, which is where she lives.
There are also concerns about the fiscal cost to the town, despite the superintendent mapping out the finances and showing the districts would actually gain financially.
“It has potential to be a revenue generator run the right way — but it also has the potential to have some costs. I don't think this is the year, and so I won't be voting for it tonight," said Jill McCammon, the vice chairperson of the local school board.
Wealthy towns' rejection will cost the state millions
The rejection from Darien and other suburban districts will likely cost the state millions, since new schools will need to be built to help the overcrowded districts.
The governor is frustrated by this reality, but he’s not ready to force districts to participate.
”I was disappointed to see a couple of those communities say no to Open Choice. That means we have to go with new schools. That's so we can decompress some of the classrooms. For example, in Danbury. You know me, I prefer incentives to mandates," he said.
His administration surveyed school districts last fall to take an inventory of empty school buildings across the state for the state to potentially renovate and open.
Meanwhile, wealthy districts continue to receive construction money to build segregated schools.
Darien has received just over $11 million since 2006 from the state to help build two of the elementary schools that the superintendent wanted to enroll a few Norwalk students in. Connecticut taxpayers also spend at least $14 million a year paying for the pensions of retired Darien teachers.
Before the vote, Darien’s School Board Chairman David Dineen said he and other town officials are headed to the state Capitol to ask for more money this year.
"We'll be up there sometime between now and June looking for more money to do the renovations on the three schools," he said. "How do we want to control the conversation? We throw around Hartford, and that word is like a fear mongering word. We are part of the Connecticut Department of Education. We're a public school system ... I think we have to think about how do we want to control the conversation, when regionalization comes down the path, when funding comes down the path to reimburse us.”
Other solutions: Stop sending these districts money or take Sheff statewide
Some legislators and civil rights leaders are growing impatient waiting for wealthy suburban towns to step up, include Reyes, the chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
”It does show people's indifference to children that don't belong to their cities or towns. It's very sad to see that. Smaller municipalities don't want to share in a Connecticut problem. I see Open Choice as one of the short-term solutions. Bridgeport is 23,000 kids, Hartford 22,000 kids, Waterbury 19,000 kids, New Haven 20,000 kids. This is where the money should be invested. The ECS formula still awards money to small suburban towns, with way, way under-utilized when it comes to the actual use of the building.”
Civil rights attorneys are also watching.
Brittain, one of the original attorneys in the Hartford desegregation case, said attorneys could take the school segregation precedent set by the state’s Supreme Court to other parts of the state – and the rejection of Open Choice only helps make that case.
“It’s the same kind of blockade from the suburban districts without some stronger enforcement. I guess you have to start perhaps a legal action in these other metropolitan areas," he said.
Before the governor backed down from his proposal to regionalize some administrative-level positions in small districts, the chairman of the legislature's Education Committee laid out for the "Hands Off Our Schools" that their towns have been moving at a "snail's pace" to help.
"I think there's a discussion that we're not having here in Connecticut, a discussion that we have not addressed since Brown vs. Board, and we have not come up with any solution," said Sen. Doug McCrory, a Hartford educator. "There was a term used 'in all due speed' in 1954 to desegregate our schools, and we are still at a snail's pace."
What it's like attending predominantly white schools
Until something changes, town officials will likely continue hearing from students of color what it’s like going to their predominantly white school.
"Now it is time for us to all step up as a community and change the way that our town interacts with anything that it deems as different," Kyla Johns told school board members this fall. She graduated from Darien High School in 2015. "I have always been different. I'm a black and Native American bisexual woman who has lived in Darien since 2010. The things that have been said to me, the things I have been called, I won't give power by repeating them here. I've had pencils put in my hair, things thrown at me in the hallways. I've had the cops called on me while I was walking my dog in the street. I've been physically and mentally bullied. And I've been put down by homophobia, racism, sexism, and much more in this town.”
Casey Cobb, a professor at UConn's Neag School of Education, has interviewed many families about what goes into their choosing whether to send their children to predominantly white suburban schools if they win the lottery.
"What we found was, yeah, race and socioeconomic status, that sort of diversity does play a role in their decision making," he said, pointing out that magnet schools are typically more diverse and that was one of the reasons families tend to seek those schools.
After the recent rally outside the Darien Board of Education, Vivi’s mom, Armel Jacobs, shared how her daughter is already being asked questions.
"My daughter just hit the school system, she's only 5," she said. "And she gets a lot of questions. You know when you first go, they say bring a picture of your family so if the kids get sad, they can pull out their picture, and they don't feel so lonely. When we did this in the beginning of the year, she had like a flurry of other kids asking her like, why is your mommy Black and your daddy's white? If these kids just had more, just a little more exposure, you know, to people who look different, if they could create those positive associations, I think it would be good.”
Jacobs does have hope that the growing coalition in town to think more progressively is helping to change minds.
Vivi has 21 students in her class, and when her mom asked her if she wanted to rally with her to let one more student in, she was ready.
"The sign that you saw my daughter holding, we made it for the BLM protest that was two years ago. And ... since then she's just been like, ‘Mommy, is there another protest? Can we go to another? She's kept this sign and she was waiting for her next chance to tell everyone to be nice.”