In response to a state Supreme Court ruling that children in Hartford's urban schools were receiving an inferior and unequal education, Connecticut stepped up efforts to improve the education of urban schools. This week, Education World takes a look at what Connecticut is doing to combat educational inequality. Included: A brief summary of the Harvard University The Civil Rights Project, which looks at the resegregation in U.S. schools.
In the United States, being a poor, urban, minority member should not mean receiving a substandard education. But for many years, it has meant just that, as minority urban students have made do with out-of-date textbooks, leaking school roofs, and substandard school libraries.
Three years ago, a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling blew the whistle on the inferior and unequal education being provided in Hartford, the state's capital city, where fewer than 10 percent of the students met the academic goals for their grade levels. The lawsuit, Sheff v. O'Neill, revealed that schoolchildren had been segregated -- although not intentionally -- by a 1909 school districting law.
The 1909 law, which is still in place, was intended to improve education by providing increased state involvement in public schools while still permitting considerable local control and accountability. As a result of housing patterns, however, more poor and minority families live in urban areas. So the law, in effect, created a system of racial and economic isolation.
In Hartford, 97 percent of students are members of racial or ethnic minority groups -- in a state with a total minority student population of about 27 percent, said Thomas W. Murphy, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Education.
"The state of Connecticut has done a number of things and committed hundreds of millions of dollars to improving the quality of schools and education as well as providing more choices for Hartford students and their families," Murphy said. In response to the Sheff case, in particular, the state has increased school spending by $200 million to $250 million above 1996-97 spending, he added.
Murphy explained that the state's goal is to improve city schools as well as provide programs to reduce racial isolation. During the last three years, several new programs have been initiated to help the state achieve those goals. Those programs include early-childhood programs for the state's 16 largest and neediest cities, school library improvements, 16 urban charter schools, and additional funding for magnet schools to attract students from surrounding school districts. Another program, Project Choice, gives families of urban students the opportunity to choose to have their children bused to suburban schools.
A major goal of Connecticut's efforts to improve the quality of education, increase achievement, and reduce racial segregation has been to reduce the high school dropout rate and increase the number of minority college students.
Studies show that poor and minority students are at greater risk for quitting high school before earning a diploma than are wealthy students. Students from families with incomes in the lowest 20 percent of the population are five times more likely to quit high school than are students living in families with incomes in the top 20 percent.
According to a national survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 9.4 percent of Hispanic students and 5.2 percent of African American students quit school before graduation compared with 3.9 percent of white students. And those national dropout rates have remained stable over the past decade.
Connecticut, however, is among the top 13 states with high school completion rates of 90 percent or better, according to the NCES. During the 1990s, the state increased its completion rates from 90.9 percent to 96.1 percent. Alternative high schools and better academic support for poor and minority students have been among the methods used to help at-risk students stay in school.
Throughout the nation, more schools have become more segregated not only racially but also economically, according to a report by Gary Orfield and John T. Yun. This trend reverses the direction the nation took 46 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court banned intentional school segregation in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The report, Resegregation in American Schools, published by the Civil Rights Project, Harvard University, found that minorities tend to go to school with other minorities in impoverished neighborhoods and that white students go to schools that remain overwhelmingly white and middle class.
See a Changes in the Percentage of White Students in Schools Attended by Typical Black Students chart that shows the changing patterns of African American segregation in 28 states.
Orfield and Yun point out that except for Indiana and Missouri, virtually all other states with schools that had substantial African American enrollments have increased school segregation since 1980. The report shows that all racial groups except white people experienced considerable diversity in their schools; however, white students remain overwhelmingly in white schools, even in regions with very large non-white enrollments.
Sometimes school atmosphere can create a subtle form of racism that discourages students from continuing their education, said Donald F. Blake, the executive director of the Campus Compact, a national organization of universities and colleges that encourages students to develop civic responsibility.
Now in his 60s, Blake remembers his experiences as an African American student in New York. There was an attitude that black children could not learn or accomplish much in school, he recalled. "Even as late as 1936-37, we were ostracized," Blake said. "It was very subtle, but very real.
"We were never given the opportunity to even talk about college, because that wasn't meant for [African-American students]," he said.
Lenzy Wallace Jr., now the assistant dean for the School of Business at South Carolina State University, attended Connecticut schools as a child and remembers being told in eighth grade that he would never be able to learn a foreign language: "I was told, 'You people can't learn a foreign language.'
"That haunted me," he recalled. "I was afraid to take a foreign language for a long time." It wasn't until he earned an A in a foreign language class in college that he was able to overcome the effects of that teacher's bias.
As a high school student, Wallace was told not to take college preparation classes because he would only end up pushing a broom. In college, the bias continued when a college professor told him that he would never be able to do scholarly research at the Ph.D. level.
However, according to Wallace, although there were teachers who had low expectations for black students, there were others, many of whom were white, who encouraged him. "There have always been people who saw value in me, and in most cases, they were white folks who helped me," Wallace said.
Even during this past decade, that subtle form of racism prevails in some learning institutions, Blake said. While a professor of American history at a Connecticut university, a librarian initially refused to let him check out a book because she assumed a black man could not possibly be a professor, he recalled.
"Every day of my life, I still go through this," he said, noting that he has earned a Ph.D. and has taught at the university level. "One day, can I get to the place when I don't have to prove I'm somebody?" he asked.
Personal anecdotes like those recounted by Wallace and Blake have helped spark changes for African Americans and other minority students. But historically, getting an education has often been difficult for many African American children in this country from early colonial times to present day.
Although most colonial communities did not prohibit black children from attending public schools, they did not always welcome them either. During the Civil War, getting an education was no easier, even in states like Connecticut where segregation was not enforced and the Union flag flew throughout the war.
"Black kids were treated so badly [during the 18th and early 19th centuries], they mostly didn't go to school," said Christopher Collier, the Connecticut state historian and a professor of history at the University of Connecticut.
Connecticut has come a long way since colonial days, since the Civil War, since Sheff v. O'Neill -- and it strives to go much further as it continues to focus on improving the quality of education for the state's poor and minority students.
Sources: Resegregation in American Schools, by Gary Orfield and John T. Yun, The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University; DBS Corp., 1982; 1987; 1996-97 NCES Common Core of Data Public School Universe.
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