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November , 2017
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By Susan Eaton

America’s Wire Writers Group

“Who’s the real ambassador?

Certain facts we can’t ignore

In my humble way I’m the USA
Though I represent the government

The government don’t represent some policies I’m for.”

Some six decades ago jazz great Dave Brubeck collaborated with the iconic Louis Armstrong on a musical called The Real Ambassadors. The satire skewered the mid-century government practice that sent black jazz musicians as emissaries to other nations amid rampant racial discrimination in the United States. Though it starred Armstrong himself, The Real Ambassadors, performed only twice, has been largely overlooked and critics agree it was probably too far ahead of its time.

But in a crowded, high-ceilinged room in Hartford, Connecticut’s public library, recently, the racially diverse group of teenagers who sang the musical’s title song finally found its perfect audience.

“These young people are incredible,” said an exultant Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the lead plaintiff in a long-running legal effort to reduce school segregation in one of the nation’s most unequal states. Horton Sheff, along with fellow members of a grassroots organization called The Sheff Movement, had organized the evening’s “Celebration of Progress” to bring attention to the success of the schools and programs created here in response to the 1996 court ruling that required the state to remedy school segregation throughout the region.

The student performers offered a stunning example of that success. The singing group, calling themselves The Real Ambassadors, attend the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. GHAA is one of about three dozen magnet schools that attract a diverse student body by enrolling students from Hartford and the more than two dozen cities and towns that surround it.

Two and a half decades ago, in 1989, Elizabeth Horton Sheff, then a single mother of two, signed on as lead plaintiff in the Sheff v. O’Neill case, which argued that the racial and class segregation in the region’s schools denied students the equal opportunity granted in the state Constitution. It has been 17 years since the state’s highest court, in 1996, decided in favor of the plaintiffs.

It’s unlikely that the mix of racially diverse schools would have come into being without the lawsuit that bears Elizabeth Horton Sheff’s name. But a growing community of parents, students, alumni and educators is also working to keep the vision of the case alive. The power of this broad constituency has yet to be fully tapped, but a decade-old network, the Sheff Movement coalition, has worked to bring a diverse group of supporters together around a common aspiration of “quality, integrated education.” Led by Horton Sheff and former City Councilman Jim Boucher, the coalition organizes, provides public information, conducts research and advocates publicly for the schools and programs.

In 2012, the region’s magnets enrolled more than 13,000 students. They are extremely popular among urban and suburban families. Studies show that among Hartford families, only 72 percent of the demand for the schools is being met. Each regional magnet school has a particular curricular theme or employs a specialized teaching method. Transportation is free.

In order to retain their status as magnets, which qualify them for additional state funding, at least 25 percent of the students at each schools must be white and about half the students must be from the suburbs. School officials have used “affirmative marketing” to reach this goal, meaning simply that they recruit students and advertise offerings in communities whose demographics would help them reach the diversity goal. No students are selected on the basis of their race or ethnicity. None of the schools impose admission requirements, such as tests or interviews.

Another program, Open Choice, enables about 1,700 students to attend school outside the communities in which they live. A controlled 2009 study showed that magnet school students from urban communities tended to academically outperform their peers who had applied for magnets but were not admitted. More recent data shows magnet high schools do a much better job graduating students who live in poverty than regular high schools.

Sheff Movement members have been meeting at least once a month, for 10 years, usually gathering at an interdistrict magnet, the Capital Preparatory Academy, near Hartford’s downtown. Members meet in the school’s library, which in 2012 was officially named the Sheff Center, in Elizabeth Horton Sheff’s honor. They organize public forums, testify at legislative hearings, and hold meetings with legislators and with school boards and PTOs in the suburbs. Increasingly, members speak to national audiences of education scholars and policy experts. They sit behind tables at local magnet school fairs, where they inform parents of choices and procedures for applying. The Sheff Movement also publishes newsletters that announce school application deadlines, advertise magnet school fairs, and bring readers into the daily life of the region’s diverse schools.

“I think we have a great story to tell,” said Sheff Movement member Robert Cotto, a former interdistrict magnet school teacher and a member of Hartford’s Board of Education. Cotto, who is 31 years old, remembers moving from Hartford and being one of the only Puerto Rican children in his suburban school.

“So, I do think I understand,” he said, “the really huge potential of diversity, for increasing opportunity….I also think I understand what a welcoming school should be, what a school that strives toward true equality needs to do in order to realize that potential. And I do feel like I’ve seen that here.”

In front of the mirrored walls of a dance studio at the Greater Hartford Academy for the Arts, groups of students took turns swaying, jumping and, at times it seems, flying across the hardwood floor. In one dance, with just two students performing, Bobby has clearly committed to memory all the movements in the routine choreographed by fellow senior Rosie. It’s a soft, lyrical piece. But the teachers, Deborah Goffe and Leslie Frye-Maietta, and some of the students agree that something is not working.

“Bobby? Try and do it without worrying about whether or not you are getting everything right,” Goffe suggests.They do. This time, a new playfulness emerges. Rosie and Bobby seem to be talking to each other. Bobby seems to be having more fun. Rose looks happier.

“That was so much better,” one student says. Bobby grins. Rosie and Bobby drape their arms around each other’s shoulders. “You guys are a great team,” a student tells them.

Some Arts Academy students attend school here all day, taking required courses in math and English at the 16-acre complex called the Learning Corridor, where GHAA is located. Other students, such as Rosie, take the required courses at a high school in the community where they live and come each afternoon to the Academy for arts classes. Rosie sees differences between the high school in her town, about 20 minutes northeast, and the Arts Academy.

“I got my haircut real short. And in my home school people were like, ‘What did you do?’ and ‘Why did you cut your hair?’ and they are. . . . shaking their heads like I shouldn’t have done this. And then I am feeling kind of weird about it and I come here that afternoon and people are yelling out, ‘Yo, I love your hair,’ and ‘Girl, you really rock that hair.’ I know that that is just a story about hair. But it is like that with everything. It is like that with any kind of diversity.”

Education planners deliberately spread magnet schools throughout the region, in both the city of Hartford and its suburbs. The shiny, modern buildings that make up the Learning Corridor campus materialize just beyond bodegas, storefront churches, and vacant commercial spaces in Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood. The Learning Corridor houses four interdistrict magnet schools. Besides the Arts Academy, there is another high school, the Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science, and the Montessori Magnet School, which enrolls children from ages 3 through 12 years old.

Also on the campus, the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA) brings together about 600 students in grades 6 through 11, with a 12th grade class scheduled to start in 2014. In 2011, HMTCA received the Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Award, which recognizes the top magnet school in the country, from the professional organization Magnet Schools of America.

Sheff Movement members often hear from educators beyond Connecticut who marvel at Hartford’s schools but worry that, without a costly legal effort, the success here won’t ever be replicated. That concern is valid, Horton Sheff said. But it is not a good reason to stop trying.

“[A lawsuit] is not the only way to create integrated schools…. ut you know what you need first? You need to have a conversation, Horton Sheff said. “I always keep in mind that segregation was created by people. And that doesn’t make me depressed. It reminds me that it can be undone by people.”

(Susan Eaton is co-director of One Nation Indivisible, a project that writes about people and organizations who helping create inclusive, racially and culturally diverse schools, communities and social institutions. To learn more go to Onenationindivisible.org.

America’s Wire is an independent, nonprofit news service run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Our stories can be republished free of charge by newspapers, websites and other media sources. For more information, visit www.americaswire.org or contact Michael K. Frisby at mike@frisbyassociates.com

Photo Caption: Children at Hartford’s Breakthrough Magnet School attend assembly.

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