Madeline Stocker photo
Hartford parents walk to the state Education Department on Capitol Avenue (Madeline Stocker photo)

(Updated 10:32 a.m. Friday) Hartford parents, children, and education activists marched Thursday on the state Department of Education to rally against what they defined as the “egregiously inadequate” educational opportunities for Hartford’s minority students.

The demonstration was meant to call attention to the lack of school choice that remains 25 years after the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation lawsuit was filed.

Out of the 20,000 applicants to the state’s charter and magnet schools, 6,377 are Hartford residents. Three thousand Hartford students remain on the wait list for magnet and charter school seats.

“How can we as a community, as a city, as a state, look at one child and say, ‘You deserve an education,’ and look at another and say, ‘There’s no opportunities for you at this time; maybe next year, maybe in two years, maybe by the time you’re finished with school and there’s no college that will take you, because you can’t compete?” Evelyn Richardson, a Hartford parent, said during the rally.

Richardson and other Hartford parents would like the state to make sure all Hartford students have access to a higher-quality education. They realize that their appeal may be met with opposition, but research shows that children who attend integrated magnet schools perform better than children attending Hartford public schools.

According to a report released in September 2013, the difference in performance between Hartford students who attend integrated magnet schools or suburban schools and those who remain in the isolated Hartford public school system is dramatic. The report says 41 percent of Hartford resident third graders attending magnet or suburban schools tested at/or above the 2013 reading level, and only 26 percent of third-grade Hartford resident students were reading at/or above the same level in Hartford’s public schools.

The difference in performance only increased as students progressed through the school systems to the 10th grade, with 22 percent of Hartford resident students attending magnet or suburban schools at above the 2013 reading level, and only 5 percent of Hartford public school 10th graders at or above the level.

Other reports have shown the benefits of an education from an integrated magnet school — or a school with a relatively diverse racial and socioeconomic constituency — is more expansive, with higher racial and socioeconomic diversity “contributing to higher literacy, behavioral climate, instructional organization, and high school graduation rates.”

Lourdes Fonseca, a parent of two former Hartford students who also is listed as a Community Programs Coordinator/Parent Organizer for the education reform agency Achieve Hartford, said she’s experienced the difference between the two systems first-hand. She said one of her sons attended Hartford public schools and one attended and graduated from a magnet school.

“My son [who attended the magnet school] graduated, went to college, and has a job,” Fonseca said. “My other son graduated from a regular high school, reading at the seventh grade level, and couldn’t make it through community college. He had to do all of the remedials over again, and he couldn’t do it. He gave up.”

Christian Ortiz, a recent graduate from the Hartford public school system, had a similar story, and told the crowd that he was “failed by the system.” Ortiz, who applied annually to magnet and charter schools throughout his elementary, middle, and high school career and was continuously denied, attended seven schools, was held back twice, and dropped out once.

“I wanted a school where the atmosphere and culture promoted learning rather than violence, and where the teachers held students to high standards and encouraged academic achievement,” Ortiz said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

To both Ortiz and many Hartford parents, a “high-quality education” is one that is offered through Hartford-run magnet schools, the Capitol Region Education Council’s magnet schools, or the suburban school districts that have agreed to be part of the umbrella of the Open Choice Program. Open Choice allows public school students in Hartford to attend suburban schools.

In addition to voicing concerns regarding the achievement gap, parents with children in Hartford’s public school system have brought to light the difficulties that come with the wait list process. According to Hartford grandmother Debra St. Germain, the “convoluted” workings of the wait list process have prevented one of her two grandchildren from accessing kindergarten.

Madeline Stocker photo
Elizabeth Horton-Sheff (Madeline Stocker photo)

St. Germain said that because her family was never notified of the outcome of the 15-day lottery process, her 4-year-old granddaughter, Janessa, could not enroll in the public school system after being denied access to the surrounding magnet schools, as there was “simply no room left.”

St. Germain’s daughter, who wants to live in Hartford, may be left with no choice but to find an apartment in West Hartford in order to guarantee her children attend a good school.

Although St. Germain has expressed her frustration over the system’s inadequacy, thousands more have benefited from it. As it stands, approximately 41 percent of all minority students have gained access to integrated magnet and charter schools around the state. While many parents believe it to be too small a percentage, the figure shows a drastic increase in the number of integrated magnet schools available to Hartford students, who, up until 1997, only had one “reduced isolation” option.

The change in educational opportunity for Hartford students started with the Sheff v. O’Neill court case in 1989, when Hartford mother Elizabeth Norton Sheff challenged then-Gov. William O’Neill to put an end to the racial and socioeconomic isolation of Hartford school children.

Currently, Sheff’s attorneys are working to negotiate an expansion of magnet schools with the state.

“Parents want strong schools for their children,” Kelly Donnelly, a spokesperson for the state Education Department, said. “Charters and magnet schools are one part of our larger effort to ensure that all students, regardless of race or income, have access to a high quality public education that can help them reach their potential.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: We updated this story to reflect Lourdes Fonseca’s role as Community Programs Coordinator/Parent Organizer at Achieve Hartford!