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News Times: Danbury Benefits from 20-year-old Sheff Lawsuit

Friday April 24, 2009

Danbury benefits from 20-year-old Sheff lawsuit
by Eileen FitzGerald
April 24, 2009
©News-Times

Danbury’s magnet school, which draws elementary students from half a dozen communities, exists only because 9-year-old Milo Sheff had a passionate family support system that wanted his education to be better than what Hartford provided.

It was 20 years ago, on April 29, that 18 school-age children, including Milo, filed a lawsuit that became know as Sheff v. O’Neill.

It challenged the state to eliminate the inequity between the education Hartford students received and that offered in schools in the surrounding suburban districts.

The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on July 9, 1996, and the Connecticut Department of Education began to integrate schools by bringing urban students into suburban schools and drawing suburban students into the cities with magnet schools that offered a unique theme, like the Western Connecticut Academy for International Studies in Danbury.

The Danbury magnet school provides ethnic, cultural and socio-economic diversity for kindergarten through fifth-grade students from Danbury, Brookfield, New Milford, New Fairfield, Redding and Newtown and a few other towns.

It has been a great success for Newtown parent Kathryn Mayer, who couldn’t wait for the magnet school to open three years ago.

It wasn’t built soon enough for her two high school students, but her sixth-grader was able to attend the school in fourth and fifth grade and her third-grader started there as a first-grader.

“It’s a public school when a public school is done right,” said Mayer, who added it was hard to leave the Newtown school district, which is great but does not have the ethnic diversity available in Danbury.

“My third-grader sees color and ethnicity last instead of first,” she said.

He came home this week from a visit to the studio of the late black contralto Marian Anderson, and Mayer asked him question after question before he mentioned that her skin was brown, she said.

She followed the Sheff lawsuit and understood it was the reason the magnet school was built.

“I was 100 percent in favor of the lawsuit,” she said. “They should not be satisfied until every school looks like this school. It’s not the building. It’s the people in the building. It’s the leadership and how they run the curriculum in the grades.”

On the 20th anniversary of the Sheff case, the state is offering students more choice in their education than 20 years ago.

Now, 16 percent of the minority children in Hartford attend integrated schools in suburban communities or magnet schools. Next year the target is 24 to 27 percent.

The state has set up a more aggressive outreach plan to fill choice school seats.

Milo Sheff is now 29 and a musician in Hartford. He’s pleased with the state’s progress.

“There are steps being made in the right direction,” he said. “You can’t expect people to make progress without time passing.”

During much of the time of the court case, he said, some teachers favored him no matter what he did and other teachers were harsh no matter what he did.

“I think in my case, whether or not Sheff v. O’Neill (had been) filed, my support was there and I was going to turn out OK,” he said.

But many kids suffered in their adversity without support.

He said the lawsuit opened eyes that racism exists even if there are no longer signs saying “This sink is for blacks only.”

“There is a lot of work we need to do as a state, and we can’t leave it up to people in elected office,” Sheff said. “We need, in the urban and suburban schools, to demand more and not wait for someone else to do it.”

Magnet schools in the state were built to address racial isolation by allowing youngsters from various municipalities and demographics to come together around a special interest.

“What we knew was that the magnet school was a vehicle that could be offered to students and met the obligations of the state without usurping the school system the community had in place,” said George Coleman, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Education, which is responsible for the state’s response to the Sheff settlement.

“There are vicarious benefits outside the Sheff decision to desegregate schools and offer integrated settings in a way that doesn’t require a court order,” Coleman said. “We believe we are on the road with Sheff.

“We have a tremendous challenge in our state … where every community is responsible for (its children’s) education,” he said. It’s created disparity based on demographics, with towns of great wealth beside poor towns.

“I believe … those who understand the role of education will appreciate that a racially and culturally isolated setting is not in the best interest of their children and will reach out to these diverse opportunities,” he said.

Educators know that students must be able to function in a diverse world in the 21st century.

Phil Tegeler, who is staff coordinator of the nonprofit Sheff Movement Coalition, agreed the state is making progress.

“We’re pleased that the program has expanded statewide, so that Bridgeport, New Haven and Danbury benefit from programs, and it’s not just in the Hartford region,” said Tegeler, who formerly worked as a lawyer on the case.

“At this point we’re waiting to see the state budget. We got a strong new agreement with the state last year, and we have to see if in the final budget the legislature backs up the agreement.”

Link: http://www.newstimes.com/ci_12221337