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'No Child' raises school segregation fear

By Frank Bass

HARTFORD, Conn. --Betty Sternberg is in charge of two school systems. One, scattered throughout the state, is rich and white. The other, isolated in seven large towns, is poor and minority.

Sternberg is the state's education commissioner, and one of her jobs is to unite the two systems so Connecticut can move past its role as defendant in the nation's longest-running desegregation lawsuit. On paper, it wouldn't seem to be that difficult.

No one involved in the lawsuit disagrees with its contention that Connecticut hasn't always given its poor and minority students an education as good as it's given its rich and white students. No one thinks the gap between the two systems is a good thing. And no one wants the disparities to continue.

In the past, the main hurdle has been money. Bringing the inner-city schools up to par with the suburban schools will cost a lot. New schools have to be built, districts have to be paid for transferring students and special services have to be provided.

But now, Sternberg says, there's another hurdle: the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"We've had a reluctance on the part of school districts to accept youngsters who come in with deficiencies because they're concerned that if they get enough of them ... they'll become labeled as failing schools," she says.

It's a problem that many experts believe is confounding an effort to eliminate the racial achievement gap on standardized annual tests. That's because the law requires schools to demonstrate that students in specific racial, social and economic groups are making annual progress. A school fails if even one group fails. The more groups in a school, the greater chance for failure.

So the odds favor predominantly white schools in places like Fairfield County, a wealthy bedroom community that's 75 percent white and has a median family income of more than $77,000. The odds do not favor predominantly minority schools in places like Hartford, which is 73 percent minority and has a median family income of $27,000.

Wedged in a poor, gritty immigrant neighborhood, Henry C. Dwight Elementary School near downtown Hartford, defies the odds. It harks back to an earlier era of learning. Its ceilings are high, there is a fireplace in the library and students wear uniforms as they dart between classrooms.

The oldest public school in one of the nation's oldest cities, Dwight finds itself at the center of a growing national debate over whether the nation's newest education experiment is -- unexpectedly -- encouraging school segregation.

Dwight's population is racially and economically diverse, making its future under the law uncertain even though it is currently meeting its goals. The law stresses getting students proficient in math and reading by 2014, the school's principal, Stacey McCann, says.

"They're (federal officials) not validating the incremental successes, but we are making great gains," says McCann, who supports the law. "I believe schools ... are making gains, but they might not make the mark that has been set."

Henry Johnson, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, said he understands the concerns but believes the accountability the new law imposes on schools will ultimately benefit all children.

And while Johnson praises the law's effort to remove the racial gap on tests, he also acknowledges the creation of groups "might generate concern. I don't want to dismiss that. But the reality is, that whoever shows up has to be taught. And the expectation is that they'll be taught well. ... Good instruction is good instruction."

The Associated Press reported Monday that states across the country are helping their public schools skirt the law's requirements by deliberately undercounting nearly 2 million mostly minority students' annual test scores in the required racial categories.

By reducing the number of scores, the schools are improving their chances of avoiding failure and the penalties that go with it. Another unintended solution, experts say, is for schools to become less diverse.

"The really rich and ritzy suburbs that don't participate in any form of integration, that turn their backs on all efforts to admit minority kids or low-income kids into their first-rate public schools, those districts aren't going to suffer at all," said Jonathan Kozol, an educator and author of several acclaimed books on race and education.

"They're going to be rewarded for their selfishness. They're going to be rewarded for their racial insularity because they're not admitting any kids who are at any academic risk. They're not admitting any kids who had been previously studying, for perhaps the first six years of school, in a rotten, overcrowded school."

Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education, works with Chicago public schools and has heard some parents complain about the treatment of inner city children when they move to suburban schools.

"I have heard that there is a resentment toward those kids because they are dragging those schools down in the lists," Radner said.

When Congress passed the landmark law in 2001, Dwight was one of Hartford's worst-rated schools and exactly the type of multiracial, underperforming school the government intended to pressure to improve.

So far, Dwight has. It has met its annual goals under the law even though it has eight special groups it must report to the government and a student population that hails from 21 countries.

Elizabeth Horton Sheff, a Hartford City Council member who as a parent in 1989 filed the desegregation case against Connecticut, said there aren't enough inner city schools like Dwight that are succeeding with diverse populations.

"The big picture?" Horton Sheff asked. "Very little has changed. The progress has been far too slow.

"This nation is increasingly becoming more colored," she said. "If we don't treat our children in a manner that will help them grow, if we continue to offer them diminished destinies, then all America will go down. The quality of life for all America will decline."

April Winterson, Dwight's literacy director, hopes the No Child Left Behind Act won't put so much pressure on schools that they can't celebrate the small daily victories that fill the wide halls and small desks at her school.

"There needs to be the idea that no child can be left behind," she said. "I think sometimes people become lethargic and don't really fight those battles to make sure that every child succeeds.

"But that would be the only thing I'm nervous about, really, is moving to that direction of focusing on one group of children because they're the ones who are going to count the most. And you want to celebrate all successes. You want to celebrate all the children's successes."


Associated Press Writer Nicole Ziegler Dizon in Chicago contributed to this report.

— Frank Bass, Associated Press
Boston Globe


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