Latoya Jackson was at the top of her class when she attended school in Bridgeport. And then in fourth grade she enrolled in one of the best public schools in the state.

“It was a huge culture shock,” Jackson said during an interview about landing a seat in Coleytown Elementary School in the well-off town of Westport just 10 miles away from the low-performing schools in her neighborhood. “I was behind and I had to take a bunch of after-school classes. I would come home from school and [see] my best friend that lived next door from me. I had homework every day, and she would never have homework. It was a totally different world.”

Jackson would go on to graduate from Staples High School in Westport, a school where nearly every student is proficient in reading, writing, science and math, 99 percent of students graduate in four years and only 200 students in the district come from a low-income family.

The high school she would have attended had she not won the School Choice Lottery has drastically different outcomes; at least one in four students will not graduate in four years, half the students are not proficient in reading, writing, science and math by grade 10, and nearly every student in the school district – 21,000 students – comes from a low-income family.

Jackson, who was born to a drug-addicted mother and unknown father, credits her success and the degree she will soon earn from the University of New Haven to her leaving the troubled Bridgeport school system at a young age for a top public school system.

Not many of her neighbors get the same opportunity.

Last school year, 204 children living in Bridgeport were enrolled in a public school in nearby high-achieving districts such as Westport, Fairfield, Trumbull and Weston. Many students don't land a seat and are left waiting for one to open.

“If you want to talk about frustration, [it’s] when I get calls from Bridgeport parents who say, ‘I don’t want my child to go to the Bridgeport high schools.’ I tell them the options,” said Mark Ribbens, the coordinator of school choice programs for Bridgeport students for the State Department of Education. “There aren’t many options in this region, and it’s extremely frustrating.”

While thousands of high-need, minority students attend the chronically low-performing schools in Bridgeport, the city’s affluent neighboring towns host some of the best schools in the state. This large disparity in achievement among schools just miles apart comes 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that public education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

The setup of school governance in Connecticut – with more than 160 separate school districts operated by local cities and towns – has led to Connecticut's having some of the most segregated schools in the U.S., according to a UCLA Civil Rights Project report released this year, based on U.S. Department of Education data. For example, 30 percent of black students in Connecticut attend a school where at least 90 percent of the students are a minority.

Jayla's first day at Lordship School. / Photograph by V.M. Williams

School choice? Depends where you live.

There are dozens of magnet schools in which Hartford children can apply to enroll. These schools are more diverse than the highly segregated schools in their neighborhood and are less burdened by the abundance of student needs the neighborhood schools in Hartford face.

But the school choice Hartford students enjoy – and the $1.4 billion it cost the state to build the magnet schools over the last decade and the $140 million to operate these schools each year – came only after the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered state lawmakers nearly two decades ago to desegregate the schools in the capital city.

Almost 8,500 Hartford children attend integrated magnet schools with their white peers from the suburbs. In Bridgeport, 930 students were enrolled in the handful of inter-district magnet schools during the 2012-13 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.

The Open Choice program – where students from Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven get to enroll in nearby public schools in neighboring districts – also offers many more seats to students from Hartford than Bridgeport and New Haven.

Ribbens credits the disparity of school options between Hartford and Bridgeport to how the state funds education.

“There is a discrepancy between how the state will fund a program in this part of the state and how they fund it in the Hartford region,” he said.

While the Connecticut Supreme Court’s desegregation decision has forced the state legislature to funnel more funding toward Hartford in an attempt to attract white students into magnet and city students into suburban schools, no such regional integration standards loom for other districts in Connecticut.

Schools Of Choice In Connecticut See Interactive Map The number of inter-district, regional magnet schools available to students from certain parts of the state varies drastically. For example, just a handful of magnet schools are available for students living in Bridgeport and the surrounding towns / By Alvin Chang

The state’s approach to integration

Connecticut lawmakers passed the state's racial balance law during a time of civil unrest. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated the previous year, and people were rioting in cities across the country.

To achieve integration, the law requires districts to report their student demographics for each school. If any school has 25 percent more minorities than the district average, the community must submit a plan to address the imbalance within 60 days. Last school year, four districts were violating the law by having at least one school with demographics far less diverse than their district as a whole. Those districts include Fairfield, Greenwich, Groton, and West Hartford. Additionally, 29 schools across the state are on the cusp of being too segregated.

Many school districts' response to the law is to change attendance zones in the district, close down the school cited for being imbalanced or make it a magnet school in an effort to attract white students from other district schools. And, while local boards complain that the rapid growth of minority communities in their towns make it nearly impossible to stay in compliance, some State Board of Education members are growing impatient with local officials’ inability to integrate their schools.

“One of your schools has been out of balance since 1999,” Joseph Vrabely Jr., a state board of education member from Glastonbury, told Greenwich officials during a recent meeting. “I am looking at a district that has had a balance issue for a long time, and I’m having a hard time accepting this, particularly regarding how many times you have been up here.”

At Hamilton Avenue School in Greenwich, two out of every three students are a minority compared to the districtwide average of one in three students.

Districts that show no progress in integrating schools or fail to have a plan are subject to losing their state funding.

However, the districts in Connecticut that are struggling the most – including Bridgeport and New Haven – are not impacted by this law because their school populations are so overwhelmingly made up of minorities that it is impossible to have a school with 25 percent more minority enrollment than the district average. For example, with 90 percent of Bridgeport's students being a minority, no Bridgeport school could possibly be out of compliance.

John Logan, a professor of sociology at Brown University who tracks the progress of desegregation efforts, told Connecticut legislators earlier this year that very little is being done to expand the number of desegregation programs.

"If you want to make a difference on a metropolitan scale, it requires more fundamental change," he said.

Suburban districts offer limited help

The availability of seats for Bridgeport students in nearby schools relies on the altruism of suburban districts.

Westport was one of the first towns to begin offering seats back in 1970, when the program was called Project Concern. That town's history is a microcosm of the challenges the program has faced.

For example, some parents were so outraged when the chair of the Westport Board of Education, Joan Schine, announced that she wanted to allow 25 Bridgeport students to attend Westport schools, that they tried to force Schine out in a recall election.

She managed to retain her seat, and the board narrowly voted to offer Bridgeport students seats in their schools.

Despite the ragged beginnings, the school system eventually hired a coordinator, Julie Horowitz, who retired earlier this year. A social worker and problem solver, she took the Open Choice students on college visits, hired a late bus so the city students could participate in after-school activities and purchased computers for the students.

“I really do feel Westport has made this huge effort. We looked at the barriers and tried to address them. Anything that gets the kids as involved in the school community in any way possible, that's where the connections happen,” Horowitz said.

Outcomes: Fairfield Country's Urban Districts vs. Their Neighbors See Graph Fairfield County's urban districts perform on 25 measures against their neighbors. / By Alvin Chang

While Westport voluntarily offers more seats to Bridgeport students than most districts in the region, the district still limits the number of seats available to 50.

So Bridgeport is left with schools where 13 percent of its students don't speak English, one-third of its high school students miss 18 days of school a year, and almost every student comes from a poor family.

Low participation in Open Choice has been a problem statewide, including in the Hartford region where numerous districts offered fewer seats to city students than the state requested.

But Walter Gilliam, the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale, said a regional approach could help improve education and get past the purely symbolic integration programs.

“I'm not naive enough to think every child is going to hit a home run, but every child deserves a turn at bat with a fairly pitched ball," he said, pointing out that the current approach only offers that opportunity if "you're fortunate enough to win a lottery and get pulled in as a token in our tokenistic solution.”

Making a difference

The reality of a day in a Bridgeport school made Jackson's grandparents cringe. So her grandfather, who adopted her when she was a child, went to City Hall all those years ago to enroll her in the School Choice Lottery, which the grandparents hoped would take her to a new school and a more hopeful future.

Their dreams were realized, and Jackson recalls riding on the bus into Westport, and being amazed at the size of the homes, and, later, once in school, becoming accustomed to the structure of a school day.

“The opportunity to go to school in Westport opened my eyes to a totally different world, where you can be in a situation where you are not struggling from paycheck to paycheck, and that's what I wanted. I could live without struggling.”

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Copyright c. 2014 The Connecticut Mirror/The Connecticut News Project, Inc.

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