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As CT seeks to desegregate schools, suburban districts are slow to help

Five-year-old Darien kindergarten student Vivi Witthuhn holds her favorite protest sign. Her mother expressed concerns about her daughter having to explain to classmates why her mother is Black. (Tyler Russell, Connecticut Public)

Amid the protestors chanting “change your vote” outside the school board offices in the wealthy shoreline town of Darien stood 5-year-old Vivi Witthuhn holding a sign asking officials to be kind — and reverse course and allow a few kindergarten students from the overcrowded urban district next door into her school.

Talking with a slight lisp after one her front teeth fell out that morning, this kindergarten student reads what’s on her sign.

“Everybody pay attention. Please be nice and not mean.”

This rejection from a wealthy suburban community to open its borders even slightly is a trend in Connecticut — which research shows is one of the most economically and racially segregated states in the country.

This year, it was Darien’s school board rejecting a plan that would have enrolled 16 Norwalk kindergarteners throughout its elementary schools. The wealthy suburban districts surrounding Danbury decided earlier this year they wouldn’t be opening their classrooms, either.

In 2017, when more than 1,000 Puerto Rican children showed up in Waterbury after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, neighboring suburban districts ignored the pleas for help from city officials. They were asking suburban school leaders to use their empty classrooms because there was no room in the city’s schools.

Click photo to use interactive feature.

“I was really disappointed with either the lack of response or no response,” said state Rep. Geraldo Reyes, who chairs the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “This spoke volumes of how some of the suburbs perceive our children from Waterbury.”

This rejection from the suburbs to open their doors — either to school busing programs or to allow more affordable housing to be built in their communities — has been going on for generations.

In 1989, the year a coalition of civil rights leaders sued the state over the segregation that was thriving in the Hartford region, nearly 1,500 city children were enrolled in nearby, well-resourced suburban schools through a program called Project Concern.

Click photo to use interactive feature.

Three decades later — and after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled children “suffer daily” from the inequities caused by the racial and economic isolation — the program, now called Open Choice, has only grown by about 700 Hartford students.

“It tells me it’s not working,” said John Brittain, one of the original attorneys involved in the Hartford Sheff vs. O’Neill desegregation lawsuit. “It tells me there’s a need to increase [the] degree of diversity.”

Brittain grew up in Norwalk, the town whose students Darien and other nearby suburbs seem reluctant to open their doors to.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Open Choice was supposed to be a tool that suburban districts could use to help integrate their schools instead of the state redrawing school district boundaries, as the Supreme Court pointed to as the culprit of segregation in the Sheff case.

But year after year, millions that the state has set aside to pay for Open Choice go unspent when suburban districts decline to offer more seats, despite declining enrollment in their towns. In New Haven and Bridgeport, fewer than 300 kids from each city land a spot in Open Choice.

The wait lists are long.

(CTMirror.org)

Martha Stone, one of the attorneys in the Sheff case, homed in on this at the press conference in January announcing the historic agreement with the state that aims to expand the program by 450 Hartford kids over the next seven years.

“Just last year, there were 896 Hartford kids that wanted to go to the suburban schools in a non-entry grade and never had that opportunity because there were no suburban districts that would allow them to have educational opportunities in their district,” she said. “And that’s the issue of the suburban districts being willing to have some kind of a real self-examination. We’ve all had issues and demonstrations after George Floyd, but we still haven’t had districts come forward and say ‘Yes, we want to be part of the solution. To be able to open up our doors to all students.’”

Gov. Ned Lamont also promised in that agreement that every Black and Latinx student from Hartford who wants a seat in a high-quality integrated school would be offered one.

“This is an opportunity for Connecticut to get it right,” he said during the press conference. “This is a way that we’re going to make sure that no kid is left behind, regardless of race, color, or creed. This is a way to make sure they have choice. Parents have choice. Kids have choice. They can go to the school of their choice. Nobody’s going to be kept out.”

Governor embraces the carrot, not the stick to integrate

The Democratic governor was the driving force behind the Open Choice program becoming an option in Norwalk and Danbury instead of just the Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport regions as it has been.

He first proposed the expansion one year ago in his budget address before the General Assembly.

“With many of our urban schools crowded and their suburban schools with extra capacity, my budget proposes an expansion of the Open Choice program beginning in Norwalk and Danbury. So these kids and those in surrounding communities can go to school in a more diverse environment with greater opportunity,” he said.

But despite the General Assembly providing more than $1 million to roll this out, the program will not be launching in the Danbury area next year as originally planned. Shortly before Darien voted down the plan to enroll 16 kindergarten students from Norwalk, the school board heard from Charles Dumais, the executive director of the organization that has been tasked with running the Open Choice program in those parts of the state.

“At this point, there’s not a critical mass that would put us in a position where providing transportation would be reasonable at this point. So we’re going to push out Danbury one more year,” he said.

This approach of Lamont offering districts financial incentives to step up followed a wave of backlash he received to a previous proposal of his that would have penalized tiny school districts whose officials wouldn’t consider regionalizing some administrative-level positions.

Several residents from Darien were the leading voices behind that movement — branded “Hands off our Schools.” They organized dozens of protests around the state and at the Capitol to defeat the plan.

Darien School Board member Tara Ochman waited hours to testify at the state Capitol complex against that proposal.

“I went up to Hartford,” she said. “I testified against regionalization. I made the argument that we could do it better ourselves if you let us. I think we’re going to have to answer the state if we turn down choice programs.”

After voting in favor of allowing roughly one Norwalk student in each of the district’s kindergarten classrooms, she began receiving hate mail. One accuses her of “turning Darien into the woke slums.”

A Tweet from State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25).

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff has also been receiving emails from Darien residents, where just 7% of the students are Black or Latinx compared to 67% in Norwalk, where he lives. One of those emails told him, “You can keep your troubled school system and troubled minority students in your own troubled town … full of poor schools and welfare recipients.”

Duff attended the rally, and said during an interview after that, ”I think in some ways that email represents some of the reasons why people voted ‘No.’ Part of this vote, I think, is rooted in that email.”

The reasons to say ‘no’…

Opponents cite a host of reasons why Darien schools can’t accept these students: Classrooms don’t have the space; enrollment is projected to increase as more housing is built in town and as families relocate from New York City during the pandemic.

Kindergarten enrollment in the district has dropped by 21% since 2007, enrollment has not increased during the pandemic, and projections do not forecast an uptick in enrollment.

(CTMirror.org)

John Sini voted against the plan. Until recently, he was the chairman of Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission, which determines what type of housing gets built in town.

“There is some uncertainty around the class number of sections. I think we are going back to normal, but I think we actually have to focus on our kids,” he said before the vote. “I know the three apartment complexes are coming along, and a few others, I’m confident that they’re developed so it’s going to mitigate the number of families in terms of how they’re developed and their sizes.”

Although the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits people with children from being discriminated against, many civil rights attorneys and housing advocates believe that some affluent suburban towns only allow one- or two-bedroom apartments to open to avoid erecting affordable housing options for families.

Nearly half of the 366 housing units that will soon open in Danbury are one bedroom and the remainder two bedrooms, a review of approved housing units by CT Public’s Accountability Project shows. Research shows few children move into such housing.

“Multifamily housing does not yield high numbers of children. The effect on the schools are de minimis,” Evonne Klein, the state’s former Housing Commissioner, said after the rally in Darien, which is where she lives.

There are also concerns about the fiscal cost to the town, despite the superintendent mapping out the finances and showing the districts would actually gain financially.

“It has potential to be a revenue generator run the right way — but it also has the potential to have some costs. I don’t think this is the year, and so I won’t be voting for it tonight,” said Jill McCammon, the vice chairperson of the local school board.

Wealthy towns’ rejection will cost the state millions

The rejection from Darien and other suburban districts will likely cost the state millions, since new schools will need to be built to help the overcrowded districts.

The governor is frustrated by this reality, but he’s not ready to force districts to participate.

“I was disappointed to see a couple of those communities say no to Open Choice. That means we have to go with new schools. That’s so we can decompress some of the classrooms. For example, in Danbury. You know me, I prefer incentives to mandates,” he said.

His administration surveyed school districts last fall to take an inventory of empty school buildings across the state for the state to potentially renovate and open.

Meanwhile, wealthy districts continue to receive construction money to build segregated schools.

Darien has received just over $11 million since 2006 from the state to help build two of the elementary schools that the superintendent wanted to enroll a few Norwalk students in. Connecticut taxpayers also spend at least $14 million a year paying for the pensions of retired Darien teachers.

Before the vote, Darien’s School Board Chairman David Dineen said he and other town officials are headed to the state Capitol to ask for more money this year.

13 comments

Inquiring mind February 19, 2022 at 6:50 am

I thought Norwalk Public Schools were actually good schools? Charter schools offers real choice to parents. Besides what kind of “voluntary” program to suburban towns comes with the resulting media scorn and woke criticism if those towns don’t submit to Bob Duff and Hartford? We need real choice programs in this state: charter and magnet schools where the full funding follows the student.

John O'Neill February 19, 2022 at 10:23 am

Some fun facts about those quoted for this story:

1) Martha Stone is so appalled by segregation she lives in a town that’s 96% white – Durham, Ct
2) Charles Dumais is so concerned about diversity in his Trumbull school district, but he forgot to tell us it’s only 4% Black.
3) Casey Cobb: if he has children they attend schools that are 2% Black in District 19
4) A year ago I had a lengthy discussion with a DeSegregateCT proponent only to find out he just bought a house on 2 acres in bucolic Weston School district. That was the first and last time I took him seriously.

The phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” comes to mind. The above examples are people who can live anywhere they’d like in Ct, but choose overwhelmingly white school districts. AND they’re lecturing us on Segregation? Just think about that for a second.

Piberman February 19, 2022 at 3:41 pm

Improving school outcomes for minorities is more complicated than just requiring integration. Norwalk, a minority majority school system for many years illustrates the issues. Norwalk spends as much per student as the surrounding towns with 2 to 3 times the per capita income. Yet most Norwalk students fail to meet CT Edu Dept graduation standards while almost all do in surrounding towns.

How to explain the very large differences in student performance between mostly minority Norwalk and mostly white surrounding towns ? Is it management ? Or is it teachers ? Or “something else” ? Norwalk’s BOE members have very different resumes than the surrounding towns where major league business/financial experience is required. Good results requires top management oversight. Norwalk’s BOE members wouldn’t likely be elected in our surrounding towns. A matter of experience brought to the table.

Same principal applies to school administrators. Our surrounding towns don’t usually employ Norwalk administrators. Nor do surrounding towns seek out Norwalk’s oft revolving Superintendents. Our surrounding towns generate much better student achievements because they’re much better managed. Now Norwalk’s elected leaders won’t say that in public. But in the real world competent management secures good results.

If Norwalk’s experience is any guide unsatisfactory student outcomes requires electing much more experienced and better skilled BOE members. That’s not likely to happen in One Party Norwalk nor in most other communities until parents and citizens demand much better school outcomes.

The reality is that communities get the public school outcomes they demand. Norwalk residents/parents/taxpayers accept that most public school students fail to meet CT Edu standards. Our surrounding towns have different expectations and secure much superior standards.

What’s cast as “racial school problem” is more accurately identified as a public school management problem. Anyone who thinks its really is a “racial problem” ought visit a major US military base. And just walk around. Roughly half the troops and officers are minorities, half are white. And the minorities get their fair share of the top jobs. Indeed the full integration of our US military is one of the best demonstrations of what good management can achieve.

If by magic all of Norwalk’s students went to our surrounding towns they’d get much better public educations. Simply because those schools are run to a much higher standards. And if the surrounding town students were sent to Norwalk schools student achievements would sharply decline. Parents seek out private schools or move to communities with high public school achievement standards.

In sum Norwalk parents, residents and taxpayers are getting exactly the kind the public school outcomes the community demands. If the community wants much better student outcomes then elect much more qualified BOE members. But in our One Party City that’s not likely. No elected City official from Common Council or City Hall is raising a voice to secure much better student outcomes in Norwalk. So we know our future.

And it has nothing to do with sending a few students to Darien’s splendid schools.
Nor is it “racism”. Just a matter of electing public officials with backgrounds suitable to get the job done. Our surrounding towns elect BOE members who get the job done.
Norwalk has other standards. Getting into an Ivy or First Tier College is a lot harder for Norwalk students than those in surrounding towns. They get much better educations because their communities demand it. Norwalks spends the monies but doesn’t demand comparable student outcomes.

Sue Haynie February 21, 2022 at 6:23 am

The Open Choice enrollment figures in this article show the #’s of students enrolled in neighboring districts but not the demographics of those students. That cumulative data would give a better idea as to whether Open Choice is actually even working in terms of its goals.

If CT legislators really cared about CT’s school desegregation, students and their parents, they’d give parents real choice—let the $$$ follow the child, vouchers, charters, savings plans, etc. But it seems instead that the CT legislators want to complain, shame and accomplish nothing.

Piberman February 21, 2022 at 10:40 am

Those wanting better public school outcomes might want to read todays column in the Federalist citing a continued decline in public school enrollment in recent years as more and more parents seek better school education for their youngsters in private schools. Reportedly private school enrollment is increasing in Fairfield County.

Yet elected officials seem fearful of demanding better student performance from our highly paid public school administrators. Norwalk’s BOE hasn’t publicly demanded much better student performance or even acknowledged we have a major problem in student achievement. Nor has our Supt – highest paid in CT – presented a plan to rescue our failing public school system.

The obvious question is why Norwalk parents and the elected officials in our One Party City aren’t deeply concerned about our failing public school system ? Why are they more concerned about raising school budgets for a mostly stagnant student population for public schools that persistently fail to educate our kids so they meet CT Edu Dept standards.

Is it because our elected officials, especially the BOE, just have other concerns ?
Parents not concerned either ?

Tartuffo February 21, 2022 at 3:42 pm

I think that the real “poison” in this discussion comes from the fact that education is so politicized. It seems that our good people in Hartford want to makes us feel guilty, one way or another, always making it a race issue. Pulling the “desegregation card” or making it such a black/brown versus white problem is not what is at the heart of this very serious problem. I am sorry, but that is simply not the case. It’s the same thing all over the world: families who can afford to send their kids to private schools will do so. If they can afford to live in an area where the school district is very good, they try very hard to do so. The rest of us have to just work with the school district we have, or can afford! Money buys better education. That is the honest truth. Public schools have always had to contend with this problem. Some have decided to work harder than others, and to dedicate their efforts to provide the best for their communities. Why would you expect another district who pays attention to their students to take in yours because you simply refuse to be a responsible district? Would you expect another family to take in your kid because you simply can’t be a responsible parent? Stop electing and hiring mediocre people, and things will turn around! It is not only a question of money, but mostly a question of quality. If we accept mediocrity from our leaders, how can we expect more from our students? Let’s stop blaming or punishing a good school district because they value their students and fight for them. The active involvement of the community strengthen the school. Parents need to be heard, and students need to be challenged. This is a generation of kids who are learning to think that it’s easier to hide behind the excuses instead of taking responsibilities. I wonder why? Maybe because they hear people like these politicians all day long blaming others for their failures! Schools demographics are constantly evolving, especially in larger cities, partly due to our current immigration policies. This is a countrywide issue. For example, New York State had to pass a new regulation in 2014 requiring school districts to create bilingual programs for any language that is spoken by 20 or more students in a single grade level. The district of Albany had 57 languages to contend for. Imagine the task? If you look at the recent changes in our demographics, it had to affect the outcome. The quality of the education in Norwalk has gone down, and a lot is at stake. There are a large number of cities that have had to integrate immigrants, refugee children as well as incoming students from other areas. This puts a burden on a district. It is a financial one for sure, but it is also a managerial headache. The leadership of these districts need to look inwards as to their aptitude to handle this, and stop hiding behind lame excuses. Wake up voters! You need not only diversity in skin color, but in brains! The future of these kids is at stake. The future of America.

Stuart Garrelick February 21, 2022 at 4:55 pm

As I have said before the only practical solution is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) tax in which those who do not want to provide for the disadvantaged pay for that privilege.

Not so Non Partisan February 21, 2022 at 5:30 pm

Better schools = parent choice and parental involvement = charter schools

Sanctuary cities without funding will only lead to bankruptcy.

M Murray February 22, 2022 at 6:21 am

How much of a school district’s success or failure is less about money spent by the district and more time and effort by the parents educating their child at home and reinforcing the educational process after school spending time with their child checking their homework and making sure they are doing it and doing it properly?

Mike O'Reilly February 22, 2022 at 6:31 pm

Thank you Tartuffo. You nailed it. Unfortunately this outstanding editorial has little chance in being published in the Mainstream press. New York Time’s Please make the effort to send this article to other media outlet’s.

s March 2, 2022 at 9:04 am

A lot of excellent points here by the commenters, But unfortunately nothing will happen since Norwalk public as a whole is kept in the dark. This is a very strange system here – that would be laughable in other countries. All kids should have access to quality education regardless of where they live. Charter schools seem to be the way out. Norwalk system is NOT WORKING.

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