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Budget Cuts End Hartfords Model Program of Desegragation

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A model one-way desegregation program begun 15 years ago in Hartford, Conn., is being phased out by order of the local school board, which argued that the district can no longer afford to send city students to suburban schools.

But the supporters of Suburban Project Concern, which is well regarded because student and community participation is voluntary, say the board's decision made at the start of the school year was based not only on economic problems but on political pressure from the teachers' union.

Suburban Project Concern started in 1966 as a program to integrate surrounding public schools with minority students from overcrowded schools in Hartford. Five suburban communities agreed to provide schooling for 250 of Hartford's minority students in the first year of the program.

Tuition and Transportation Paid

Hartford school officials in return paid tuition for their students and transportation costs to bus them to suburban schools. Hartford also hired support teachers to accompany the students on the bus and assist with tutoring services in the suburban districts.

William F. Paradis, project administrator, said the suburban communities were apprehensive at the start of the program. But, he said, their fears over the busing of minority students into their communities were dis6pelled when no trouble occurred, and the program became a success.

Suburban Project Concern grew over the years to include 13 communities. About 84 percent of Hartford's residents are minority members, while the surrounding communities are predominantly white.

"It was an experiment to see what logistics were involved and just what needs of the children could be served," Mr. Paradis explained. Program evaluations conducted over the years, he said, have shown improvement in students' self-image and academic performance.

"It's been beneficial to the children not only academically but affectively," Mr. Paradis said of the program, which has served up to 1,500 students in a school year but is down to 901 students this year.

And education officials from California, Texas, and Illinois have been studying the program as a possible model for their own desegregation efforts.

But this year no new students are being placed in any of the communities that have contracted with the Hartford school district for Suburban Project Concern, and no more students are expected to be placed in the future, even though the communities have requested more students, according to Mr. Paradis.

Funding for the program has been reduced by nearly $600,000, from $2.2 million in state and federal funds last year to the current level of about $1.6 million. As cost-cutting meael5lsures, administrative and support staff members have been laid off from their positions with the program and transportation is no longer provided for Project Concern's middle- and high-school students attending suburban schools.

Mr. Paradis said the elimination of transportation for some 400 students reduced that expense by about $400,000.

Program Saves Money

And despite the school board's contention that the program remains too expensive, Mr. Paradis figures that it actually saves the school district money. The average per-pupil cost is $1,300, while per-pupil cost within the city is about $2,500.

"The suburban communities wanted the students, but there is the school board's policy to keep them in the city and the teachers' union is not happy with us because of declining enrollment," Mr. Paradis said.

He warned that if the program is phased out, the district will never recover the relationship it has had with participating communities.

'Not a Very Popular Decision'

Wayne De. Casey, Hartford school board president, said that the decision to phase out the program was not prompted by pressure from the teachers' union as Mr. Paradis and others suggest.

"It was not a very popular decision," Mr. Casey said. "[The program] has served some kids6well. It's really benefited the suburban communities. If they were really interested they would chip in, but there's been no effort to assist the program."

Mr. Casey said the city cannot afford to "subsidize suburban schools. We have to make our own schools a priority."

Peter Relic, superintendent of the West Hartford public schools, one of the participating districts, says the program does not subsidize suburban schools. He said Hartford school officials are subsidizing the education of their own children and that phasing out Suburban Project Concern would be a great loss to the suburban communities.

Minority students represent about 10 percent of West Hartford schools, and many areProject Concern students. Last year, there were 300 Project Concern students in West Hartford schools and this year the number is down to 255 students. Mr. Relic estimates that there will be fewer than 200 students next year. He says Project Concern is not only "one of the great examples of voluntary desegregation," but also a model for providing quality education and freedom of choice.

Although the program is scheduled to end when the last Project Concern student graduates, Mr. Paradis said the parents of Project Concern students and those parents who wanted their children in the program are angered by the board's decision. He said there are some efforts to find other funding sources to continue the program through a nonprofit corporation.

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