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Conn. Panels Crafting Voluntary Remedies

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New Haven, Conn.

As they have met in recent weeks to ponder school integration, local officials and residents of this city and its surrounding suburbs at times have been unable to resist the occasional reference to what they called "the B-word'': busing.

Few people who live here think local leaders will seriously consider the option of transporting significant numbers of students between city and suburb to reduce racial isolation. But the sensitivity with which the word is even uttered is testament to the difficult task this region has ahead of it.

By next fall, elected officials, school leaders, and community members in 11 regions throughout the state are supposed to put together blueprints for voluntarily integrating public schools in their areas.

Connecticut appears to be the first state to tackle the issue from the local level up, in the absence of a court mandate or state order.

But some observers worry that the state's voluntary program, passed last year with the ardent support of Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., is an empty promise. (See Education Week, June 9, 1993.)

The planning process is too compressed to allow regions more than a cursory handling of politically delicate issues, critics say. Moreover, the state's commitment to financing the regional proposals has been questioned by town officials, whose communities may opt not to participate in the final plan.

"I think there's a fear that if we take something that's already weak and make it weaker, we will accomplish very little beyond what we're already doing,'' remarked Frank Carrano, the president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers and a member of the panel crafting a plan for the region that includes New Haven.

In addition, the state is still awaiting the long-delayed outcome of Sheff v. O'Neill, a school-desegregation case in Hartford that inspired the 1993 law and that could have far-reaching implications for all districts.

Racial Gaps

Longtime residents said the diversity issue has emerged with sudden and unexpected force in Connecticut, where most city dwellers are members of minority groups and most residents of the suburbs and rural areas are white.

New Haven, for instance, has a minority-student enrollment of 84 percent--the third highest in the state after Hartford and Bridgeport.

Most of the city's schoolchildren are black, although there is a growing concentration of Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in the district.

In most of the 13 suburban and rural towns that surround the city and spread out east to the shores of the Long Island Sound, white students make up 90 percent or more of each school district's total enrollment.

New Haven students score well below the statewide averages on reading and mathematics achievement tests.

Such gaps prompted the legislature to ask regions to devise optional plans to improve the quality of education, increase awareness of diversity, address the needs of limited-English-proficient students, and reduce barriers to integration.

The planning body, or regional forum, includes chief elected officials and school board presidents from each municipality, as well as two teachers and four parents of public school students from around the region.

The panel also receives recommendations from a locally appointed advisory committee, which is expected to have broad community representation.

'Early Difficulties'

One problem with the process so far is that some city representatives on the planning committee have not attended the first regional meetings.

Mayor John De Stefano of New Haven, who was slated to be on the forum, has sent representatives in his place. Observers have interpreted the gesture as a sign of the city's weak commitment to working with neighboring communities.

"There were some early difficulties getting started'' here, said Jack Hasegawa, the state's chief facilitator for regional planning.

At a gathering here this month, however, city and school leaders were in full attendance, and discussions between forum members were generally focused and businesslike.

Still, local and state politics will inevitably play a major role in the planning process, which is expected to culminate in September with local school boards and municipalities voting on the regional proposals. If approved, plans are expected to be implemented by 1996.

Governor Weicker, the integration bill's most forceful proponent, is not running for re-election this year, a fact that "is going to leave a leadership vacuum here,'' Mr. Hasegawa noted.

"The political insecurities of the state are making everybody nervous,'' he added.

Others have warned that if even a handful of local leaders reject the final plans, the likelihood of making regional programs work will be greatly reduced.

'Nonthreatening' Programs

One example of the kind of programs the New Haven forum may recommend was evident on a recent visit to the Truman School, an elementary facility in the Hill, an area south of downtown where many Hispanic families have settled. There, students from two local high schools are visiting a 1st-grade class of L.E.P. students.

The young children bustle about the room excitedly as their visitors, about 15 students from suburban Branford and from inner-city New Haven, play Spanish music and organize games.

The high school students are from two of the 10 area districts participating in the Urban/Suburban Cooperative Project, which pairs teachers from predominantly minority schools with teachers in mostly white schools.

The teachers bring their students together about five times a year to participate in activities like this one at the elementary school, which sits amid boarded-up houses and noisy auto-repair shops.

Local leaders point to such programs as a viable option for bringing white and minority students together voluntarily.

"I think this program can be replicated in all schools,'' said Eva Ewing, the director of the exchange and one of the town of Guilford's appointees to the advisory committee. "It can be done on a shoestring, and it's nonthreatening.''

Bonnie Kaplan, the only student participating in the regional-planning effort, said local officials need to "regionalize the programs we have now.''

"You have to get the kids comfortable with each other in a social atmosphere rather than an intellectual atmosphere first,'' added Ms. Kaplan, a senior at Amity High School in the affluent community of Woodbridge.

Others involved in the regional effort said the forum will probably recommend offering joint professional-development courses on diversity to urban and suburban educators, expanding after-school programs for children of different racial and ethnic groups, and pooling some resources among the districts.

Creating magnet schools--several of which are already operating in New Haven--would probably be the most radical solution proposed by the region, most participants agreed.

'Not if It Costs a Dime'

The state has left local officials wondering whether it will help pay for any of the new programs, new schools, or transportation needs under the regional proposals.

"Everything we come up with is bound to cost more than we spend now,'' said John Prins, a parent from Branford who sits on the regional forum. "And nobody knows what's available for schools that do put themselves out.''

Local officials want to create new programs, "but not if it costs a dime,'' one observer added. "That's how taxpayers feel.''

Mr. Carrano of the teachers' union added that the region "is focused on finding vehicles, but the cost then has to become the responsibility of the state.''

But the price of efforts to integrate the schools is just a small part of the total picture, some officials maintained.

The state may have to alter its school-funding formula--which critics said pits urban against suburban school systems--before it will get local areas to cooperate on integration.

"Why would anyone want to send their child to a system that has 50 percent less [funding] than the one they're in?'' asked Patricia McCann Vissepo, the president of the New Haven school board.

In addition, city officials said school-integration plans will not address the racial gaps created by housing patterns, unemployment, and socioeconomic differences.

"This process has one major problem: The fact that segregation is not the fault of education,'' Ms. Vissepo added. "We're sort of putting the cart in front of the horse.''

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