School Desegregation in Hartford: Insight from a Florida Girl

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The majority of my education took place in Polk County, FL. One of the largest counties in the state, Polk County is located smack dab in the center—amid swampland and just a quick drive away from Walt Disney World. I cannot say the place I grew up was very much like the metropolitan area of Hartford. Where Hartford has crowded streets and the vibrancy of urban life, Polk County is comprised of small towns strung out along the highways with dots of orange groves and cow pastures in between.

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The map above shows the county in which I grew up.

With my rural, southern upbringing, I was quite unprepared for what I found in Hartford and surprised by both the similarities and differences. What I learned in my Educational Studies classes at Trinity College especially emphasized how alike yet diverse the two locations are—especially in the realm of school desegregation.

The more I learned about the Hartford school district, the more familiar it seemed. A definitive feature of the district is its school choice—that is, its multitude of available magnet, charter, and other alternative schools. I recognized the concept of school choice because I myself attended two charter schools, a magnet school, and a traditional public school while living and learning in Florida. I soon learned that school choice in Hartford was a product of the movement to desegregate schools in the district. As I delved deeper into the history of schooling in Polk County, I found a similar movement as well. The two movements, however, were not identical. Both movements started with concerned mothers in court cases and resulted in school choice, but they differed in their goals and what they achieved because they fought dissimilar forms of segregation.

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The above map is one of Hartford, the capital of the Nutmeg State.

The Similarities

Hartford School District Polk County School District
The Court Case: Sheff v. O’Neill (1989). The Court Case: Mills v. Polk County Board of Public Instruction (1978).
The Mother in Charge: Elizabeth Horton Sheff The Mother in Charge: Althea Margaret Daily Mills
The Solution: School Choice The Solution: School Choice

The table above outlines the court cases and the mothers behind the school desegregation movements for both school districts.

Hartford’s Case: Sheff v. O’Neill

The catalyst for school desegregation in Hartford was the case of Sheff v. O’Neill (1989). The original complaint was released in April of 1989 by the plaintiffs: 17 children of varied ethnicities, their parents, and lawyers. The plaintiffs noted the existence of sharp racial and socioeconomic disparities within the school systems of the greater Hartford area—disparities emphasized when comparing the city of Hartford to its surrounding suburbs. In the complaint, they argued that their children, as well as other students in Hartford, were limited to an education that was “minimally adequate”. 1 They sought to fight against the state of Connecticut so that the education of the Hartford city students could be improved. The complaint also stated that children in the suburban areas were “deprived of the opportunity to associate with, and learn from, the minority children attending school with the Hartford school district”. 2 The plaintiffs thought that by blending children of different socioeconomic statuses and races, they could improve education for all.

Click here to read the original Sheff v. O’Neill (1989) complaint.

Hartford’s Mother: Elizabeth Horton Sheff

First on the list of plaintiffs for the Sheff v. O’Neill (1989) complaint was Milo and Elizabeth Sheff. Eager to provide her 11-year-old son with a desegregated education that was equal to that of his white and suburban counterparts, Elizabeth Horton Sheff became the face of school desegregation in Hartford. She worked hard to advocate for the Sheff movement and, after, continued working within the community of Hartford with a focus on helping disenfranchised groups and support the education of Hartford students.

Watch the video above to hear Elizabeth Horton Sheff on the subject of Sheff v. O’Neill (1989). 3

Polk County’s Case: Mills v. Polk County Board of Public Instruction

The Polk County equivalent for the Sheff case was Mills v. Polk County Board of Public Instruction (1963). The 1960s was still an era of segregation in Florida and the Polk County school district, at the time, operated with in state of de jure segregation. Parents and plaintiffs of the case, upset that their children were receiving a far inferior education in their all black schools, sued the school board for allowing the schools to remain separate and unequal. Unlike the parents involved in Sheff v. O’Neill (1989), who fought the de facto segregation inherent in urban and suburban housing, the parents of Polk County were combating the legal system which assigned blacks and whites to separate schools. The case resulted in the Federal Court ordering Polk County to end its biracial school system in 1968—a major victory for Civil Rights activists in the state of Florida. 4

Click here to read the Procedural History of Mills v. Polk County Board of Public Instruction (1963).

Polk County’s Mother: Althea Margaret Daily Mills

A photo of Althea Mills Source: The News Chief

Growing up in an integrated school system, Althea Mills immediately noticed the difference when her son attended a segregated school in Winter Haven, Florida: “It was a hard time for people because the schools for the African-American children had inferior equipment… Our instructors were just as good, but some of my son’s textbooks would go to page 3 and then skip to page 35. You can’t learn like that.” 5 When it came time to enroll her son in high school, he was denied admittance to Winter Haven High without a psychological test and instead was redirected to Jewett High School. Her experience in the town of Winter Haven fueled Althea Mills’ passion for desegregation, not only in the school system, but in the county as a whole. In fact, it was Althea Mills who spearheaded the complaint against the Polk County school board. Without her efforts, the school district could have waited longer for orders of desegregation.

Click here to read more about Althea Mills and her fight against segregation.

The Difference: Segregation

At the time Elizabeth Horton Sheff was fighting for desegregation in Hartford’s school system, there was not a governmental establishment of segregation. That is to say, by 1989, the only segregation that existed was de facto. Thus, what Elizabeth Sheff was fighting was the encouragement and the continuity of separation along racial and socioeconomic lines. She was not, however, fighting against a segregation established by the laws of the county.

The story is different for Althea Mills. As she recalled, “There was segregation all over – not just in the schools, but for the movie theaters, the stores, the restaurants”. 6 After participating in a sit-in at the local counter, which was located just down the street from where I took my weekly piano lessons, her 9-year-old son was put in a juvenile home for two weeks. By filing a lawsuit against the county, Althea was challenging the entire system of segregation.

School Choice: A Solution

In considering the eventual desegregation of their school systems, leaders of both Hartford and Polk County’s school districts saw school choice as the solution to the problem, including the construction of magnet schools. Magnet schools are schools with a particular theme designed to attract students from all over the area. For Hartford, the eventual outcome was that the students, being geographically mixed, were inherently mixed racially and socioeconomically as well. In Polk County, choice schools were used to integrate students by providing learning spaces that were not traditionally “white” or traditionally “black.” Today, a considerable amount of magnet and other alternatives to the traditional school have been opened within both counties.

Click here to visit Hartford’s website on Public School Choice.

Click here for more information on Polk County’s Office of Magnet, Choice, and Charter Schools.

The Successes of Both School Desegregation Movements

Since both court cases for desegregation were filed, the school districts of Hartford and Polk County have achieved amazing things. As their struggles differed, so did their victories, and we can measure the victories of Hartford and Polk County in different ways.

Hartford's Sport and Medical Sciences Academy (a magnet school) Source:

A report released by the Sheff Movement reports “impressive achievement results”7 when comparing the standardized test scores of students in magnet schools as opposed to the test scores of students in a traditional Hartford public school. The report shows a greater percentage of students scoring above proficiency who attend the magnet schools. While some critics argue against the active role in which they play in the improvement of scores, many can agree that magnet schools have had a positive impact on the education of students in Hartford. Judging by the Sheff Movement’s report, it would appear that the desegregation movement of the school system of Hartford rates its success on two major factors: racial integration and improved test scores. Within the provisions of the Sheff 1 and Sheff 2 cases, a certain amount of racial mixing is required in order for the school system to be considered successfully integrated. Based on these parameters, however, the school system is falling behind. So instead, the Sheff Movement turns to test scores as the indicator for success.

Polk County's Davenport School of the Arts where I spent my 8th grade year (a choice school) Source:

As for Polk County, it’s greatest success, perhaps, occurred in 2000 when it was granted unitary status by the federal court.8 This meant that, under the observation of the federal court, Polk County was no longer operating a segregated, or dual, school system. Here, the court decided that the county was no longer operating under the rules of segregation, and the schools were providing integration for all students. Polk County’s success differs in its focus, being that it is entirely racial. To note that the county gained unitary status suggests that it achieved its goal of racial integration.


Attending magnet schools and charter schools as a kid, I was never made aware of their significance. Ironically, only after I move away, do I discover that these alternative schools stand to symbolize equal opportunities for all people. Sure, the magnet/charter/choice system is not perfect. Critics argue that they have not made enough difference—or perhaps have not made a difference at all. But I would argue that the desegregation movements of these two districts have made great progress. We can see many similarities between the two districts as well as recognize the differences between their struggles and success. All in all, the schools within these districts have many opportunities to offer, and they are available to students of all colors.


About the Author

Richelle Benjamin Trinity College '15

Richelle Benjamin is a student at Trinity College, seeking to major in Educational Studies. She is the co-build coordinator for the college’s Habitat for Humanity chapter and is a P.R.I.D.E. leader for the first-year class—promoting respect for diversity on campus. After college, she hopes to continue working in the field of education and dealing with the issues of inequality that are present. Though she still considers herself a Florida girl, Richelle has learned a lot by studying in the city of Hartford.

  1. “Sheff V. O’Neill Complaint.” Archival Documents (1989): n. pag.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill (with video) by Candace Simpson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, July 28, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (
  4. Procedural Histories of School Desegregation Suits in the Fifth Circut. N.p.: Clearing House, n.d. PDF.
  5. Godefrin, Shelly. “Mills’ Battle to Desegregate Polk County Schools Still Resonates Within Community.” 15 June 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Sheff Movement. “Regional Magnet Schools and Open Choice Post Impressive Achievement Results!” October 19, 2012.
  8. Documentation of Unitary Status, 100 Districts in South and Border. N.p.: n.p., 29 July 2004. PDF.