1985: Why did the Fosters Jump the Line?

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Why did Saundra Foster jump the line? In 1985, she and three other parents were charged with larceny for enrolling their children in Bloomfield, a suburban school district, where they did not legally reside. Foster, an African American single mother, was motivated to find a better school for her son, Trevor, a bright sophomore who liked going to Hartford Public High School (HPHS). However, Trevor struggled in school, not because the curriculum was difficult, but because it was too easy, which led him to get involved with “problems” at school, and eventually being referred to an alternative education center. 1 At this point, Ms. Foster decided to take matters into her own hands and sent Trevor to Bloomfield to live with his cousin, a legal resident of Bloomfield. She claimed, “for a child like that to say that he is contemplating dropping out of school, it’s time to start thinking about alternatives”. 2 By November 1984, Trevor transitioned well into Bloomfield High and even became a starting player in the boy’s varsity basketball team. 3 There was no record of him getting in conflict with peers or teachers and Ms. Foster believed “he was much better off in Bloomfield”. 4 Although Saundra Foster had to live apart from her son, the decision to jump the line proved to be beneficial for Trevor’s education.

Saundra Foster, mother of Trevor Foster, was accused of stealing a free public education Source: Jumping the Line. Television broadcast. 1985. View on the web.

The inevitability of city line jumpers

Editorial cartoon from the Hartford Courant portrayed the mainstream perception of line jumpers -Black students arriving in Bloomfield high school in the trunks of automobiles. Source: Hartford Courant. 1985. Print.
The editorial cartoon portrayed the mainstream perception of line jumpers -Black students arriving in Bloomfield high school in the trunks of automobiles.
Source: Hartford Courant. 1985. Print.

People referred to students like Trevor Foster, who live in one town but attend a school in another, “line jumpers”. Most cases of line jumping during the 1980s were in suburban districts and involved “students from Hartford… not from lily-white suburbs like Avon or Simsbury”. 5 Similarly, Saundra Foster and two other parents were arrested due to their legal residencies in Hartford. The numerous cases and common perception of Hartford students jumping the city-suburban line starkly contrast to the non-existing case of suburban students. Why did urban students want to leave the schools in their cities and attend those in suburban towns? Evidence suggests that Saundra Foster and others alike were drawn into suburban schools while pulling away from Hartford schools due to issues relevant to safety and discipline, academic expectations, and socioeconomic backgrounds of students. Reverend Jesse Jackson, an American civil rights activist and former presidential candidate, stated that Saundra Foster and the three other parents “have exposed a two-tier educational system”. 6 Likewise, Mendoza and Saunders (1985) mentioned that “Is Hartford providing its youth with a good education?” became a prominent question in this case.

Even before this case, there was much dissent over the unequal quality of education in urban and suburban schools.  7 On one hand, State Commissioner of Education Gerald Tirozzi emphasized that “educational expectations are the same… you can receive just as good an education in Hartford”. 8 Likewise, Amando Cruz, principal of HPHS, claimed that the low achievement of urban schools was “erroneous” and that people should visit Hartford schools to find out for themselves that the “schools are effective and youngsters are warm”. 9 On the other hand, the many families that attempted to cross the city-suburban line told a very different story. In addition to Trevor Foster and the children of the other three parents who were arrested, nearly 100 students from other towns such as Hartford and New Britain attended Bloomfield High School around March 1985. 10 West Hartford also received numerous requests from non-residents, mostly from Hartford or New Britain, who wanted to send their children to into their suburban district. Mr. Calvert, Associate Superintendent of West Hartford schools, explained that “I get at least two a week…I have had parents come to me and cry”.  11

One key difference between city and suburban schools, in the eyes of many parents and educators, were safety and discipline. After his visit to Hartford public schools, Connecticut Senator Frank Barrows stated that “the education system is deplorable in the city of Hartford”. 12 The “deplorable” condition of Hartford schools was also echoed by Saundra Foster’s attorney Donald Cardwell, who revealed that the presence of drugs was often mentioned by parents as a major problem that needed “rectifying at any cost”. 13 Moreover, Anthony Johnson, a child of one of the arrested parents, said he preferred Bloomfield High School because ”it’s less crowded” and there were fewer fights among students (in Bloomfield) than Hartford high schools. 14 Assistant Superintendent O’Donnell also expressed a similar sentiment that parents went to Bloomfield because they were “concerned about the discipline problem in city schools”. 15

Saundra Foster talking about her decision to send her son to a school in Bloomfield during an interview. Source: Jumping the Line. Television broadcast. 1985. View on the web.
Saundra Foster talking about her decision to send her son to a school in Bloomfield during an interview.
Source: Jumping the Line. Television broadcast. 1985. View on the web.

A second key difference between city and suburban schools, mentioned by Saundra Foster, were the socio-economic background of students. 16 Commissioner Gerald Terozzi, who previously asserted that city-suburban school quality was the same, later revealed his concern over the “two Connecticuts”. 17 He stated that it’s not a race, but an economic issue in which “children of the poor need so many more resources,support service, so much more attention”. 18 In Hartford, one-third of the population lived below the poverty level and half of the households were headed by single parents. 19 Bloomfield, on the other hand, had an average family income almost double that of Hartford’s, single parenting and poverty were not major issues, and adults had a higher educational attainment. 20 According to Attorney Cardwell, “something unfair” is happening when the poor, middle class, and the rich are educated in separately designated school districts. 21

The concentration of socio-economic disadvantage illustrated the need for more resources in Hartford for students to truly receive an equal education as their suburban peers. Dr. Comer stressed the importance of compensating for economic, social and other stresses that exist in urban areas by finding out the needs of low-income children. 22 If student needs are not addressed, students will not be able to “develop to a level that’s necessary to be successful in school”. 23 Likewise, research suggests that the reduction of poverty related environmental stresses not only improves the overall well-being of students but also improves their ability to learn in schools. 24 In 1985, Bloomfield spent approximately $4511 25 whereas Hartford spent $4216 26 per pupil. Although Hartford had more students with greater needs, it spent about 7% less per student than Bloomfield. This gap in resources suggests that students would have received a more adequate education in Bloomfield than in Hartford. Thus, it may not be surprising that approximately 700 Hartford students dropped out from school in 1983 while students like Trevor jumped the line into Bloomfield. 27 

Another difference between city and suburban schools, according to Saundra Foster, was expectations for learning. Foster believed that city schools such as Hartford Public High School and Weaver High school were geared toward students with special needs. 28 For example, Trevor had already mastered the metric system in 7th grade but “couldn’t learn biology in 9th grade because the rest of the class didn’t know the metric system”. 29 Therefore, students like Trevor, who had the full ability and willingness to learn, would have found the classroom boring and unengaging. Attorney Cardwell affirms Trevor’s experience by stating that “inferior educational atmosphere” were often mentioned by parents as a problem in Hartford schools. 30 Dr. James Comer, a noted Yale psychiatrist and school reform advocate, suggested that too many teachers assumed that “low-income minority children cannot learn well”. 31 Considering the concentration of economic disadvantage in Hartford, Hartford school teachers could have displayed such low expectations onto their students. Research suggests that a teacher’s low expectations are harmful to students’ learning because he or she may use less advanced material and instructions. 32 Therefore, the low academic expectations of teachers further support Trevor’s experience of “remedial” education in HPHS. 33

Saundra Foster also referred to the inferiority of overall academic achievements of students as another discrepancy between city and suburban schools. 34 The achievement disparity between Hartford and Bloomfield was most clearly visible from test scores. According to the results from a 9th grade aptitude test in the Fall of 1984, 95.5% of Bloomfield students achieved a minimum or higher level of reading compared to 92.7% of Hartford students. 35 Similarly, only 73.5% of Hartford students achieved a minimum or higher math level compared to 87.1% of Bloomfield students. 36

Overall, Ms. Foster compared this unjust system to a deck of cards and stated “I just have to play them” because her son “should be able to go where he can get the best education”. 37 By moving to Bloomfield, Trevor was a step closer to beating the odds of an unjust system with severe academic and socio-economic inequality. Just like any other student in Bloomfield but unlike any in Hartford, Trevor finally had the opportunity to receive a better quality education with access to challenging curriculum, high expectations, and peers conducive to a successful learning environment.

The continuing struggle for an education

The arrests of all four parents were dismissed two months after they were originally issued. However, Trevor had to withdraw from Bloomfield high school after his mother’s arrest because a newspaper article named him as one of the four students linked to the warrant applications. 38 Trevor was stripped from his opportunity to receive a quality education and had no other alternatives besides Hartford Public Schools. Back in Hartford, Trevor was again referred to the alternative education center by the Board of Education. Ms. Foster did not want to send Trevor to an alternative education center neither before nor after moving him to Bloomfield because he “didn’t belong there”. 39 However, she was constrained by her residency and was out of choices this time. Intensive newspaper coverage on the Foster family finally ceased, and there has yet to be a report of Trevor’s graduation.

Decades later, there continue to be countless Saundra Fosters who hope to rescue their children from under-performing schools and give them the best opportunity. For example, Tanya McDowell, a Connecticut mother, found herself arrested for enrolling her 5-year-old son A.J. at Norwalk’s Brookside Elementary School. 40 A.J. had been enrolled in Connecticut’s Head Start program and was passionate about reading and science since an early age. McDowell researched her neighborhood school, the Thomas Hooker School in Bridgeport, but came to realize that the school had significantly lower CMT results than Brookside and thus concluded it didn’t meet the academic standards her son deserved. Although McDowell believed she had made the right decision for her child, she was sentenced to 5 years in prison, which included drug charges, and had to pay $6,200 to the city of Norwalk. 41

What other options do mothers like Saundra Foster and Tanya McDowell have? What can parents do if they can’t afford to move into an expensive district or buy a private education? While school district boundaries continue to divide children and their educational opportunities, recent educational policies have created choice programs to allow a selected number of students to cross district lines. Likewise, CT parents have the school choice system that allows urban and suburban students to choose their schools among a variety of options by entering a lottery. Parents like Saundra Foster are now able to legally enroll their children in suburban schools if they are lucky enough to win a spot through the lottery. However, this system may not fully prevent line-jumping because it does not guarantee enrollment in one’s first choice school and does not serve the most disadvantaged students. 42 Therefore, Connecticut not only needs to continue interdistrict magnet schools and programs like open choice but also address the socio-economic segregation between town lines to fully address the discriminatory barriers to a truly equal public education.


  1. Mendoza, W., & Saunders, A. F. (1985, August 31). Jumping the Line. The Public File. Hartford, CT: Viacom Broadcasting, Inc., WVIT Channel 30.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Drury, Dave. (1985, April 2). 2 City Parents Are Charged in Residence Case. The Hartford Courant (1923-1986), p. AA1. Hartford, Conn., United States.
  4. Drury, Dave. (1985, March 21). Bloomfield Police Seek Warrants for Non-Resident Students. Hartford Courant, p. a1 and a12. Hartford, CT.
  5. Residency Rule Called Good, If Done by Book. (1976, July 18). Hartford Courant, p. 44. Hartford, CT.
  6. Mendoza & Sanders 1985.
  7. Johnson, D. (1985, May 12). Quality Of City Schools Tested in Trial On Residency: Equity of Schools Tested in Arrests. New York Times, p. CN1. New York, N.Y., United States.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Mendoza & Sanders 1985.
  10. Mendoza & Sanders 1985.
  11. McCarthy, P. (1985, September 8). Districts Restrict Nonresidents: Districts Act on Nonresidents. New York Times, p. CN1. New York, N.Y., United States.
  12. Drury 1985a
  13. Johnson 1985.
  14. Steve Costello. (1985, May 7). Quality Of Urban Schools On Trial, Lawyer Says. Retrieved April 9, 2016, from http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1985/Quality-Of-Urban-Schools-On-T rial-Lawyer-Says/id-8c0c033cca0ebfc19fde60766ec90ce8.
  15. Hartford Courant 1976.
  16. Dismissal of charge is asked in school enrollment case. (1985, May 14). The Hour, p. 4. Retrieved April 14, 2016, from https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=8hJJAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ugU NAAAAIBAJ&p.
  17. Mendoza & Sanders 1985.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Blair, C. (2012, September 01). Stress Relief Can Be the Key to Success in School. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/stress-relief-can-be-key-success-school/.
  25. CPEC, Local Public School Expenses and State Aid in Connecticut (Hartford: CPEC), January 1986.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Drury 1985a.
  28. Mendoza & Sanders 1985.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Johnson 1985.
  31. Mendoza & Sanders 1985.
  32. Rosenthal R. (1974) On the social psychology of the self-fulfilling prophecy: Further evidence for Pygmalion effects and their mediating mechanisms (MSS Modular Publications, New York) Module 53, pp 1–28.
  33. Mendoza & Sanders 1985.
  34. The Hour 1985.
  35. Johnson 1985.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Bass, P. (1985, June 9). Case on Residency And Schools Halted. New York Times, p. CN14. New York, N.Y., United States.
  38. Drury 1985a.
  39. Condon, T. (1986, June 12). Residence Rules Need Examination. The Hartford Courant (1923-1986), p. B1. Hartford, Conn., United States.
  40. Bernard, M. (2015, August 6). Why Are We Arresting Mothers for ‘Stealing’ a Public Education? Retrieved April 12, 2016, from https://www.the74million.org/article/stealing-public-education.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Wells, A. S., Baldridge, B. J., Duran, J., Grzesikowski, C., Lofton, R., Roda, A., … White, T. (2009). Boundary Crossing for Diversity, Equity, and Achievement: Interdistrict School Desegregation and Educational Opportunity. Cambridge MA: Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

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Jiyun Lee (Lisa)

Jiyun Lee is a student at Trinity College (Class of 2017) majoring in Psychology and Educational Studies.

2 thoughts on “1985: Why did the Fosters Jump the Line?”

  1. Readers: please comment on the following questions, and feel free to add your own.
    1) Does the essay tell a compelling story from the perspective of people at that point in time?
    2) Does the essay make insightful claims about the past, supported with persuasive evidence?
    3) Does this blend of text and digitized sources make you think about the topic in new ways?

  2. This essay absolutely told a compelling story, by getting into details of the Foster family, as well as the McDowell family. Even briefly, the writer was able to make me care about this issue. What would I do, given the same circumstances? For the love of my children, I would do precisely the same thing. That’s good writing.

    The writer makes insightful claims, and supports them with compelling evidence. She was able to succinctly describe the situation, and then trace back — particularly through the eyes of Saundra Foster — how the state of Connecticut arrived at arresting these mothers.

    To be honest, I found the writing so compelling I didn’t much notice the digitized supports. However, the pictures were helpful. This was an outstanding essay.

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