In July of 1996, the Sheff coalition of Black, White, Puerto Rican, city and suburban plaintiffs finally heard the Supreme Court ruling, seven years after the initial complaint was filed in 1989. The court ruled, in favor of the plaintiffs, that it was unconstitutional for the State of Connecticut to allow the de-facto racial segregation of public schools to continue. This was a significant win in the courts for the movement, but what they did not win was a real life solution since the decision ultimately did not specify a remedy or timetable for the State to dismantle this segregation (Sheff Movement).
When Elizabeth Horton Sheff and the other plaintiffs heard the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling in their favor in July 1996, they were initially joyous in their civil rights victory. Seven long years after the case was filed in 1989, the state’s highest court proclaimed that Connecticut had violated the equal education rights of Hartford minority students by maintaining segregated school districts. But in the two decades that have passed since this courtroom victory, the implementation plan has reached only half of its goal. Elizabeth Horton Sheff and the remaining plaintiffs currently stand at a difficult point. On one hand, they praise the state for creating over 45 interdistrict magnet schools that would not have existed without pressure from the case. On the other hand, they criticize the state for halting the creation of more magnets. Furthermore, some critics of magnet school inequity blame the Sheff movement for creating new disparities. This essay conveys the stories of multiple plaintiffs to capture their different ideas and insights on the case since their initial courtroom victory.
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the leading plaintiff of the Sheff vs. O’Neill case was a parent plaintiff on behalf of her son Milo. Milo was 10 years old and in fourth grade at Annie Fisher Elementary School in Hartford, when the lawsuit was originally filed against the state. Following the 1996 court decision, and subsequent legislative action, the Greater Hartford region saw a significant increase in public magnet schools that began with 2, and as of 2016, has risen to 48. These magnet schools are the single biggest accomplishment of the Sheff coalition, and a source of pride for Elizabeth Sheff.
Every day, Elizabeth Horton Sheff carries the honor, and the burden, of being the lead plaintiff, and the most recognizable public face in the fight for integrated schooling in the Hartford region. She has been conscientious of her role as a spokesperson for the integration cause that came as a result of the landmark case. In an interview with Trinity College students, she expressed this awareness and stated that, “you got to be real careful of what you say” when reflecting on a off-hand joke made to the press after an event (Sheff 9). Parents thank her for the work she has done, and are grateful to have their children enrolled in a magnet school or open choice. On the other hand, with only 41% of Hartford students enrolled in “reduced isolation settings” as of 2013, the fight for educational equity is far from over for Elizabeth Sheff.
Elizabeth pushes for larger scale implementation of integrated schooling through her dedicated involvement with the Sheff Movement. Through this fight, she encounters critics of the movement, from the Hartford community, who believe that these remedies have done more harm than good. She continues to be dedicated to the Sheff movement’s goal of racially integrating schools, despite the burdens this fight has brought on her. She continues to endure now that her children are grown, although they never had the opportunity to experience or benefit from the newly developed magnet school system, which would never have existed were it not for this case.
Legislation passed in 1997, a year after the ruling in favor of the Sheff plaintiffs, established funding for a number of new Magnet schools. Brand new buildings for themed schools began cropping up in and around the City of Hartford and were intended to draw white suburban families into the city. The development of these schools increased the number of children in the State who were learning in racially integrated environments. While this was a significant win for the Sheff movement, plaintiffs were disheartened that, “a lot of the students in Hartford don’t have the opportunities to get into the magnet schools and so that’s still – we’re not living up to the full potential of what the Sheff case was all about” (Bermudez 8).
Wildaliz and Eva Bermudez, the youngest of the Sheff plaintiffs, were 14 and 9 when the court ruled in their favor in 1996. While the outcomes of racially integrated school programs are seen as predominantly positive, plaintiffs, such as the Bermudez sisters, have concerns that the remedies do not go far enough to provide high quality experiences for all Hartford students. As Hartford residents, they were able to witness, first hand, the changes that were occurring to the school systems in and around Hartford. Although Eva reflected positively on her experiences as a high school student in various magnet and Hartford district schools, most of the improvements made were mostly seen in the experiences of their younger siblings. They appreciated opportunities for their siblings to attend well-resourced, magnet school. However, they were disappointed that they did not have as many opportunities to experience more of those changes for themselves, because the case took so long to be decided, and the remedies that followed were slow to be realized (Bermudez 7).
Parent plaintiffs, Carol Vinick and Tom Connolly, lived in Hartford at the start of the Sheff lawsuit, but moved to West Hartford around the time of the 1996 court ruling. In 1989, at the time the lawsuit was filed, they were satisfied that their children were receiving a quality, integrated education in their Hartford Public Schools. Their motivation for involvement in the case was to improve the experiences for all Hartford children. When they moved to West Hartford in the mid-90’s, due to increased gang violence, their children were approaching Junior high school. Carol was “shocked by the inequities,” and was struck by the resources that the students had in the West Hartford schools such as “a dictionary for every kid in the class” (Vinick 5:15). This first hand exposure to vastly different worlds likely encouraged their ongoing commitment to the Sheff movement for 25 years and beyond.
Carol and Tom convey a political and activist mindset that brings them to the issues of racial and economic disparity on a national level. Tom talks about the Sheff movement with a sense of outrage that “Hartford is the 4th poorest, per capita…city in the country, in the richest state in the union” (Connolly 9:49). Tom expresses concerns on a broader level that are exemplified in the Sheff Movement, which demands equity and justice through the scope of education, and has moved far too slow in the eyes of these plaintiffs.
For parent plaintiff, Eugene Leach, whose family represented the only White and suburban demographic at the time the Sheff case was filed in 1989, his involvement was the result of a lifelong engagement with civil rights. Leach, a professor and U.S. historian, was a civil rights activist early on and participated in the March on Washington in 1963, at 19 years old. (Leach 4). Leach and his wife, Kathy Frederick moved from Hartford to a diverse part of West Hartford in the early 80’s, when their daughter was 2, and they were expecting their son (Leach 6). His motivation for being involved in the case and the subsequent movement was rooted in the belief that, “desegregation…is something that is done on behalf of the civic good of the community” (Leach 3). This belief in social justice for the greater good, rather than personal benefit is likely why Leach has remained a consistent supporter of the cause of desegregation. He is committed to staying the course and believes that, “deep social reform means moving mountains that do not move at all quickly, that you were to some degree talking about generational change, change that occurs literally over the course of generations” (Leach 10).
During the 2012-13 school year, the State of Connecticut reported that, through the implementation of Magnet Schools and Open Choice, the stated goal set forth in the 2013 stipulation agreement was met, and 41% of students were enrolled in “reduced [racial] isolation settings” (Sheff Movement). While a considerable improvement over the de-facto racial isolation experienced by Hartford students prior to Sheff, many plaintiffs are discouraged that the remaining 59% of Hartford students continue to be subject to conditions of extreme racial and economic isolation. This awareness of so many children being left behind while the magnet schools continue to pop up around the city is not the only concern of Sheff plaintiffs. The lack of a diverse teaching force and the drain of families from neighborhood schools are among the criticisms of the current status of the desegregation remedies.
There are criticisms from some plaintiffs that there has not been enough done to ensure a diverse teaching force that would be reflective of the student demographics. This was an important goal originally set forth when the group of plaintiffs originally formed. Denise Best, a Black Hartford resident and parent plaintiff for the Sheff case, is adamant that teachers should come from or live in the community. Best believes that, “Far too often, our children are not nurtured the way that they would be if the teachers lived in the community…my ideal would be that teachers taught in their towns where they lived, children went to school, to the neighborhood school” (Best 9). The Bermudez sisters also expressed that providing educational environments that are comfortable for students of color, and provide culturally responsive pedagogy is an important component of improving educational experiences for Hartford students. They are disheartened that “…we have the majority of the teachers in the school system that are white and don’t represent the students that live in Hartford” (Bermudez 8).
In addition to concerns about teacher demographics, Best is critical that despite the improvements that have been made to educational experiences in Hartford, there are too many students who do not have the opportunity to receive a high quality education. While she sees the changes that have been made through the development of a magnet schools system as positive, she points out the consequences to “neighborhood schools” that occur when the most motivated families are filtered out. She has an appreciation that there are more options for Hartford families, but also believed that “we can have a neighborhood school that works well” (Best 12). For Best, these concerns about the implementation of desegregation practices may be why she has pulled away from the Sheff movement and dedicated herself to causes in the effort to best support her community (Best 9).
The fight for educational equity is complicated and messy. The goal of racial integration and equitable funding often creates splits among advocates. After 25 long years, the Sheff plaintiffs have moved in many different directions. Some remain vigilantly supportive of the movement and its goals. Others are committed to the cause of racial integration, but have concerns about its implementation. Some have remained in the city, while others have moved out of the area. For some of the plaintiffs, community activism did not end with their involvement with the Sheff case. While maintaining vigilant support to the Sheff movement, Elizabeth Sheff also went on to be on the Hartford City Council from 1991-1995 and from 1999-2001 (University of Hartford) where she “was voted down more than Carter Cod Liver Pills, but I made it my point to stand for justice” (Sheff 9). She also continued to be actively engaged in her church community and Hartford community because she was able to continue working on issues of social justice (Sheff 10).
For Wildaliz and Eva, their experiences in the Sheff trial and subsequent educational movement initiated them into the activist mindset at a very early age. Now they are adults who continue to reside in Hartford and support the Sheff movement. Wildaliz was voted into the Hartford City council in 2016 and is serving her first term as of this writing (Hartford.gov). The younger sister, Eva, works as a political and union organizer in the city of Hartford (Bermudez 15).
Over the years, Denise Best pulled away from the Sheff movement to pursue other community interests that hold significant meaning to her through her job at the Christian Activities Council as the Coordinator of Comprehensive Community Development. She took this new position after retiring from Trinity College in 2009, where she was the Director of Graduate Studies and Special Academic Programs (Best 13). Best now hopes that “new blood” can be brought into the Sheff integration movement in order to continue the fight, of which she has been a part since the trial’s beginning in 1989 (Best 13).
So much has changed in the decades since the Sheff case was first filed. Now in 2016, the demographics of the greater Hartford region are very different from 1989. Through individual economic upward mobility, people of color are able to move out of the city and into the inner ring suburbs. As this occurs, white individuals and families move further from the city to the outer ring suburbs: The continuation of “white flight” that left the city of Hartford in extreme racial isolation in the first place (Sheff 11).The implications of these changes are that in the effort to fulfill the obligations of the Sheff lawsuit, implementation of integrated schooling must change with the times, and white families will need to be brought in from communities much farther than before.
The fight for equitable educational opportunities through remedies that integrate public schools in the Hartford Region has been long and arduous for the plaintiffs. An extensive system of magnet schools has been created in and around the city in the effort to create integrated learning environments for students. This is a significant step towards dismantling the deeply entrenched de-facto racial segregation that plagues cities and schools in the State of Connecticut. Some plaintiffs have remained committed to the Sheff Movement with hope for greater changes in the future. Others have moved away from the movement due to life changes, fatigue, or due to concerns over the unintended consequences of the integration policies. There have been great strides in the region, but many plaintiffs agree that it does not go far enough to address the injustices of inequitable education, and for many, the fight continues to the present day.
Bermudez, Wildaliz and Eva. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation by Anique Thompson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, June 30, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
Best, Denise, Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill (with video) by Anique Thompson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, August 10, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
“History of Sheff v. O’Neill,” Sheff Movement, 2014, Date Accessed 16 April 2016. (http://www.sheffmovement.org/history-2/)
Leach, Eugene. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill, with video, by Anique Thompson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, June 7, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
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 (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
“Timeline.” Sheff Movement. 2014. Date Accessed 16 April 2016. (http://www.sheffmovement.org/timeline/)
University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center – MAGIC. (2012).Racial Change in the Hartford Region, 1900-2010. Retrieved from http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/otl/timeslider_racethematic.html.
University of Hartford. Elizabeth Horton Sheff. Speaker Bios. 2015. Accessed 15 April 2016.
Vinick, Carol and Tom Connolly. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation by Alex Carter, for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, April 26, 2014. Available fromm the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://ctcollections.trincoll.edu/islandora/object/120002%3A197)