Educators, Policy Creators and History Makers Come Together for a Conference Seeking Integration Within Education

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Last weekend, educators, policy creators, and history makers gathered for the, “Where Integration Meets Innovation” conference, organized by One Nation Indivisible, and in collaboration with the Sheff Movement Coalition. The conference was a two-day event, hoping to bring public attention to, “creating, sustaining and improving dynamic and diverse public schools for the 21st century. [1]” Friday afternoon’s events included a luncheon and panel discussion, utilizing space at the Hartford Public Library, and Saturday morning’s events incorporated a diverse number of speeches at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. Both of these events shed light on the paradigm of school reform, specifically in relation to the Sheff movement and its goals. Friday’s panel included Attorneys for the Plaintiff’s in Sheff v. O’Neill, such as Martha Stone, Dennis Parker and Alex Knopp, Columbia University Professor Amy Stuart Wells, and Senior Policy Fellow at Connecticut Voices For Children and Hartford Board of Education member Robert Cotto. Elizabeth Horton Sheff, lead plaintiff for the Sheff movement withstanding 24 years, addressed both Friday and Saturday’s attendees, calling attention to the irony within the “hollow victories” in which the government stakes it’s claims for acute and active school reform. For example, the ideology of an idealized “Sheff school choice” versus the currently implemented “school choice” within Hartford and its surrounding suburbs was debated. “Magnet schools with high achievement rates, do not mean integrated,” noted Knopp, a Yale Law School graduate. Open choice is a program that offers suburban kids the opportunity to attend urban schools, and vice versa; it is a process which is intended to create more integrated schools and bridge achievement gaps between white and minority students. However, Knopp pointed to the differences between schools under school choice which have higher achievement levels, and schools under the choice program that have higher achievement levels and an integrated learning environment. The topic provoked further questions offered up by Knopp, such as, “to what extent should open choice be mandated for suburb schools to give seats to urban schools?” These topics spiraled into questions of locational poverty amongst the city, racial steering and redlining practices, as well as projections on how to connect integrated schools with integrated housing, all of which the panel members addressed from their point of expertise.

In contrast with Friday’s panel discussion, the opening remarks on Saturday morning were not intended to educate the public on Sheff goals or how the current education system is failing its students. Saturday’s goal was to ignite a spark within the conferences attendees, a spark that had the potential to create actual change within the system. “We are spending too much time talking, and not enough time taking action,” preached Bruce Douglas, the Executive Director of the Capital Region Education Council. He continued, “There is more poverty and family dysfunction within schools now than ever,” and concluded that, “Education is in a state of emergency, and it must be addressed with a sense of urgency.” But the goal of his sermon, as others that Saturday morning, were not to convince people to get up out of their seats and take action. Most of the people at the conference were those who had already taken action, and were already “heroes” in the fight for a better education system. “That’s the problem with these conferences,” Douglas professed. “I am not talking to try and convert you….I am already talking to the converted.” The tone of Saturday’s conference was less informative about the issues, but moreover the beginnings of an instruction manual, on how to bring the information to the public and encourage others to take action. Because talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk takes guts.


Conference, 2013
Friday Panel
Saturday’s Conference



[1] Where Integration Meets Innovation, Conference Agenda Packet

Harnessing Diversity’s Potential: Employing Student-Centered Learning and Technology to Achieve Equity

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On Friday night, November 8th the two-day school integration conference in Hartford held an open panel at Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker titled, “Harnessing Diversity’s Potential: Employing Student-Centered Learning and Technology to Achieve Equity and to Build 21st Century Skills.” Principal Peter Dart opened with welcoming remarks and then Susan Eaton introduced the panel. In her introduction Susan spoke of the importance of working together and how all struggles should be tied together instead of everyone working in isolation in order to work towards greater racial, social, and economic. With that statement she introduced six different panelists who employ their own methods of student-centered learning in order to achieve equal opportunity in education, which would lead to a more equitable society.

Robert Cotto, from Connecticut Voices, was the moderator for the panel discussion and asked each panelist to introduce him/herself and briefly discuss his/her method for student-centered learning. Nicholas Donohue, CEO of Nellie Mae Education Foundation, was the first to speak and said that his organization promoted very high student agency by teaching mastery and competency in the use of technology. Shandra Brown, Principal of CREC Museum Academy, then said how Museum Academy has collaborations with museums in Hartford, in which they use their ideologies to engage students in art in order to educate them in not what to think but how to think. Alicia Iannucci, teacher at Quest to Learn, spoke about how this school, which many have called the “xbox school” promotes situational learning using technology because “life is one large game.” Barbara Cervone, Founder and President of What Kids Can Do said that the goal of the program is to change people’s views on what children are capable of because they are part of the solution to equity in education. Helen Soule, executive director of The Partnership for 21st Century Skills discussed the importance of career skills, self-direction and the 4 C’s: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. Lastly, Melissa Giraud, digital media and learning strategist and consultant, spoke of media projects and radio stories and the significance of increasing opportunities for student internships that count for credit.

Robert Cotto then asked the panelists “Why are these methods well suited for racially/culturally/economically diverse schools?” Shandra Brown explained how at the end of the year each student has to present in front of students, parents, and community partners and how students politely critique one another in which they ground opinions in evidence “without seeing color.” Melissa Giraud discussed described her experience teaching in a Northern Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, in which she took the students on a trip, many of whom were flunking out of school, and had them make national scripts through interviewing. Melissa explained the significance of having students construct their own knowledge that is relevant to them. Nicholas Donohue ended the panel discussion by explaining that education is a politically and culturally constructed system that is becoming more individualized. He said that although the technological aspect is significant for increasing equality, it will not work until our society’s current cultural set of values and beliefs are challenged and shifted.

Harnessing Diversity's Potential

Integration Meets Innovation Conference

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Where Integration Meets Innovation: Conference Agenda

On Friday November 8th, the Hartford Public Library hosted the “Where Integration Meets Innovation” conference organized by One Nation Indivisible and the Sheff Movement Coalition. During the conference, a panel of six, which included Elizabeth Horton Sheff, Martha Stone, Dennis Parker, Amy Stuart Wells, Alex Knopp, and Robert Cotto, all discussed their roles and involvement in creating and sustaining diverse school settings and methods for a successful classroom. Focusing primarily on Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the lead plaintiff of the 1989 Sheff vs. O’Neil court case, her main argument was that racial isolation was affecting the city of Hartford and its children as well as deeming the segregation of schools as unconstitutional.

Sheff began to speak on the time frame that she had been an activist of the integration of Hartford region schools. The main reason why she wanted to stay in Connecticut and keep her son enrolled in school in the Hartford region was because she as well as other parents was committed to their children’s education. She had mentioned that in 1989 74% of the students in 8th grade in Hartford needed assistance in remedial reading. It wasn’t that the kids were failing, but it was the school system that was failing the kids.

As Sheff emphasized that the children come first, she mentioned that it is the parents’ sole responsibility to prepare students to not have an isolated education. As a justice seeker, Sheff at that time took her son around the country to many meetings and activist movements, specifically the March on Washington, which led Milo to become engaged, just at the age of 10, in the Sheff vs. O’Neil court case. This court case, she stated, wasn’t just for the sake of her son, but it was so that parents could provide equal access to education for their children. Sheff closes by stating, “Adults need to stand up to keep the justice road plowed like those before us did”.



Learning How to Create Safe Space for Discussions about Race

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Saturday, November 9, 2013
An intimate group of parents, educators, and community activists sat in a sunny classroom on the Learning Corridor’s campus to learn how to create and promote effective dialogue about race and identity in their respective communities. The workshop, entitled Creating and Enriching Spaces for Multiethnic Community Dialogue and Making Room for Community Conversations about Race, was facilitated by Pamela Pinnock of D.C.’s own Busboys and Poets.

Excerpt from Pinnock's suggested reading list to promote dialogue about race.
Excerpt from Pinnock’s suggested reading list to promote dialogue about race.

Pinnock opened the workshop giving a brief description of Busboys and Poets’ rich history. The restaurant which boasts a “Peace and Struggle” wall was named in honor of Langston Hughes, also known as the busboy poet. Initially opened in 2005 by an Iraqi born immigrant, the restaurant was intended to be a space where “art, culture, and politics collide”. For two hours on the first Sunday of every month, Busboys and Poets hosts A.C.T.O.R. (A Continuing Talk On Race) in the Langston Room. The monthly event gathers strangers from all walks of life into a safe space equip with ground rules to exchange ideas about race and current events. Pinnock says that there are key components to hosting productive conversations on the sensitive subjects of race and its intersectionality with gender, class, nationality, and sexual orientation. She listed four components to community dialogue success:

1. Safe space
2. Ground rules
3. Someone knowledgeable to moderate discussion
4. A format that allows EVERYONE to participate

Pinnock stressed the importance of a neutral space, mutual respect, and reservation of judgement. For recurring events, like the A.C.T.O.R discussion series, she said that consistency of date and time is crucial to the success of the talks. She endorsed partnerships with other organizations as a great way to diversify discussion participants and topics. Pinnock cited a host of approaches that would work beyond the restaurant model and translate well into everyday settings. After her presentation and a brisk round of Q&A, the attendees seemed confident and prepared to bring the Busboys and Poets method of conversing across lines back to their campuses and communities.

The workshop was a part of the “Where Integration Meets Innovation” school diversity conference hosted by One Nation Indivisible. The event was free and open to the public.

Conference Panel Day Two
A broad view of conference panelists. Photo credit: Karen Taylor.

Alex Knopp discusses Hartford’s progress since 1989

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One Nation Indivisible lunch panel and discussion at the Hartford Public Library. SOURCE: Elaina Rollins

This past Friday, November 8, One Nation Indivisible, a two-day education integration conference, hosted a lunch and panel discussion at the Hartford Public Library entitled “Brown v. Board of Education for a New Generation.” Prominent education activists, lawyers, and professors from the New England area came together to discuss their involvement with Sheff v. O’Neill (1989), Hartford’s major education inequality lawsuit, as well as the city’s continuing efforts to diversify its public schools.

Alex Knopp, Clinical Visiting Lecturer at Yale Law School, Plaintiff’s Representative for Sheff v. O’Neill, and a panel contributor, has worked on the Sheff case for only one and a half years. This length of involvement makes Knopp less experienced than many other activists, but his knowledge about educational law makes him a valuable asset to the Sheff case. At the panel discussion, Knopp explained that as a Plaintiff’s Representative, he focuses on the implementation of Sheff’s mandates.

Knopp spoke about how the Hartford area has changed over the past 24 years since Sheff v. O’Neill was initially filed in court. One major difference is Hartford’s connections with its surrounding suburbs. Today, current education innovations in the city rely on regional cooperative structures that were not in place before Sheff. Also, Knopp argued that public financing has majorly changed since 1989. The current debate over whether suburban schools should aid less prosperous districts is the result of 24 years of Sheff activism.

The “paradigm of school reform” has also changed since 1989, according to Knopp. It is now standard for legislators and education activists to consider the relationship between the Governor of Hartford’s reform agenda and Sheff’s reform agenda. Knopp explained that, fortunately, these agendas often overlap. Along these same lines, the city of Hartford and the State Department of Education are now much more involved in the Sheff case than it was 24 years ago. Knopp stated that the State Department of Education is especially open to new school integration initiatives.

Finally, Knopp discussed the more recent educational inequality case Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell (2005) and how its existence may help the current Sheff initiative. Knopp ended his comments by affirming his support for diverse and affordable housing options, which he believes are linked to diverse and successful schools. He stated that Connecticut’s guarantee to education “is a right, and should be respected.”