To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the historic Sheff v. O’Neill decision mandating remedies for chronic and extreme racial isolation in Hartford public schools, leaders of the Sheff Movement brought a cross-section of community members to the Hartford Public Library to dream and design better schools for the city and region.  Equity was the watchword; quality schools for all was the shared north star.  


The purpose of the Design Challenge was to “promote meaningful public discourse and engagement that will ultimately strengthen Greater Hartford’s ongoing efforts to address racial and socioeconomic isolation and related inequities.”


As noted on the event announcement, it aimed to: 1) engage community members in a forward-looking process of generating new ideas for the Sheff plaintiffs, the State, and the City; 2) help our coalition envision a community-informed plan to meaningfully advance the goal of quality integrated education over the next three-to-five years; and 3) inspire innovation, alignment, and collaboration.


Teams came together to use the process of design thinking to imagine, beyond conventional approaches, how Hartford might address problems of dwindling enrollment and resources (compounded by growing need and competition).  All of the solutions and action steps presented were captured by the presenters, with a promise to share all data as well as insights gleaned from the event with the greater public in weeks to come.


The Bottom Line.  While the dilemmas presented were clearly too complex to solve in one day, profound questions, discussions and actions loomed:


  • Can the Sheff v. O’Neill case drive a movement to end institutional racism?
  • Can those outside the Sheff Movement be persuaded to truly believe integration is necessary for high quality education?
  • Can we change the definition of diversity to recognize the importance of socio-economic diversity, at least in conjunction with racial diversity?


Tackling these questions head on (or just continuing to tinker around the edges) likely will be the difference in either remedying gross disparities in students’ educational outcomes … or not.  A restarted Equity 2020 process, post-Sheff negotiations, would be a great way to realize the unusual promise Hartford holds to solve the vexing school improvement problems that every metro area confronts.  Greater Hartford actually has a chance to succeed in this paramount duty.


Getting past racial and socioeconomic isolation and related inequities means calling out the role institutional racism has played historically – and plays presently – in our school communities.


It is time to stop ignoring the impact magnet school construction has had in our city – and the ways long-term neglect of neighborhood schools has compounded the harm to families and communities throughout much of Hartford.


It is inarguable: Solutions must be sustainable in ways our current system is not.