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Separate But Equal?

A real-time experiment mixes classes in classrooms.

Excerpted from Susan Eaton’s The Children in Room E4.

By Susan Eaton | September 2006

“Ms. Luddy, what’s the suburbs?” Kayla asked out of the blue, derailing a midafternoon transition to math at the Simpson-Waverly School in Hartford, Connecticut. Kayla’s thick braids bumped off her high cheekbones. She fiddled with an elastic band and moved restlessly off her butt, onto her knees.

She stared at Ms. Luddy. All eyes looked up at Ms. Luddy. Ms. Luddy popped off her sunflower stool and stood at attention, as if following a command. She faced rapt silence, free of chattering, paper rustling, whispering, foot tapping, chiding. Ms. Luddy knew this type of silence. Every child present wanted an answer. She considered Kayla intently. “Well. The suburbs,” she began. “A suburb is a town that’s close to a bigger city. Hartford is a big city, a major city.
The suburbs are built around Hartford.

“This is the city, here,” she said, pointing to her fist, shaking it in the air above her eyes. “And all around it, these are the suburbs.” She sketched, with an index finger, an invisible orbit around her fist.

“Like, the suburbs are nicer?” Kayla asked.

“No,” Ms. Luddy said. “No. Not better. Different. Okay. Hartford? It’s also called an ‘urban’ area. The houses are a little closer together. There are a lot of apartments. You can usually walk places. You can walk out of your house and maybe your neighbors are out and you can visit.”

This was sometimes true. Twenty years ago, people say, it was true more often. These days, though, there wasn’t much hopscotch, double Dutch, pleasure walking, or public socializing on porches. A few older boys still played chess on their stoops. But recently a teenager, Gary Little, had been shot in the head while playing chess across from Waverly. Talk on the streets called Little’s killing part of a street beef, not a stray bullet. Still, most parents had stuck to the ban on playing any sort of game on any stoop.

The physical distance between city and suburb was short. But for Ms. Luddy’s students, the psychological distance was long. The suburbs, as Kayla’s classmates Naia and Patrick had said, were “out there.” Suburbs were abstractions, unseen, vague locations—white faces and high test scores adrift in the great beyond. Relatives of some of the kids lived in the nearest suburbs—the older, often moderately poor, largely working-class communities demographers termed “at risk.” Beyond these half-known areas lay unknown Avon, Glastonbury, Farmington, Canton, Simsbury, even West Hartford.

There was one state-funded program that allowed Ms. Luddy to lead her students to the suburbs for a visit. No matter how tired, how socked in with responsibilities, she would “never, ever” sacrifice the sister-school program that took her kids for a day to the tranquil suburban hamlet of nearby Marlborough.

The few hours of urban-suburban harmony that unfolded each year revealed the potential for connection. The clumsy distance between black and white, rich and poor, urban and suburban, closed enough for minimal comfort. Then it was over. Many remedies that were more substantial had drawn fire. The state’s designs were structured to siphon money from local education budgets. Every time a kid from, say, Simsbury wanted to attend an interdistrict magnet school, Simsbury had to throw some of its money into the pot. Even suburban school superintendents who believed in racial diversity had testified at hearings before state legislators that the so-called Sheff programs pressed them when their own budgets were already thin.

But state education officials, including Commissioner Ted Sergi, always praised the uncontroversial “interdistrict cooperative grant program”—the umbrella category of allocations that included Ms. Luddy’s sister-school visits. It didn’t take cash away from suburban districts. And it didn’t force the suburbs to educate poor black and brown children from the city for more than a few hours.

No one wanted to knock innocent exchange programs that sprinkled positive feeling around. Still, the bottom-line argument rang true for Simpson-Waverly’s suburban trips and the scores of similar outings. At the end of the day, everyone had to return to their segregated schools. Ms. Luddy shrugged off the trite oaths uttered on these visits.

She termed the platitudes “the ‘we are all connected’ stuff.” But she also believed third and fourth grade wouldn’t be complete without a sister-school visit. The kids “out there” in suburban Marlborough gained too. And Ms. Luddy reasoned that at least on the trips to Marlborough, her kids would get recess out of the deal.ef

“I see some familiar faces from last year,” Ms. Luddy said, shepherding the last kids into a classroom. “Well. Hello, everyone!” The white children sat in rows, watching the Simpson-Waverly kids file in. Naia hid behind Shasa. “It’s okay,” Shasa whispered to her. “It’s not a big deal.”

The Marlborough side waved first, then tried a few faint “hi’s.” Waverly’s students volleyed uneven “hi’s” back. Jeremy began waving exuberantly, as if he were the mayor on a parade float.

“Now, let’s see,” Ms. Luddy said. “Who was here last year when we worked with Mike Larkin’s class? In third grade?” More than half the children raised their hands.

Marlborough’s fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Rose, stood behind her desk. “Welcome, everyone,” she said. “We’ve been looking forward to this day.” Ms. Rose was tall and slender, with straight brown hair. She spoke with a British accent. She and Ms. Luddy conferred quickly.

“Pairs, I think,” Ms. Luddy suggested to Ms. Rose. “We’ll match them up.”

Patrick hung back, arms crossed, foot tapping. He inspected the scene as if he were appraising a used car. “I ain’t doin’ this,” he declared. “No way.”

Jeremy fell in easily, gabbing with a boy he remembered from last year’s trip. “I think I know you,” he said to the boy. “Do you know me?”

Rashida, hands on hips, didn’t budge.

Ms. Luddy and Ms. Rose plucked children from the separate groups, enforced introductions, nudged children together.

“Jared, you go with this boy, here,” Ms. Rose said, pulling gently on Patrick’s shoulder. “What’s your name?” she asked Patrick.
“Joey,” Patrick lied, and immediately he looked terrified.“Okay, then, Joey, you’ll go with Jared.”“Man, wha’d you say?” Owen asked Patrick. “What’s this Joey?”
“Shut up,” Patrick said. “Shhhh.” He formed a fist, lifted it over Owen’s head. Owen ducked but kept laughing.
“I don’t want these people knowin’ my name,” Patrick told him.
“Why?” Owen asked. “You crazy.”

Ms. Luddy whisked Owen over to a boy named Sam. Ms. Rose walked toward the Waverly flock. She paired Naia and Mallary. Ms. Luddy guided Shasa toward Brenna.

“Okay, now, you and you, there,” Ms. Rose said, pointing to T.J., then to a blue-eyed boy, Jason. The boys sized each other up, shook hands, and sat on the floor together, silent.

Ms. Rose and Ms. Luddy nodded to each other. “Now, everyone? Everyone? We’re going to do introductions,” Ms. Rose announced. “Shhhhhh.”

Patrick, eyes down, walked toward Ms. Rose. The room hummed with chatter. “I’m sorry, I have to tell you, my name’s not Joey,” Patrick mumbled to her. “It’s Patrick. My name’s Patrick.”

Ms. Rose’s hand landed on Patrick’s shoulder. He flinched. She cupped her ear and moved it toward him. “Sorry?”

“I said my name was Joey? Really, it’s Patrick.”

“Well, okay, then, Patrick,” Ms. Rose said, not picking up on his brave confession. She patted him on the back and smiled. “Joey is just a nickname then? Welcome to Marlborough! Now have a seat. Go take a seat now, Patrick. Go, join everyone, there! Just join in. Join in.”

Patrick stood still, a desperate, just-before-tears look on his face.

He spied Ms. Luddy. Gaze fixed on her, he sat down cross-legged and dragged himself across the carpet closer to his mandated partner, Jared, who extended a hand. Patrick stared at it skeptically for a few seconds too long. “Oh!” Patrick finally got it. He laughed nervously, pursed his lips, nodded to Jared, and shook. And so it began.

Ms. Luddy felt good about the way the Marlborough visit had started. It’s “great,” she said to me, that these kids could come to “feel a little more comfortable with one another.” But still, she conceded, “standing around and saying, ‘We are all connected,’ doesn’t make it so.” And, she added, “even starting with the assumption that all children are equal, which is an assumption I believe people in Marlborough start with, doesn’t erase the advantages their kids have.”

People sympathetic to the inherent inequalities of urban schools still talk a lot about inadequate and unequal funding, as if their hearts and minds seem not to know where else to reach. But inequality—the unmentioned elephant in the room during the Simpson-Waverly Marlborough field trip—actually includes a constellation of characteristics that go far beyond not having enough money or as much money as the suburbs do. Equal funding for schools, while instrumental in true reform, hasn’t alone proven sufficient. Comparing urban and suburban schools—or privileged and disadvantaged schools—requires more than a glance at balance sheets.

But the numbers show that in 2003, Hartford spent $10,848 per elementary school pupil, almost all of it coming from the state. Marlborough spent $7,053, most of it raised through local property taxes. Big gaps between urban and suburban schools remain, even in some states where courts had ordered more equal funding schemes. As of 2002, plaintiffs in 45 states had brought funding-related cases, intended to benefit either property-poor districts or districts with large numbers of poor children. And courts in 21 states have, since the 1970s, ordered state legislatures to even up funding formulas to benefit poorer school districts and poorer children.

Much testimony in these cases explored physical deterioration and neglect in the city schools. Some problems remained a decade later. But the most dramatic—collapsing ceilings and dead pigeons—had been fixed. Simpson-Waverly surely didn’t fit the underfunded urban school stereotype.  At Simpson-Waverly there was no falling plaster, no ripped-out light fixtures, no rats, not even any overcrowding. The roof was tight, the paint was new, the hallways didn’t smell of urine. There wasn’t a dust bunny afoot anywhere. Floors gleamed. Custodians vacuumed fastidiously and shined already-shiny stairwells. The bathrooms reeked, but only from floral deodorant. The receptionists smiled and kept good records.

The textbooks weren’t old or tattered. Each classroom had a computer. The library was small by suburban elementary school standards, and the well-trained librarian was resentful because she’d been drafted to teach Success for All. But the library, with its pink beanbag reading chair, was well organized, spotless, cozy, and good enough.

Dogwood trees trembled in the breeze outside. A rosebush bloomed in spring. A clean, huge American flag flapped in the wind. Graffiti marred just a few signs in the parking lot. Waverly’s play area, part of a city park, was usually littered. A series of violent crimes had scared most families away. But except for the graffiti and dearth of kids playing outdoors, few visible differences separated Hartford’s Simpson-Waverly and Marlborough’s elementary school.

Marlborough’s and Simpson-Waverly’s test scores in past years—the most commonly used and misused comparison—weren’t terribly far apart either. Hartford’s scores, generally, were far, far lower than you’d find in middle-class suburbs, but Simpson-Waverly was catching up.

The achievement gap remained, but the good numbers inspired hope, not despair. To discern the differences between a school like Simpson- Waverly and one like Marlborough required a closer, honest observation. Look carefully, and the numerical illusion of equity (or even of near equity) collapsed.

“Did you see here how kids can just walk around this school? There’s a kind of trust,” Ms. Luddy commented to me in Marlborough. “If you see a child walking down the hall at Simpson-Waverly? I’m automatically asking, ‘Ahh, excuse me, exactly where are you supposed to be?’ You’d want to hear from that child who’d given him permission to leave. The freedom here? It’s different.”

Order, predictability, and obedience were important at Simpson-Waverly. “Why,” Ms. Luddy asked me one day, “do the lines have to be straight? I don’t know. I do it, but I don’t know.”

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