- We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in the public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.
- Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954.
It does seem an obvious answer now, looking back at what feels like ancient history. And recent opinion polls suggest that on the matter of equal rights and race and affording basic dignities regardless of skin tone, we Americans finally agree. Our 22-year-old (white) babysitter crystallized the modern sentiment as well as any scholar: “That whole segregation thing in the South? It’s just like so totally embarrassing and I don’t know, kind of just like, freaky, you know?”
As freaky as the old South might look in retrospect, eradicating that freakiness wasn’t simple. The Supreme Court’s rare unanimity, its exemplary moral clarity in Brown was the fruit of painstaking strategy, extensive scholarship, tediously gritty on-the-ground struggle for decades before 1954. The legal outcome had been uncertain. And Brown was only a beginning. For well more than a decade after Brown, it took additional laws, sit-ins, marches, speeches, the occasional services of federal marshals, and the sacrifice of many young lives to topple legalized segregation.
Brown, though, has since become mythic, a canonic and ever-present element in classroom lessons about American virtue. Brown’s upcoming 50th birthday in May 2004 will inspire renewed celebrations. Scholars and social critics will declare that we’ve got a long way to go before we reach the aspiration Brown represents. In the same breath, they’ll offer recitations of progress: The American South remains our most integrated region. High school graduation rates for African Americans continue to climb. The black middle class is growing.
Unfortunately, Brown’s anniversary will grant most citizens only sound bites about racial equality and race relations in the 21st century. In the rarefied corners of the academy more questions will be considered than answered. Ideas will be explored but crucial complexities, which deflate the heritage of Brown, won’t reach most American schoolchildren, who learn only about the triumph of Brown and come away with half the story. Let us first face the nasty tale of Brown’s demise. Then, let us quickly look to one small place in this grand nation where Brown’s stubborn, divine descendant hangs on.
The truth is this: Brown—the amazingly short, uncomplicated, elegant, humanity-affirming legal decision—isn’t merely dead. To put it precisely, Brown, consciously and quietly, was killed off.
The smothering of Brown surfaced in 1974, with a devastating U.S. Supreme Court decision on a case from Detroit called Milliken v. Bradley. A federal court had ordered Detroit school officials to desegregate their extremely segregated schools. Detroit officials, though, faced a big challenge. By the mid-’70s, the pool of remaining white students in urban Detroit was small and shrinking. This made school desegregation up North—where school districts usually are coterminous with racially segregated municipalities—difficult to achieve. The only way to desegregate over the long term, Detroit officials concluded, was to include the surrounding white suburbs in a desegregation plan. (After all, most districts down South had been organized by county or region, especially after Brown.) Not so fast, the high court said. The Supreme Court, in a sharply divided 5-4 decision, ruled that the white suburbs were off limits, innately separate from their increasingly black, brown, and poor urban neighbor. The city of Detroit was on its own. School officials tried to mix the small share of whites with a growing share of black students. But that plan was doomed. White flight sped up. At the start of the 21st century, public schools in metropolitan Detroit are among the most racially segregated in America, thanks to Milliken.
Milliken stripped Brown of its power and reach. Segregation in schools outside the South continued to rise, though the social problem registered barely a blip on political radar screens. By the 1980s, the pattern of black-brown American cities and white suburbs seemed natural, heaven-sent. Then, in a series of barely publicized decisions through the 1990s, the Supreme Court, dominated on these issues by Reagan and Nixon appointees, chipped away at the legal protections that had desegregated the South’s schools.
Desegregation, the Court ruled, should be viewed as a “temporary” remedy. In other words, previously segregated school districts could revert back to their racially separate arrangements. At the start of the 21st century, according to research done by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, America’s schools have entered their 12th continuous year of increased racial resegregation. The South still has the most integrated public schools (partly an accident of demographics, partly the purposeful effort of earlier desegregation orders), but even there, school segregation rates are rising. Citizens of the North and Midwest, who once looked with disdain upon the segregationist South, oversee America’s most racially segregated public schools.
From a civil rights perspective, that’s bad news. But it’s only the beginning of the story.
Brown and the civil rights movement it spawned remain our last golden moments in history. Nothing more recent comes close. They are fused in our collective identity, still evoke goosebumps and misty eyes. This is true, even if it’s also true that the civil rights aspirations—of equality, of one nation (truly) undivisible—have been purposely betrayed in our public policy, jurisprudence, and, often, the choices we make as individuals. The noble spirit and hard work that engendered Brown continue, inconspicuously these days, at the margins. This is a story without end.
We need not be satisfied this year sitting around contemplating and mourning Brown. Our Brown has struggling survivors. The most important is a small legal case from Connecticut called Sheff v. O’Neill and the very few desegregated schools the case has produced. Here, we can hear Brown’s faint, familiar echo of hope—that behind the race and class barriers that divide and determine unequal destinies, we’ll find vast potential for learning from each other. E pluribus unum. From many, one.
It’s no accident that civil rights lawyers conceived Sheff in the deep North—the region where Brown had been stopped cold long ago.
Northern-style segregation, often called de facto segregation, is both different from and similar to the eradicated Southern version. It was caused not primarily by explicitly racist laws, but by a confounded mix of causes. These include, but are not limited to: housing discrimination, biased lending practices, exclusionary suburban zoning, embedded economic and networking inequalities passed down through generations, the economic rise of the suburbs, the deindustrialization of the city. Segregation in Northern schools exists not so much within city school districts, but between black-brown, increasingly poor cities and their disproportionately white, predominantly middle-class suburbs. The effects of segregation upon children—of either the South’s “de jure” or the North’s “de facto” sort—are often the same. Racial segregation tends to concentrate poverty within enclaves of overburdened, disenfranchised, less competitive schools. Children there, cut off physically, socially, economically, and psychologically from the “mainstream,” rarely get exposed to the rules and culture of the world outside their neighborhood. They have immense difficulty charting clear courses toward the possibilities beyond their seemingly fated station in life. It has become fashionable to point out that white, middle-class kids suffer in their own ways from segregation’s shelter. Surely it’s true. They’d likely benefit in deeply transformative ways from going to school with kids who don’t all look, sound, dress, and live as they do. But the more tangible, urgent consequences affect poor, minority children in horrifying ways: poor academic preparation for college and the white-dominated workplace, no chance to learn to navigate skillfully, socialize and break into the mainstream, and make the social contacts that lead toward high-status, well-paying jobs. Segregation confers unequal opportunities. Segregation rigs the game of life.
A casual drive across just a few miles of Hartford County, Connecticut—from the city to the suburbs just beyond—provides a clear case study in social division.
“Segregation is what I saw first before anything,” said John Brittain, a local lawyer and professor, who’s since moved back to the South, where he’d fought against segregation during the civil rights era. In the summer of 1977, Brittain, then 33 years old, had returned to teach at a law school in his home state, Connecticut. On his first afternoon “home,” driving around the city, he watched children, nearly every one black or Latino, leave a junior high school and walk out onto Hartford’s scruffy streets.
Brittain, a black child of the North, had attended predominantly white public schools in the city-suburb of Norwalk, Connecticut. But he was trained, in the Brown tradition, at the historically black Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. Brown’s architect, the legendary Thurgood Marshall, had graduated first in his class at Howard. Marshall’s mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, a too-often overlooked civil rights hero, had laid the legal and intellectual groundwork for an attack on segregation. After Howard, Brittain kept up the tradition. He drove his career straight to the center of the Southern problem. In Oxford, Mississippi, he won his first school desegregation case at the age of 25.
“I used to get phone calls from friends up North, you know, ‘keep up the good work,’ and ‘we’re proud of you for fighting the good fight down there,’” Brittain recalls. “From that, you get the impression that everything is rosy up North. The sentiment seemed to be that I was working to improve a very backward place, which was true. That was absolutely true… . But the South also allowed a lot of people up North to avoid looking at their own problems.”
The city of Hartford, Connecticut, the state’s capital, is the poorest city in the wealthiest state in the richest country on earth. Its public schools are 95 percent African American and Latino. The home ownership rate—about 26 percent—is the second lowest in the nation. About 41 percent of children here are poor, the second-highest proportion among major American cities. In his seminal book Cities Without Suburbs, the policy analyst David Rusk listed Hartford among 24 “cities past the point of no return.”
In the last decade especially, black and Latino families have fled Hartford to settle in a few of the more modest nearby suburbs. A handful of formerly all-white enclaves continue to grow more diverse. Poverty and its attendants—crime, untreated health problems, lagging school test scores, stressed-single-parent households—spilled over into some of the older, working-class suburbs. A few such communities more closely resemble Hartford now than they do adjacent “suburbs.” More generally, though, the mostly prosperous suburbs around Hartford—including a few that sit a mere child’s scooter ride away—remain nearly all-white and elite. Housing costs are high. School test scores are too.
With his expertly trained eyes, John Brittain saw that racial and economic isolation pervaded and marred his new landscape. But to most others around him, segregation, if they thought about it at all, seemed an innocuous accident. It had no single insidious cause. Brittain dug around persistently for folks who might see things his way. He found a few. The like-minded activists kept a “watch” on what Brittain, with his academic vocabulary, called “indicators of social and educational inequalities.”
“But basically, we were watching the school system decline, become overburdened by the year,” he said. “As time went on, documentation wasn’t enough. You start to think about action. Watching is good. But it’s only watching.”
Others, elsewhere, were watching too. Northern segregation and its co-defendant, concentrated poverty, was particularly frustrating to lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which Thurgood Marshall himself had founded in 1940. The deleterious effects of de facto segregation were apparent, as well, to lawyers at the local and national offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. By the late 1980s, John Brittain, along with a prominent local (white) attorney named Wesley Horton, and lawyers at local and national civil rights organizations got together to talk. Then they went to large crowds they’d assembled in churches, meeting halls, school auditoriums. Brittain and his new colleagues clicked overhead projectors, rattled off statistics. The numbers revealed two things: Hartford was educating and housing vastly disproportionate shares of poor, minority kids; and Hartford kids, based on several measures, didn’t get the educational opportunity suburban children got, some 30 years after Brown. The system was separate, unequal, and, from the lawyers’ point of view, quite possibly unconstitutional.
Surprisingly, Brittain and his colleagues quickly discovered that ordinary people, especially educators and parents, agreed. The extreme and widening division under which they lived, learned, and worked hadn’t happened by accident. Neither was it without consequences. Ordinary folks weren’t able to do very much about it. The lawyers, however, could try.
“The situation, the depth of the problem reminded me of the South and so did the initial reaction to the cause, to the information about inequality and segregation within the schools,” Brittain said. “People were conditioned to living separately. And there was a sense of inequality, yes. It was something that everyone knew about or sensed was true. But once we got out there, got people talking about it and thinking about it … the rallies we had, the meetings we had … they were very much like the old Southern civil rights rallies I’d remembered from way back. It was a great thing. It was still there, alright, right under the surface, a feeling among people that we could do better, that it didn’t have to be this way.”
With community members’ fervent blessing, the legal team invented an end run around the blockades Milliken v. Bradley had erected a decade and a half before. In 1989, the lawyers filed Sheff v. O’Neill, not in federal but in Connecticut State court, on behalf of 17 schoolchildren and their families. The plaintiffs, symbolically led by an angelic-looking eight-year-old African American boy named Milo Sheff and his articulate, activist, single mother, Elizabeth, sued the state.
Their claims were simple and direct. Connecticut enforced school district boundary lines that required students to attend school in the racially separate communities where they lived, and by so doing, the state created segregated, unequal schools within the Greater Hartford region, in violation of the state constitution. Their argument implied a radical and imprecise solution: somehow merge the local school systems, urban and suburban together, or open them up so schools serve a diverse region rather than one walled-off small town or city.
During Brown, the South had clung to enforced segregation as a time-honored tradition, a way of life. Who could forget George Wallace’s rallying cry: “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever!” In polite Connecticut, though, protest over Sheff was muted and civilized. No sheriffs blocked schoolhouse doors. No signs read “Whites Only.” But up North, citizens and their elected officials had their own sacred cow. Sheff,manycontended, was an attack on hallowed “local control.” Municipal governments had always operated the public schools, the (false) argument went, and, well, a lot of people wanted things to stay the same, thank you very much. But in reality, the state, not local governments, held direct power over public schools. State officials mandated curriculum, set schedules, passed health policies, set certification standards. The state forced assessments, inspections, reviews upon local schools. In truth, the state had created local school districts. The state could dissolve them too. Preserving “local control” would preserve nothing more than a myth. The “local control” rallying cry sounded far less nasty than Wallace’s barbaric “Segregation forever,” but in a racially and economically divided region, strictly following either slogan would produce similar effects.
In civil rights circles, Sheff represented a pointless overreach, a reason for hope, or both. Milliken had forced the lawyers into the less-than-efficient state court venue. A win in federal court would have applied to a small region of the country, or “circuit.” A U.S. Supreme Court ruling would affect the entire nation. But state court victories apply only to one state. In this case, wee, puny Connecticut. To make a real difference, the lawyers would have to litigate similar cases in dozens of states.
“We went in understanding that we faced a lot of challenges and that this case would require an enormous expenditure of time and money and energy, emotional and otherwise,” said Jack Boger, an LDF lawyer and early Sheff architect. “But we went in understanding that this was an effort to attack a central dual problem, segregation and concentrated poverty, that had really been a juggernaut for a very, very long time.”
And the late 1980s was far from an ideal time, politically, to launch a radical case aimed at altering the structure of educational opportunity for poor, minority children. Voters had not so long ago elected Ronald Reagan to his second term in a landslide. In 1986, the U.S. Senate had confirmed Reagan’s elevation of the conservative William Rehnquist to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The scent of revolution, at least of the sort that John Brittain, Jack Boger, and their legal allies advocated, was not in the air.
In the civil rights tradition that Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall had engendered, civil rights lawyers continued to pursue grand, if seemingly hopeless, causes, even when no one was paying attention. And so, Sheff was destined to be the most important case that no one had ever heard of. The lawyers carried precious cargo. Sheff was a test, perhaps Brown’s last stand. Sheff’s story generalized to dozens of racially segregated metropolitan areas across the nation. If this worked, John Brittain and others imagined, they could indeed carry it right on across the nation.
“We noticed that children were falling asleep in class, and we suspected hunger was an issue,” a beloved school principal, Edna Negron, testified during the Sheff trial in 1993. “We did a little checking and, in fact, decided that was so. Those are issues that most people say have no place in an educational setting. You can’t teach a hungry child, and so we began to try to take away the factors that were preventing adequate academic achievement.”
There was plenty to complain about. Space was tight. Reading specialists had lost their jobs in big budget cuts. Many children from violent neighborhoods held trauma, sadness, loss, uncertainty, and fear inside of them. In the classrooms and hallways, disruptive emotions erupted. Bathrooms lacked toilet paper and doors. Negron opened her school library with 4,000 books, though the recommended number for a school that size is about 16,000. She was trying to get a health clinic up and running, because asthma, depression, and untreated dental problems overwhelmed her staff. If all this weren’t enough, Negron went on: “I’ve had three attempted suicides in the last three years. Two of them were third-graders,” she told the court. “You know, I really don’t believe that people understand the depth of deprivation of our children.”
John Brittain let the silence hang in the courtroom for a few long seconds.
Negron swallowed hard.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She composed herself.
“It’s … it’s … someone said to me this morning, ‘Yeah, but your children are doing well compared to a third-world country.’ But we don’t live in a third-world country. We live in the richest state in the nation.”
It’s not a child’s deprivation per se that caused lasting damage, the Sheff witnesses testified. The core problem was deprivation piled on top of deprivation on top of deprivation, coupled with isolation from mainstream society. Would racial integration make a difference, though? On the witness stand, a retired first-grade teacher named Gladys Hernandez answered: “Yes.”
“It would change everything, because, as I said before, you can overcome all the other things but the stigma of separation. And it’s an oxymoron to say that you can have separate but equal; it doesn’t work out. Separate is not equal in my book or anybody’s book because to be separated and not feel that you’re a part of the world or in the family of man is a very damaging thing, more damaging than anything else.”
In 1993, the plaintiffs lost.
They appealed to the state’s highest court. In 1996, the plaintiffs won. They won.
“Students in Hartford suffer daily from the devastating effects that racial and ethnic isolation, as well as poverty, have had on their education,” Chief Justice Ellen Peters wrote in the 4-3 decision. “Federal constitutional law provides no remedy for their plight. The principal issue in this appeal is whether … the state, which already plays an active role in managing public schools, must take further measures to relieve the severe handicaps that burden these children’s education. The issue is as controversial as the stakes are high. We hold today that the needy schoolchildren of Hartford have waited long enough.”
The Connecticut Supreme Court went pretty far. It declared the invisible, powerful boundary lines between school districts unconstitutional. It ordered the legislature to craft a remedy without delay. But, as was the case with Brown, a triumphant underdog’s victory hardly marked the dawning of a better day.
A full remedy to segregation has yet to come. “Local control”—such as it is—prevailed. School district boundary lines remain firmly intact and they still efficiently separate white from minority, middle class from poor. When the plaintiffs filed Sheff in 1989, Hartford’s schools were about 90 percent black and Latino. By 2003, the city’s schools were nearly 95 percent black and Latino. That year, plaintiffs reached an agreement with the state. The victorious lawyers would stay out of court if the state provided 30 percent of city students access to racially integrated school settings over the next several years. Only 10 percent of city kids were in such schools in 2002, five years after the state supreme court’s ruling.
“I did the best with what I had,” John Brittain said, quoting Thurgood Marshall. “I can’t say I’m happy. No. I’m not happy. But the reality of the situation, the politics of a suburban-dominated legislature, and you never know if courts, in the future, will rule in our favor. It made the legal team question whether it didn’t make sense to get something tangible when we could. So we have a settlement. But I’m not gonna say I’m happy. No. The masses are still stuck.”
After the 1996 decision, public attention and public policy focused, misguidedly, upon “fixing” Hartford’s schools, without messing at all with segregation. The legislature responded to the Sheff ruling, most prominently, by disbanding Hartford’s Board of Education and appointing its own Board of Trustees. (Local control, thus, would be preserved in the suburbs, but not in the city). In 1999, the Trustees hired a tough-talking school superintendent named Anthony Amato. He pledged to lift Hartford from last place on annual test-score rankings. Children drilled for tests—on Saturdays, in summer school, and during vacation weeks. Amato aligned curriculum to the state’s standardized tests. And, generally, the scores improved. Amato won national attention for take-charge initiatives. By 2002, Hartford’s test score performance, still abysmal in several areas, especially at the high schools, bested the state’s other high-poverty school districts. On what’s arguably the most important measure—early elementary reading—the city stayed stuck at the bottom, dead last. In 2002, only 17 percent of Hartford’s fourth-graders met the state’s specified mastery level.
Now, the promised glimmer of good news. Under pressure from the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the state, as part of its remedy, also paid for several interdistrict magnet schools that enroll a racial and ethnic mix of urban and suburban kids from across the Hartford region. (Others went up in equally beleaguered Connecticut cities: New Haven and Bridgeport, for example.) Many more people wanted in on this Sheff-inspired mini-revolution than could be accommodated. Even the plaintiffs had underestimated the appeal of really good schools that look like America. In 2004, every one of the “Sheff” schools had lengthy waiting lists. One of the most popular choices—among white, black, urban, suburban, Latino, poor, and middle-class families—is a determinedly joyful, serious place called the University of Hartford Magnet School.
“We the members of the UHMS community believe our school should be a safe, happy, and peaceful place where every person is welcomed and knows they are an important part of our learning community …”
The hundreds of tiny voices, giddy and unruly just seconds before, belt out the school pledge clearly. Most of the children wear noble expressions. This is important business. Each morning, children and their teachers fill this high-ceilinged, glass-enclosed, circular room for a daily greeting.
“We will make this happen by using our minds, bodies, voices, and hearts to: care for one another, treat each other with respect, solve problems without hurting each other, celebrate each other as we try our best to learn and grown, give our best effort to every task.”
In unison, the children, some suddenly grinning in anticipation, scream: “I WILL.” They sing a song (today it’s the spirited, folkie “We’re All a Family under One Sky”). Teachers tell jokes. And a child says, “Welcome,” or, “Good morning,” in a foreign language.
In 2001, UHMS opened near the northwestern border of Hartford and West Hartford on the small campus of the University of Hartford. It enrolls students, nearly equally, from the virtually all-minority neighborhoods in Hartford and the more elite, nearly all-white suburbs. Teachers base their lessons on the “Multiple Intelligences” theory developed by Harvard Professor Howard Gardner. Gardner’s ideas, widely embraced and often misapplied, surface at UHMS in an ordered, considered curriculum. The underlying idea of M.I., as it’s called, is that there is not a measurable “general” intelligence that can predict success or failure in work and society. Gardner identifies eight types of intelligence: linguistic, naturalistic, logical-mathematical, spacial, musical, bodily, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. School, in his view, should value and nurture each of these areas equally.
The result, at UHMS, is an egalitarian rigor. Teachers expect children to write with grand imagination and originality. Kids read thematically complex, rich literature. Teachers expect them to engage the texts on both emotional and intellectual levels. Children talk and argue about books amongst themselves, offer studied assessments of characters, and “act out” a character’s actions, words, feelings. Little time gets wasted. The math—or “logical-mathematical”—part of the day includes, always, numerical puzzles and projects that require not solely the application of memorized functions, but innovation, strategy, teamwork, and the guts to try new stuff. It’s truly major-league learning. And it is deliberately democratic.
At UHMS, Sheff’s (and Brown’s) aspiration, as powerfully as Howard Gardner’s, asserts itself. A child-crafted collage of students’ families covers the bottom half of one classroom wall. A color Polaroid of a bus and its beaming African American driver stands out. “Mom and her bus,” one child has written. Another photo features a white dad and his luxury car, some purebred Spaniels running around against an unabashedly privileged suburban backdrop. A picture of a modest two-family Hartford apartment, all lovingly dolled up for Christmas, is tacked next to a blonde boy soccer player positioned in a spacious, manicured backyard.
“We are all related,” reads the heartwarming, child-crafted banner hanging in the school entryway. On it, children with skin in varying hues of acrylic paint hold hands. The classrooms, cafeteria, the morning greeting assembly, look like one of those fetching Bennetton advertisements. Even snack time gets pretty heartwarming.
“These are jello fruit snacks. You see the fruit inside the jello block? They are a Latin dish,” a third-grader named Rosie explains. She’s brought a huge platter to share. Her classmates gather around eagerly.
“Take one,” she urges, beaming. “I made them with my mom from this Latin cookbook and they are Mexican really. But we are Puerto Rican. And it’s a big difference.” Rosie laughs. “But it is the Hispanic culture, part of the Hispanic culture, and I know that everyone here is really interested in that.”
The school principal, Cheryl Kloczko, has short dark hair, a rosy complexion, and a firm handshake. She wears sensible business outfits and keeps herself in shape by empathically following much of the exercise regimen suggested for the school’s “obese” children, who attend special nutrition and physical fitness classes. Ms. Kloczko, herself, though, is rather trim in middle age. She’s got a softness about her—a sweet sensibility common to good teachers of young children. But it is easy to imagine her, too, on one of those old Nike ads, hands on hips, imploring, “Just Do It.”
Soon after her students recite the school pledge one morning, Kloczko sighs. After the requisite “I WILL” shout, her shoulders drop.
“We’re trying,” Kloczko whispers under the clattering shuffle of children moving up, out, and on to class. She purses her lips. Mrs. Kloczko moves around her school with commanding confidence. But sometimes she appears a bit unsure.
The test-score race would rage on here and across this grand nation, in spite of her school’s intentions. Would trying hard and making earnest interracial efforts justify this beautiful state-supported building? What about the tall floor-to-ceiling windows, the “state-of-the-art” computers, the expensive yellow school buses parked outside the circular drive each morning and afternoon?
“Of course I worry. Principals live and die by those test scores,” Kloczko said. “We’re okay. We’re good in that way. But we’re about more than that and it’s not easy to articulate.”
Trying doesn’t show up on the bottom line. Human transformation—of the deep and lasting sort—is not as easily quantifiable as, say, agreeing a subject and a verb and then selecting a, b, c, or d from an answer sheet. Kloczko’s test scores here are fine, overall. But many Hartford kids continue to struggle, in spite of extra support. Her curriculum, unlike Hartford’s, wasn’t aligned with the state’s tests. In the context of a hard-nosed test-score race, “caring for one another,” “celebrating each other as we try our best to learn and grow,” can come out sounding abstract, soft, thin. State education bureaucrats and politicians had always paid lip service to the underlying values Sheff represented. Kloczko allows herself to hope that they mean it.
But the amazing thing is—here, at this school—they really do mean it. Thanks to Sheff, UHMS is a tangible, shared social institution, bridging a gaping divide that had been decades in the making. At UHMS the conditions have been deliberately constructed so mere mortals might try to reach what Martin Luther King once called his “ultimate goal”—”to foster and create the beloved community in America … genuine intergroup and interpersonal living—integration.”
“Trying isn’t nothing,” Kloczko says pleadingly, as if practicing her defense.
It’s true. Trying isn’t nothing. It is, in fact, absolutely everything. It is, in these hallways and classrooms, the most daring, most spectacularly human thing one can do. The tenacity and imagination that conceived and sustains Sheff and its smattering of resulting schools offer, in Brown’s fiftieth anniversary year, a flicker of something to believe in, small, sacred works in progress.