In terms of meeting state guidelines for school desegregation, New Haven has been getting high marks when compared to other Connecticut cities.

This month, state Education Commissioner Theodore Sergi proposed building more interdistrict magnet schools to increase racial diversity among students, but New Haven has been running such magnet schools since 1996. It’s the largest program of its type in the nation, New Haven schools spokeswoman Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo said.

“New Haven has been out front and an early leader in the development of magnet schools,” Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy said. “They’ve done some wonderful work and have lead the way not only in this state but nationally.”

The interdistrict magnet schools aim to attract a racially diverse student body by drawing students from urban and suburban school districts who are interested in the specialized curricula the magnets offer. Some of the schools focus on arts or careers in healthcare.

While critics say many of Connecticut’s major school systems have done little to construct new magnet schools, New Haven currently has six interdistrict magnet schools and an additional regional school, which together account for more than 10 percent of the New Haven student body.

“Many students have to get up earlier or take a longer bus ride to attend, but there is a real attraction to enroll in New Haven schools,” Sullivan-DeCarlo said.

Ed Linehan, who supervises New Haven’s magnet schools, said the city’s program has proven that suburban families are willing to send their children to New Haven schools.

“No other district has taken advantage of the current regulations like we have,” Linehan said. “No one would have dreamt that an urban school system would be able to attract people from the suburbs.”

Under Sergi’s proposal, the state would increase the number of interdistrict magnet schools and would require that no less than 25 percent of either white or minority students comprise the student population of such a magnet school.

Linehan and New Haven Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo are concerned the city’s magnet schools, which currently are more diverse than many others in the state but do not meet the 25 percent criteria, could not immediately meet the new standard.

However, Murphy says New Haven has no need to be concerned about meeting these criteria overnight.

“Our proposal doesn’t require existing magnet schools to immediately comply with the 25 percent minimum standard,” Murphy said. “The proposals are sensitive to conditions existing today, and students won’t be disenfranchised because the standard is not currently being met.”

New Haven is planning on building two new magnet schools in the future, and those would have to immediately meet the 25 percent standard if Sergi’s proposal is approved by the State Legislature.

The proposal comes on the heels of complaints that the landmark 1996 state Supreme Court decision Sheff v. O’Neill, which ordered better racial integration in the schools, is not being adequately enforced.

The plaintiffs in the Sheff case have returned to court seeking an order for the state to accelerate desegregation efforts.

“Such a small number of kids are involved in the magnet school program and related initiatives that we’re not going to see significant improvement,” said Philip Tegeler, legal director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, who is representing the Sheff plaintiffs.

Tegeler said Sergi’s current revisions are a long way from satisfying the demands of the original Sheff order, particularly in the Hartford schools.

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