On Thursday afternoon, just a 12 minute walk up Dixwell Avenue from Yale’s central campus, more than 1,000 minority students — and only 20 white students — filed out of James Hillhouse High School.

In a city that is more than 40 percent white, the population of Hillhouse is clearly not representative of the entire community. How much does race matter in New Haven’s schools, 15 years after the city’s current superintendent took office and 10 years after a landmark Connecticut Supreme Court ruling — Sheff vs. O’Neill — ordered Hartford schools to work toward eliminating racial isolation?

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Probably more than city leaders would like to admit.

Interviews with more than two dozen city officials suggest that the administration does not currently see the absence of racial diversity as a major problem for New Haven schools. The achievement gap is an ongoing struggle, lack of resources create a headache, but when it comes to diversity, a highly esteemed system of magnet schools is supposed to be the solution.

The magnet schools accept applications from across the city and the surrounding towns, so the racial balance in the schools is not dependent on the racial balance in the surrounding neighborhood. Yet in the 2007 lottery for the magnet schools, 91.9 percent of New Haven applicants were minorities and just 8.1 percent were white.

Race, of course, is closely connected to the achievement gap. At Wilbur Cross High School — one of the city’s two non-magnet schools — the divide between high and low income students is only 13 percent, lower than the state average. But the gap between black and white students clocks in at 50 percent. And at Hillhouse, only six percent of students achieved state mandated goals, according to statistics for 2006 provided by the state Department of Education.

With several exceptions, numbers are no better at the magnet schools. For instance, only 7 percent of Hyde Leadership Academy’s black students reached the goals. A few schools show slightly better results, like High School in the Community, where 22 percent of students hit the target.

For Wesley Horton — the lead lawyer for the Sheff case — the gap is unacceptable. But so is the lack of diversity that plagues some New Haven schools.

“Come on,” Horton said. “You don’t need scientists to tell me that’s a bad thing. You can’t have a school, in my opinion, in today’s society, where you walk down the hallway where’s there’s 1,000 kids and you don’t see a white person in sight who’s not a teacher.”

This may be so, but four individuals — two New Haven superintendents, the inspiration for the Sheff case, and a leader of the Connecticut charter school movement — think they may have the solution.

And as he winds down his days in office, Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 is hoping for at least one of their ideas to work.

“The achievement gap needs to be closed if this city is going to thrive, and we must not be content with gradual progress,” he said. “If that means making changes that rock the boat, then the boat should be rocked.”

Calm and Steady

In the lonely corridors of City Hall on Wednesday night, Superintendent Reginald B. Mayo was upset.

The question that had set him off seemed simple enough: “Can you tell me, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much the achievement gap between races is an urgent problem for the New Haven Public Schools?”

“I’m not going to answer,” the superintendent, who began his tenure in 1992, said emphatically. “That’s just like a number, just a single number … that reminds me of No Child Left Behind. You’re going to look at a number and determine whether a school is successful. That, to me, is the most agonizing thing. A number!”

And then: calm. Mayo relaxed, back to his natural state.

“When I become superintendent, I came in to calm things down,” he said earlier in the interview. “So I think you take different personalities based on what you need in this business.”

Is calmness what is needed now?

“You need calmness,” Mayo said. “I think you get more done when you get people working together.”

For Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who has worked closely — virtually in lockstep — with Mayo over much of the past decade and a half, his management style has paid off.

“New Haven Public Schools have shown steady and strong improvement,” he said. “I think Dr. Mayo’s done an outstanding job.”

Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar came out of a recent Board of Aldermen meeting with Mayo with mixed feelings: just happy enough, but also yearning for something more.

“We’re not making the gains we should be making,” Lemar said. “You realize the substantial gains they’ve made for the past 10 years under Reggie … but I want to start seeing double-digit gains everywhere.”

DeStefano’s two mayoral opponents have also weighed in: H. Richter Elser ’81, DeStefano’s long-shot Republican challenger, said DeStefano should prioritize a school system that is “meeting our expectations” above almost anything else. (The mayor said he already does.) Ralph Ferrucci, the Green Party candidate, said the magnet system is inherently worn down in terms of quality.

It begs the question why Mayo has remained in power, even as Hartford has cycled through nearly a dozen superintendents and Bridgeport has had four. DeStefano points to his consistent progress, a recipe for healthy stability rare in urban districts.

“I think he has a tremendous ability to roll with the punches,” Ward 4 Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks said, shifting the burden of blame for the achievement gap onto circumstances outside Mayo’s control. “Reggie, unfortunately, doesn’t have the benefit of charter schools where he can pick and choose who he takes into the school system.”

The fact is that Mayo has made substantial progress. New Haven’s magnet schools program is, hands down, the best in the state. A grant last week promised another four magnets for younger students in the coming years.

But are they working? In a revealing study conducted last semester at the Yale Law School, Benajmin Siracusa LAW ’10 found that the New Haven Public Schools were attracting blacks from suburbs in significant numbers in a way that has led to socioeconomic and regional diversity, if not as much racial diversity as hoped. That said, Siracusa concluded in a 100-page-plus research paper that magnet schools are just “one piece of the puzzle.”

“The magnet schools are a really exciting and interesting model … an experiment that hasn’t been tried in other places,” he said. “But I think, ultimately, these schools alone are not going to solve the problem.”

The ‘Bully Pulpit’

Thinking back to his days as an undergraduate, Tim Shriver ’81 vividly recalled one meeting in Dwight Hall. There were two groups in attendance: Yalies and New Haven public school students. The divide between the two groups — one largely black, one mostly white — could not have been more apparent.

One of the Yale students said, “Look. Do you think we can really help?”

“There was this long pause, and they looked at each other,” Shriver remembered. “I think they all wanted to say, ‘No,’ but one of them said, ‘Yeah, you can help but not on a big horse you can’t. You can come down on your big horse — and then you can help.’”

Shriver, who now heads the Special Olympics, said he thinks working toward racial diversity comes down to good teaching.

“At the end of the day, you’ve gotta be accountable to kids, and when you have a lousy teacher whose been protected by the system for whatever reason — who’s not serving kids — and the system historically has considered that an acceptable situation, you need change agents.”

He might as well be talking about his former boss, former superintendent John Dow. By all accounts, Dow — who headed New Haven’s schools from 1983 to 1992 — was an outspoken advocate of bringing race to the forefront of public school debate, a man who frequently rubbed elbows as he championed for change.

“My philosophy was a little different than others,” Dow said in an interview. “I felt it was my responsibility to advocate for those in my school system who could not advocate for themselves.”

Over the course of his tenure, graduation rates in the district went from 45 percent to 82 percent.

Calling the position of superintendent a “bully pulpit” to take “non-traditional positions on issues,” Dow praised his own leadership of the system.

“We were a lightning rod of confrontation between parents and those systems that were not producing for them,” he said.

Talk about contrast.

Mayo — a native Southerner who was educated in the public school system — is the pragmatist to Dow the idealist. Mayo said the two speak “monthly,” and that Dow helped him land the job of superintendant. But the differences still emerge, years after their parting.

“John Dow was a very strong personality,” said Mayo, who worked directly underneath Dow for some time. “John Dow had a role when he came to New Haven. His role was to shake things from the top to the bottom, and John Dow shook them not only from the top to the bottom, but to the left and to the right.”

Many of those from Dow’s era are gone, but Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison, for one, still waxes nostalgic for the Dow days.

“He was difficult, he had very strong opinions and he was quick to attack people he didn’t agree with,” he said. “But he really had an enormous amount of vision.”

Dow, for his part, was hesitant to comment on the current state of the schools system, but he did have a reaction to a report in the New Haven Independent that Board of Education members miss 37 percent of their meetings.

“During the time when I was superintendent, there was far more accountability to parents from Board members and politicians,” he said. “My philosophy was a little different than others who get in leadership responsibly. I felt it was my responsibility to advocate for those in my school system who could not advocate for themselves … but we got change.”

Both Mayo and Dow like to talk about change. But maybe a different breed of reform is needed altogether.

Chartering a Solution

Alex Johnston, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard graduate, doesn’t believe the New Haven Public Schools’ potential is being met. For that reason, some city officials don’t like him much.

“Regardless of the issue of racial diversity in the schools … we’re not seeing the level of academic achievement that we want to,” said Johnston, the executive director of ConnCan, a non-profit program closely related to Amistad Academy in New Haven that is designed to close the state’s academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor. “The achievement gap jumps way out at you, so while we’ve made some progress … overall the picture remains very challenging.”

Johnston’s relationship with New Haven’s schools soured some when he made negative comments about the district over the past year. Instead, Johnston has found allies in Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Yale President Richard Levin, both of whom are members of the ConnCan Board of Advisors.

But Levin says he is just trying to work through the system — and through Mayo, whom he called a “good partner.”

“In New York you have a system that has really encouraged charter schools,” Levin said. “Most school districts are less enthusiastic about charter schools. We don’t only want to be directly associated with efforts that might be construed as challenging or competing with the public school system.”

New Haven leaders have been reluctant to encourage charter schools, including the well-regarded Amistad Academy, because they are perceived as taking students and resources away from public schools.

But Shalek said the charter distinction was overblown and that hostility around the issue was unproductive on both sides. He suggested that the unmet demand for Amistad-type schools indicated one of the areas in which New Haven needs improvement: responding to parents’ preferences.

“Putting all the conspiracy theories and political differences aside, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who can, in a moment of intellectual honestly, deny that Amistad has been a success,” Shalek said in an e-mail. “It’s not about charters versus public schools — it’s about finding the right combination of leadership, organization and curriculum to provide New Haven kids with the support they need to develop mentally and emotionally.”

DeStefano pushed back against inquiries as to why the city was hesitant to partner with Amistad Academy and try the charter solution.

“Those that raise issues of charters don’t recognize the fact that they are different,” he said. “They deal with a very different school application. Frankly, they select the students they attend there. It doesn’t educate a general population.”

Not yet, at least.

Sheff’s Struggle

If her voicemail greeting is any indication, Elizabeth Horton Sheff is tough.

“If this is a telemarketing call … do not call again,” the message announces.

Sheff has a similarly harsh message for the status quo: Get lost.

It was 1996 when she did just that in a formal sense, winning — in a dramatic 4-3 decision — the Connecticut Supreme Court case Sheff v. O’Neill. That ruling was a ringing endorsement of programs that brought suburban students into urban public school systems.

“The single most important factor contributing to the present concentration of racial and ethnic minorities in the Hartford public school system [are districts].” the Court concluded, demanding that largely white Connecticut suburbs accept at least partial responsibility for racial isolation.

In other words, city boundaries became a thing of the past.

“Why is it New Haven’s problem any more than it is Bethany or Branford’s?” asked Jonathon Gillette, the Teacher Preparation Program Director. “I think that’s kind of one of the things that’s prevented a larger owning up to whose problem is it, whose solution is it, and who’s responsible for it.”

The decision applied only to Hartford, but the impact was far-reaching, inspiring the Connecticut General Assembly to act and New Haven to launch its inter-district magnet program with one stated purpose of reducing racial isolation. It worked.

“New Haven’s really aggressive and well-thought-out approach to public school worked much more effectively than Hartford’s,” said Jack Hasegawa, a Department of Education official who oversaw city efforts to comply with court orders resulting from the case.

Sheff — whose son, the lead plaintiff, is now a well-known Hartford rap artist who frequently sings about race — is not having second doubts about her approach. But she still wants more out of her suit.

“Magnet schools in it of themselves are not the answer,” she said in an interview. “Magnet schools can take us a distance toward providing quality, integrated education … But magic wand or panacea? Of course not.”

She said she had only two regrets: the lack of the remedy and the lack of money Connecticut has put into supporting Sheff compliance legislation.

But after the state found Hartford’s school system, among those of other cities, to still be racially isolated, Sheff has renewed her faith in the power of the legal system.

“We’re prepared to return to court,” she said, signaling November as the month when plaintiffs would return. “We’re getting ready.”

Both Sides of the Street

“It’s not like you can walk down College Street, and say to the left is New Haven and the right is Yale,” Shriver said in the interview. “That’s bullshit!”

It’s an attitude shared by many at Yale who partake in the numerous opportunities available for students to help their younger local counterparts. But Mayo, in a rare jab at Yale from a top city official, said earlier this week that he would like to see something more.

“What people need to see Yale do,” he said, turning back around and pausing while walking down the steps and out of City Hall, “is something substantial.”

“Substantial,” he added for emphasis. “Just something big, visible: I think we all in New Haven and in the school system are wishing and hoping that something of a major magnitude will happen between the school district and Yale.”

With such help unlikely to come soon, sometimes all it takes is a 12-minute walk up Dixwell Avenue and a left on Henry Street toward Hillhouse. A dilapidated lot and half-boarded-up convenience store pass on the right and left. And then, sprayed beautifully onto the wall, a simple quote from Maya Angelou.

“The ancestors remind us despite the history of pain we are a going-on people who will rise again. And still we rise.”