More than 400 people, including Connecticut state legislators and parents, students and education experts from across the country, descended on the Law School on Saturday afternoon for a town hall meeting and symposium about education reform.

At the four-hour conference, titled “The New Politics of Education Reform: Real Change for Communities of Color,” 12 speakers and panelists offered a broad range of proposals for how to close the education achievement gap between African-American and Latino students and white suburban students. Policy suggestions included strengthening relationships between students and teachers, issuing federal education vouchers and increasing funding for pre-kindergarten programs. Campaign Learn, a partner organization of the Yale Black Men’s Union and the Black Student Alliance at Yale, sponsored the conference.

“African-American students sat down at lunch counters in February 1960 to demand equal rights,” panelist Howard Fuller, a professor of education at Marquette University, said during the program’s symposium. “Now, they can sit at the lunch counter, but they can’t read the menu.”

During the two-hour panel of experts that took place during the conference, four panelists debated policy solutions for bringing about education reform and discussed why it is so difficult to achieve. Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the country, said Daneille K. Smith ’06, who moderated the panel.

President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program will only work if it changes how the country’s public schools are run on a fundamental level and if “we make sustainable programs and not use money to keep schools running the same as they were before,” said Anthony Colón, former senior manager for education investment strategies at the Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit Fight For Children.

Steve Perry, the principal of Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford and a CNN education contributor, questioned why the government does not use vouchers to allow parents to pay for their children to get educated at schools of their choosing when the government does give vouchers for student loans, Medicaid and relocating people to new houses. Education vouchers would allow parents to send their children to schools other than the public schools to which they are assigned, Perry said.

“We need to create policies that allow students to select which schools they want to go to, and if they get in they can go,” he said.

Deborah McGriff, a director of the national non-profit the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and former general superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools, said local governments need to think about the possibility of running online schools, which would use the Internet to educate children, and, more broadly, about how to make families aware of the range of educational opportunities available to them.

At a town hall meeting before the panel, audience members discussed their experiences with Connecticut’s public school systems and gave general suggestions for education reform. Principals, parents and one student said there needs to be a stronger bond between teachers and students.

State Rep. Douglas McCrory said what is missing in Connecticut’s public school system is “students’ relationships with teachers.” He said parents need to go to their local Board of Education meetings and that “they are not angry enough when students are pushed out of schools.”

John Goetz, the current principal at Stamford High School and a graduate of the New Haven public school system, said having qualified and caring teachers is key to the students’ development inside and outside the classroom. Goetz said that when he was in high school, two of his own teachers got him a prom ticket, bought his tuxedo for him and found him a date.

Still, legislators, parents and students in attendance said too many students are dropping out of high school and that fixing that problem is integral to education reform.

“Some of my friends don’t make it to senior year — they tell me that our principal wants them to go to another school because they are not meeting requirements,” said a student at New Haven’s James Hillhouse Comprehensive High School. “If students are pushed out, they will either end up dead or in jail. Students need adults to communicate with — if not, you get violence.”

Panelists said the meeting could not have come at a better time because the Obama Administration has just accepted the first round of applications for its Race to the Top program. The program will allocate $4.35 billion to selected states to support their education reform efforts. Connecticut submitted a request for federal aid last week, but panelists said they are skeptical Connecticut will receive any of the Race to the Top funds until its achievement gap shrinks.

There are 20,759 students enrolled in the New Haven Public Schools.