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Hartford Area Magnet Schools Provide Integration Education

Children at Hartford's Breakthrough Magnet School attend assembly.

By Susan Eaton

“Who’s the real ambassador?

Certain facts we can’t ignore

In my humble way I’m the USA

Though I represent the government

The government don’t represent some policies I’m for.”

Some six decades ago jazz great Dave Brubeck collaborated with the iconic Louis Armstrong on a musical called The Real Ambassadors. The satire skewered the mid-century government practice that sent black jazz musicians as emissaries to other nations amid rampant racial discrimination in the United States. Though it starred Armstrong himself, The Real Ambassadors, performed only twice, has been largely overlooked and critics agree it was probably too far ahead of its time.

But in a crowded, high-ceilinged room in Hartford, Connecticut’s public library, recently, the racially diverse group of teenagers who sang the musical’s title song finally found its perfect audience.

“These young people are incredible,” said an exultant Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the lead plaintiff in a long-running legal effort to reduce school segregation in one of the nation’s most unequal states. Horton Sheff, along with fellow members of a grassroots organization called The Sheff Movement, had organized the evening’s “Celebration of Progress” to bring attention to the success of the schools and programs created here in response to the 1996 court ruling that required the state to remedy school segregation throughout the region.

The student performers offered a stunning example of that success. The singing group, calling themselves The Real Ambassadors, attend the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. GHAA is one of about three dozen magnet schools that attract a diverse student body by enrolling students from Hartford and the more than two dozen cities and towns that surround it.

Two and a half decades ago, in 1989, Elizabeth Horton Sheff, then a single mother of two, signed on as lead plaintiff in the Sheff v. O’Neill case, which argued that the racial and class segregation in the region’s schools denied students the equal opportunity granted in the state Constitution. It has been 17 years since the state’s highest court, in 1996, decided in favor of the plaintiffs.

It’s unlikely that the mix of racially diverse schools would have come into being without the lawsuit that bears Elizabeth Horton Sheff’s name. But a growing community of parents, students, alumni and educators is also working to keep the vision of the case alive. The power of this broad constituency has yet to be fully tapped, but a decade-old network, the Sheff Movement coalition, has worked to bring a diverse group of supporters together around a common aspiration of “quality, integrated education.” Led by Horton Sheff and former City Councilman Jim Boucher, the coalition organizes, provides public information, conducts research and advocates publicly for the schools and programs.

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