HARTFORD, CONN. — WHEN Norma Neumann-Johnson tells her sixth-grade students that 80 percent of all Americans are white, they simply don't believe her.
``They look around, and they don't see it,'' she says. ``They can't understand it.''
At Thomas J. McDonough School in Hartford, Conn., where Ms. Neumann-Johnson teaches, the overwhelming majority of students are Hispanic and African-American. Not even 10 percent of the student population is white. Overall enrollment in the Hartford Public Schools is 93 percent nonwhite.
Before starting high school in Hartford this year, 14-year-old Milo Sheff had attended classes with only one white student since kindergarten.
``Education is learning about other people and other races,'' Milo says. ``We don't have as much of the interracial [mixing] as we should.''
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, Milo's mother and a member of the Hartford City Council, says her son is getting an unequal and inadequate education. ``He's lacking exposure to diversity in race and financial status,'' she says. ``If you're with everybody who thinks the same, it curtails your imagination.''
In the neighboring suburban district of West Hartford, Eugene Leach says his children are receiving an inadequate education as well. Rachel and Joseph Leach attend school with a mere handful of minority students.
Although minority families are gradually moving from the city to inner suburbs like West Hartford, many suburban school districts remain nearly 100 percent white.
``For my wife and I, quality education presumes integration,'' Mr. Leach says. ``The simple fact is that a lot of suburban white schools are preparing children to live in the 1950s; they are not preparing children to live in the year 2020 or 2050 when my kids will be in the prime of life and the United States may be approaching 50-50 status between whites and nonwhites. It's a very different world that we're living in.''
Between 1980 and 1990, the Hispanic population in Hartford increased nearly 60 percent. As in many parts of the country, Hartford's urban schools educate large numbers of poor children while suburban schools enroll a majority of middle-class or affluent children.
``It's almost as if we're in a walled city,'' says Donald Carso, principal at McDonough. ``It's not like the Great Wall of China, but there is an invisible wall between the city and the suburbs.''
This racial and economic isolation prompted a lawsuit that was filed on behalf of Milo Sheff, the Leach children, and 16 other Hartford-area students four years ago.
The case, known as Sheff v. O'Neil, charges that the de facto segregation of schools in the Hartford area denies both urban and suburban students their constitutional right to an equal educational opportunity.
This is the first school-desegregation case based on state constitutional guarantees, and the outcome could determine the future of desegregation litigation nationwide.
``The theory here is that the Connecticut State Constitution establishes rights for public education and those rights can't be provided within this system of school districts,'' says Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard University and an expert witness for the plaintiffs. ``If that theory is adopted, we can expect to see a lot of state constitutional issues being explored in the courts.''
The judge has called for final oral arguments in the case, which could be heard later this month. A ruling is expected early next year.
The plaintiffs are seeking a metropolitan desegregation remedy that would integrate the Hartford area schools with 21 suburban school districts in an effort to get both racial and economic balance.
``For the first time, Sheff folds in the question of class and caste along with the question of race,'' says John Brittain, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs.
During the 11-week trial that concluded earlier this year, the plaintiffs argued that high concentrations of poverty in the Hartford schools have a devastating impact on educational achievement. The city's students rank at the bottom on statewide standardized tests.
The state has argued that poor achievement results more from family background than anything else, and therefore, it should not be held responsible.
``The state has not done anything that specifically violates the provisions of our Constitution,'' says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. ``The plaintiffs are saying that under our state Constitution, the absence of action can violate the law.''
``Causation is not a critical factor,'' Mr. Brittain counters. ``The fact is that the condition exists. There are appropriate desegregation remedies, and the state has never employed them.''
Mr. Blumenthal calls Connecticut ``a leader in the pursuit of school integration.'' It is one of seven states that provide funding for desegregation efforts, he says.
During the trial, however, one of the expert witnesses for the plaintiffs testified that ``Connecticut is a leader in studying its problem. But at an action level, actually desegregating their schools, they haven't done it.''
Since the 1960s, numerous studies and reports have called attention to the increasing concentrations of minority and poor students in Connecticut's urban schools.
Both sides in the lawsuit acknowledge concerns about racial and economic isolation in the region's schools. ``We are not saying that the status quo ought to be maintained,'' Blumenthal says. The two parties disagree about how to solve the problem, however.
``The remedy ought to be the result of action by the legislature and the governor, not an order by the court,'' Blumenthal says. ``Courts are not well-equipped to provide remedies to the underlying social and economic causes of poor achievement. We favor the kind of action that the legislature is taking.''
Since the Sheff case went to trial, the General Assembly has passed legislation requiring local communities to begin thinking about ways to integrate their schools. (See related story, right.)
Brittain, on the other hand, is convinced that ``there will be no progress on this subject unless ordered by a court.''
From Edna Negron's perspective as principal of Ramon E. Betances School in Hartford, the Sheff case is simply ``laying out the facts of life.''
``There are two Connecticuts,'' she says, ``one white, wealthy, and suburban, one poor, minority, and urban.'' Ms. Negron knows a lot about the second Connecticut. Betances School is located in a poor Puerto Rican neighborhood where the city's recent gang wars are being waged.
``I have a school that is 100 percent minority, where all the children but a handful are poor,'' Negron says. ``It's a wonderful school. Teachers are well-prepared, children are happy, the classrooms are beautiful. Even though we might not have all the materials we need, we sure make the best of what we've got. But that's not enough. Children who need tremendous amounts of special attention are not going to get it in this setting because there are simply too many of them.''
Carso, the principal at McDonough, agrees: ``The problems of the city are not that different from those in the suburbs, they are just more concentrated. The problems have to be diluted in order to get solutions.''
CARSO testified during the trial about the lack of resources at his school. The building dates to 1897 and has no auditorium, gymnasium, or cafeteria. Textbooks are in short supply, and the school runs out of toilet paper before the end of every year. Before parents raised enough money to buy new maps, the few that the school owned dated to the pre-World War II era.
Carso says he and the teachers can partially compensate for the lack of resources. ``But we cannot compensate for our students' isolation,'' he says. ``It's hard for them to see a better life for themselves.''
Most of these students come from families where no one has a college education. An integrated school system could help the inner-city children raise their expectations, Carso says.
``It's hard to convince children that their future depends on a good education, that they can go on to high school and college, that they can grow up to be doctors, and lawyers, and Indian chiefs when they don't see anything but blue-collar workers and unemployed people around.''
Although the Hartford schools are currently spending more per-pupil than most suburban schools, principals in the city say it takes many more dollars to educate poor, needy, immigrant students than it does to educate most suburban children.
``If you say equal dollars are spent on each child, that doesn't necessarily mean that equal opportunity is being afforded to both children,'' Carso says.
Although a decision in the Sheff case is not expected for several more months and the process of working out a solution will take even longer, Brittain says he considers the case a success.
``The state has publicly acknowledged the conditions. Everybody is talking about it,'' he says.
Neumann-Johnson, the teacher at the McDonough School, notices a difference in the Hartford community. ``Before Sheff,'' she says, ``people were sticking their heads in the sand. Now, people are at least talking about the problem.''
But the parents and students involved in the case know they are working ``on behalf of the next generation,'' as parent Eugene Leach says.
Milo Sheff was in fourth grade when the suit was filed. Now in high school, he doubts that any changes will occur before he graduates. But that does not concern him. ``In my mind,'' Milo says, ``the lawsuit is about bringing people together for a common purpose.''