Using the Arts to Attract a Diverse Student Body

Arms, legs, and elongated torsos flow in remarkable harmony as four teenage girls strive to perform a dance they are spontaneously creating. Moving together on the dance floor, easily anticipating each other's moves, it's a scene of unusual closeness and mutual understanding.

What's most remarkable about this dance is its participants. With one from inner-city Hartford, two from suburban Connecticut towns, and a fourth hailing from a near-rural hamlet, this racially diverse group of young women would be unlikely to cross paths outside the studio.

Togetherness through creativity is the whole idea behind the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, presently located in a pair of aging commercial buildings - one of which served for a time as a funeral parlor - in a somewhat shabby section of Hartford.

But the Academy has an important second role: Exhibit A in a state experiment to show that voluntary efforts can foster racial integration in the public schools.

"The kids work in ensembles," explains Mitzi Yates-Waterhouse, the school's general director. "If a group of them have to learn a Mozart quintet together, they have no choice but to get to know one another well."

In the wake of urban middle-class flight, mixing students of different backgrounds has proved a challenge for cities and suburbs here. But Connecticut today finds itself in an ironic position. Even as many other cities and states are abandoning the court-ordered desegregation plans set up in past decades, this state is being told it must find new ways to achieve integration.

In 1993, then Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker introduced legislation requiring communities to draw up plans to bring together, voluntarily, students of different races. In 1996, the state's Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of the Hartford schools - where minority students account for 95 percent of the city school population, but only 10 percent of suburban student bodies - was unconstitutional.

There was no deadline for increased integration, but the court specified that the state must make that goal a top priority.

In response to both the governor's initiative and the court ruling, about 133 of the state's 166 school districts now have programs intended to foster diversity in their schools. Some of these programs include suburban kids volunteering to tutor inner-city students, pen-pal exchanges between city and suburban schools, and Saturday enrichment programs that bring together students from different school districts.

But the Academy of the Arts remains a showcase in the effort to promote voluntary integration. Established in 1985 through a combination of state, local, and private funding, the school is an attempt to answer the question: What would induce students - and their parents - from suburbs with good schools to voluntarily commit themselves to an inner-city school?

The answer in this case was a half-day high school dedicated to the arts, offering intensive training and instruction that even the strongest mainstream schools would have difficulty matching. (The academy, which is selective, is one of about 10 such half-day, magnet public high schools in the United States.)

Students at the academy continue to take their traditional academic classes at their home schools each morning. Then, four afternoons a week, they pack up and head to Hartford, where they immerse themselves in the arts, pursuing a specialty in either vocal or instrumental music, drama, dance, or creative writing. Almost a third of the students enrolled are Hartford residents; the rest commute from towns as much as an hour away. This year there's even a student from Massachusetts.

Currently the academy has about 150 students and 45 instructors. Enrollment is scheduled to grow, however, to about 250 by 2000, when the school will be housed in a new facility near Trinity College.

Many academy students are quick to sing the school's praises, and some of those commuting from the suburbs insist that their days spent downtown have been the best thing about high school. "Mainstream high school is for kids who want to be kids and have fun," says a dance student from Portland, Conn. "I was ready to be more serious."

"If the focus of this school had been agriculture, I still would have wanted to come," says a creative writing student from Manchester, Conn. In her suburban school of 2,000 students, she says she feels hopelessly lost. "But here," she says, "it's just so much better."

Not everyone believes the academy - or any of Connecticut's diversity initiatives - represents a rapid enough move toward integration. Critics complain that such efforts are too little. The academy, they point out, offers diversity only to a small number of very select students.

But Patrice McCarthy, deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, points out that the school's special half-day arrangement allows the experience of that small group of students to touch many other lives as well. Because they continue to attend their neighborhood schools in addition to the academy, she says, "these students bring the experiences and friendships they develop in Hartford back to their home districts."

* Send comments to: coeymanm@csps.com

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