Amid educational frustration, 'The Children in Room E4' shine

"You step off the elevator and go right across and you see this bulletin board," Jeremy Otero instructs a visitor. "Our work is on it, and okay, so you can look at the work once you get there. That's your reward. You walk twenty steps or maybe twenty-two. Walk straight. Then turn a little to the left 'cause if you don't you hit into a wall. You'll see her name: Ms. Luddy. It will be on the door. And you walk in."

Jeremy is an irresistibly polite and obliging fourth grader, almost comical in his adult-like mannerisms. He's also bright and curious and living in a ghetto in Hartford, Conn., where a bike sits dormant in his living room because his grandmother and aunt are too frightened to let him ride outside.

In The Children in Room E4, Susan Eaton weaves the story of the intractable segregation dogging Hartford's urban schools. It's a problem with deep roots. When she meets Jeremy in 2000, 31 percent of the city's residents are poor – and 41 percent of its children. "Welcome to Hartford," writes Eaton. "The poorest city in the wealthiest state in the richest country on earth."

In 1989 a group of students and families sued the state of Connecticut, claiming that because of the isolation created by district boundaries drawn along racial and class lines their children were being denied the opportunity for an equal education. The lead plaintiff was Milo Sheff, a thoughtful fourth grader. This lawsuit, Sheff v. O'Neil, forms the book's core.

Sheff is an absurdly drawn out case. There are crushing losses, small victories, and always more appeals. By the final chapter, 16 years have passed. Milo Sheff is grown, has dropped out of high school, earned his GED, and has a child of his own. And the plaintiffs have filed a new motion.

The lack of a clear conclusion to the case is the most unsatisfying part of this book. And yet the frustration, the tedium, and the incredulity that creep in while reading about it are an apt reminder of how far we are from attaining educational equality.

Some of the statistics are staggering. If anything, Hartford's schools are now more segregated and still unable to budge from the bottom of the state's test rankings. But Hartford's problems are emblematic of something much larger. Segregation is an ill this country likes to believe it's left behind. Fifty years after the passage of Brown v. Board of Education, Eaton makes clear that it's not so in Hartford nor in many other US cities.

While Sheff is at the center of the book, Jeremy, his classmates in Room E4, and their teacher, Lois Luddy, are its heart.

Eaton returns to them often. In her reporting on this vibrant and willful group she is astute and tender – but never romantic.

Though the writing is not emotional, there are deeply moving passages. The Connecticut River emerges as a symbol of the great chasm between Hartford's urban and suburban children. During the Sheff trial, a Hartford teacher testified to having seen her students give the waterway a standing ovation; it was the first time they'd seen a river. Ten years later, Ms. Luddy's students "gasped and cheered" and begged her to slow the bus as they, too, glimpsed the river for the first time.

But Jeremy makes it impossible to lose the ripple of hope that courses through the book. By the end, the precocious fourth grader has become a more worldly eighth grader, on scholarship at a private school.

His thinking about what he'd like to do one day has also evolved: "I know I used to say scientist. And I still want to study more science.... But I changed my mind, I guess, and I think this is because of Ms. Luddy.... Ms. Luddy does a lot of good stuff every day for kids, and I could follow that kind of example. So I guess that's why I say teacher. To set an example. What do you think? Do you think I'd make a good example?"

Yes, Jeremy. We do.

Teresa Méndez is a Monitor staffer.

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