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Learning, curved

Recess at the J. C. Clark Jr. School, in the same neighborhood as Simpson -Waverly, the focus of Susan Eaton's latest book. (STEVE MILLER/GLOBE PHOTO)

The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial
By Susan Eaton
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 395 pp., $24.95

On a chilly Friday afternoon in 2000, author Susan Eaton accompanied the wonderfully wise 8-year-old she calls Jeremy Otero on a journey to the library in downtown Hartford.

After discovering that he can actually take home the sole remaining copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," Jeremy can barely contain his delight as he profusely thanks the children's librarian: "You can't know how much this all means to me today!" But there is one more discovery to be made that afternoon. On his way back to the cramped apartment in the dangerous neighborhood where he lives with his grandmother, his aunt, a brother, and two cousins, he stumbles upon a statue of Hartford's favorite adopted son and begins to read the inscription: "One of the nation's most celebrated authors, Mark Twain lived in Hartford at the peak of his writing career , from 1871 to 1891. About Hartford, Twain wrote: 'Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see, this is the chief . . . You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here.' "

"He lived here?" Jeremy asks. "In Hartford?"

"A century ago," writes Eaton, "Mark Twain's Hartford had been one of the nation's most prosperous cities. Jeremy's Hartford, ringed by suburban wealth just beyond its borders, was America's second-poorest big city." Or to put it another way, Hartford was "the poorest city in the wealthiest state in the richest country on earth."

In "The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial," Eaton (the research director of Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School) weaves the story of Jeremy; his teacher, Lois Luddy; and the all-black and Latino Simpson -Waverly Elementary School, in Hartford's North End, with the story of Sheff v. O'Neill, the landmark Connecticut school desegregation litigation filed in 1989 . In a few deft chapters, she traces the history of Hartford: the migration of rural blacks and Puerto Ricans, discriminatory housing and zoning ordinances, bank redlining, the rise of the suburbs, and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Eaton is at her best, however, when she is in the classroom (or in the lunchroom, the library, or on the bus), capturing the quiet determination and creativity of Luddy -- a Catholic schoolgirl who follows the rules but schemes for ways to go around them -- and her students. Outside of school they struggle with rampant neighborhood violence; inside they struggle with onerous testing regimes imposed by an endless parade of "turnaround experts" who seek to prove that a segregated school with a high concentration of poverty can perform as well as the suburban schools a few miles away. Eaton catches everything as the students question Luddy about that seemingly faraway country -- the suburbs -- just down the road, as they ask whether a pond next to a suburban school is the ocean.

Eaton spent four years at the Simpson-Waverly School. By the time she arrived, the Sheff case had been underway for more than a decade. With federal courts all but closed off after a pair of unfavorable desegregation decisions in the 1970s, the 19 plaintiffs and their families had sought relief in state court, arguing that the racial, ethnic, and class segregation that characterized their schools violated the Connecticut constitution. Although they lost before the trial court in 1993, three years later, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a decision that not only seemed to breathe life into the promise once held out by Brown v. Board of Education, but also tackled the de facto segregation caused by school district lines defined by town boundaries .

Chief Justice Ellen Peters declared that "students in Hartford suffer daily from the devastating effects that racial and ethnic isolation, as well as poverty, have had on their education. . . . The needy schoolchildren of Hartford have waited long enough."

Unfortunately, the court failed to prescribe a remedy, preferring instead to turn the matter back to the suburban-dominated legislature. "The needy schoolchildren of Hartford" would continue to wait. As the years went on, Hartford became an even more highly segregated school district. In 1989, when Sheff was filed, it was 89 percent black and Latino; by 2003, when a modest settlement was reached, the district was 94 percent minority. The settlement called for the expansion of inter-district magnet schools, as well as the expansion of an existing voluntary school choice program that sent students across school district lines. By June 2007, 30 percent of Hartford's students were to be attending integrated schools. That goal is unlikely to be met.

There are heroes in Room E4, in the Simpson- Waverly School, and among the lawyers and plaintiffs who brought the Sheff case and kept it going for so many years. But Eaton has not written that kind of a book; there are no happy endings here. Instead she has written a book that goes to the heart of who we are as a nation, of what we mean when we ask our children to pledge allegiance to the flag of "one nation, indivisible." In her introduction, Eaton writes that what had initially drawn her to Simpson - Waverly were a few years of promising test scores, prompting her to approach the school's principal "with a predictable, heartfelt, and naive inquiry: 'How might we transfer your successful model to other urban schools?' "

As she eventually came to see, she had asked too narrow a question and found her way to a "tougher, less fashionable question." Is school reform -- "the contemporary, bipartisan goal of quantifiable standards and better test scores" -- a real substitution for the promise of Brown and Sheff? Or is it a return to the doctrine of "separate but equal"?

Barbara Belejack is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. She grew up in Connecticut.