Three Key Moments In The Hartford Integration Episode Of “This American Life”

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There’s lots to admire about the latest This American Life episode focused on stealthy school integration efforts in Hartford, Connecticut.  But I must admit I found myself cringing at a couple of moments and much of the time comparing this week’s episode unfavorably to its immediate predecessor, which focused on accidental integration near Ferguson (Missouri) — until the end, at least, when it all turned around for me.

Like many others, I’m so grateful to the show for returning to such an important issue as education — again. Introducing listeners to  the largely successful integration efforts that are going on in Hartford is a valuable accomplishment in and of itself: “It used to be that 11% of Hartford students were in integrated schools. Now it’s nearly half. But the trick to the whole thing is: convince white families it’s in their self- interest to go to integrated schools.”

This latest segment does a great job helping folks understand the notion that court cases in and of themselves aren’t enough, and that marketing, innovation and incentives are what makes that Hatford program work — not mandates or a call to self-sacrifice — to the extent that it does work. 

But the segment — narrated by producer Chana Joffe-Walt — lacks a central person or family to care about, who’s life or job or children are being affected in real time by what’s being discussed. Right from the start, we meet several fascinating characters, including civil rights lawyer John Brittain and Hartford deseg promoter Enid Rey. We meet a family (Sarah and Ryan) who are sending their child to a Hartford school, despite their own lack of familiarity with the neighborhood or integrated educational experiences.

It’s not nearly as vivid or compelling as last week’s mother-daughter pair (Nedra and Mah’Ria) in terms of intimacy and personal stakes (though I did have some issues with that episode, as well). Some of the early depictions of Brittain and Rey seemed superficial.

The segment pushes back until the very end the predicament that the Hartford effort is currently experiencing – and the intense frustrations within the civil rights community with the Obama administration’s lackluster efforts on integration.

Deep and serious as they are, these flaws are mitigated by the overall complexity of the show’s depiction of school integration efforts and several strong moments towards the end:

There’s a great moment when deseg promoter Rey finally reveals out loud just how hard it is to sell the district to white parents (who can afford to pay for preschool and can always go back to their neighborhood school). “It’s sucks!” she says, grabbing Joffe-Walt’s microphone. We see her as a person, then, after having only been allowed to see her as a marketing machine beforehand. 

There’s also a moment in the last minutes of the show when Brittain describes the feelings of surprise and betrayal he feels when he finds out that diversity isn’t going to be in the Obama administration’s massive school reform package. “I felt I was punched in the gut, and I lost my breath,” he says. (Then we get to hear EdSec Arne Duncan tell the reporters that it would have been too hard to get anything diversity-related passed as part of Race to the Top. This seems seems pretty hard to believe given all the other things — teacher effectiveness, SIG, Common Core — that were included in the package). 

Last but not least, there’s also a brilliant, brief moment of journalistic candor at the end:

“We like the idea that this is not a race issue,” says Joffe-Walt, addressing the possibility that fixing segregated schools “feels better” than integrating them (which requires focusing on race, and action on the part of white parents). “By ‘we’ I mean I’m talking for my people.”

“Yeah, and mine,” adds Glass.

“That’s the end right there — that’s the end,” laughs New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah Jones, who has joined them.

Listen to the first of the two summer education episodes here, and tell me how you think they compare. You can now read a transcript of the Ferguson segment here.  

For a substantive look, I’m asking Brittain and Rey and others if there are other issues related to the reporting or accuracy of the piece, and will let you know what if anything I turn up.

Related posts: Some Questions About This American Life’s School Integration StoryChicago Teacher Critiques “This American Life”.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.