After a decade in which the minority population of Hartford's suburbs doubled, the region remains one of the most segregated in the nation for Latinos, according to the Census Bureau's most extensive study ever of residential segregation.

Blacks in metropolitan Hartford are slightly more segregated by neighborhood than Latinos, the census study found. But because blacks tend to be more segregated in U.S. cities and suburbs, metro Hartford's segregation ranking for blacks was significantly better - 24th of 43 - in 2000.

Among Latinos, the Northeast has emerged as the region where Latinos remain the most highly segregated, and in most cases, that segregation is getting worse.

The Hartford metropolitan area - a 58-town, 1.2 million person region - was the fourth most segregated among 36 metros for Latinos in 2000, trailing only Providence, New York and Newark, according to the census study. The study tracked the distribution of people across the nation's largest cities and suburbs between 1980 and 2000.

During that period , Hispanics grew more segregated in most U.S. metro areas the Census Bureau studied, probably because of rapid foreign immigration in those regions.

But Greater Hartford bucked that trend. Between 1980 and 2000, only three of the metro areas studied by the Census Bureau - San Antonio, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., and Miami - experienced higher rates of Latino integration than Greater Hartford. In contrast, most Northeast metropolitan areas, including Providence, New York and Boston, saw significant increases in Latino segregation.

Fernando Betancourt, director of the legislature's Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, said economic advancement has given some Latinos access to new neighborhoods.

"Still, I am very aware of the incredible concentration of Latinos in urban areas, and how poverty correlates with that fact," he said.

And some experts argued that metro Hartford's relatively high Latino segregation standing is the more significant measure to consider than a modest trend toward integration.

"I just don't think this is one of the places that Latinos did very well," said John Logan, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Albany who studies segregation. "My reading of Hartford is that as the Hispanic population grew substantially in the last 20 years, it remained very highly segregated, unusually segregated."

In a state where public schools are organized along neighborhood lines and town boundaries, neighborhood residential segregation isn't just a moral issue. It's a legal and financial one - especially with Connecticut facing a budget crisis and the prospect that it may need to spend even more on school desegregation because of the Sheff vs. O'Neill case.

The state Department of Education says Connecticut has authorized more than $1 billion to facilitate school desegregation since the 1997 verdict favoring the plaintiffs in the 13-year-old Sheff case, which charged that segregation was preventing minority students from receiving an equal education. The Sheff plaintiffs say those remedies are not sufficient.

Neither side would comment on their discussions, nor on how much money could be at stake. But one lawyer for the plaintiffs said that while the progress in neighborhood segregation was good news, the pace of change was too slow to mean much for school integration.

"That's like waiting for the glaciers to melt to put out a fire," said Dennis Parker, of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "You need to do something more quickly."

While a few suburbs near Hartford have many more black and Latino residents than a decade ago, Parker said many of Hartford's outlying suburbs are not becoming significantly more diverse.

"In fact, having schools that are not racially and ethnically isolated may speed the process of housing change, because the composition of the schools has an effect on where people choose to live," Parker said.

The 2000 Census counted about 114,000 Hispanics and 106,000 blacks in the Hartford metro area.

Many Latinos are highly concentrated in relatively few neighborhoods, almost all of them in either Hartford or New Britain; while blacks are most highly concentrated in Hartford, Bloomfield and Windsor.

Blacks and Latinos are about equally likely to live in neighborhoods where their own ethnic group constitutes more than half the population. About 30 percent of Latinos live in mostly Latino areas; about 33 percent of blacks live in mostly black neighborhoods.