1969: What Did Hartford Schools Need?

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Hartford was in chaos by the end of the Civil Rights Movement. With racial tensions reaching a climax with the Black Panthers being hunted down by the FBI and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s recent assassination, people thought that a race war was imminent. Nevertheless, in 1969, Butch Lewis, a member of the Black Panthers, took part in interviewing a variety of Hartford residents from different racial, ethnic, social, and occupational backgrounds as a means of allowing Hartford to give voice to its own problems. While many issues were called into question, the failing Hartford school system emerged in every conversation with students, a principal, and even a superintendent of schools, from students to a principal, and even a member of the Hartford Board of Education. However, though these individuals discussed their views on the reasoning behind the failure of Hartford schools, it was their overarching advocacy for community and communication tying together their solutions for the schools. It was obvious that it would take more than any one actor or power to save the Hartford school system from collapse.

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Two high school girls, blonde student (left) and brunette student (right) (Source)

     We start with two high school students, one blonde and the other brunette, who are first asked what they think the “real purpose” of school is. The blonde high student started the response by simply stating that schools create people that will be “another little…wheel to make the whole machine move”. Though short in words, the blonde student’s recognition of the deficit of schools teaching students meaningful lessons outside of career preparation summarizes one side of the arguments in these interviews: Students are not being given a relevant education they can feel invested in, thus they are disinterested. The brunette student elaborates this point by echoing the blonde student’s boredom with the education being provided to her. This student sees schools as a way of learning, but not what she wants. She is taught what the schools and society tell her to learn, leaving no room for discussion of a difference in opinion. The successful students had been “trained and they’re tamed and they’ll do the work…” But,, in order to win at the game the school apparently plays with its students, people need to play it instead of trying to find a way out of it. But instead of complying, the brunette explains to the interviewer that her most significant learning her experience has nothing to do with a “geometry or history or anything”, but instead developed from a moment of defiance against a teacher–Instead of following order to pick up a piece of paper, as students usually did when told to, the brunette student questioned the teacher and her ability to pick the garbage up herself, earning her a visit to the Dean of Girls. Perceived as an act of insubordination, the brunette student was suspended. The administration placed blamed on her, forcing her to apologize to the teacher she defied, instead of listening to her pleads to be humanized: “I don’t care about your standards, I don’t care have the same values as you, just listen to me you know, just let me be a person”.

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Medel Bair, Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools (Source)

     The two high schools girl’ concerns had not fallen on deaf ears: Medel Bair, the superintendent of schools in Hartford, agreed with the girls that students were losing faith in schools, but, as he elaborates in his interview, the reasons behind the loss of faith in the school system originate not from teacher incompetence, but a lack of communication from the different players that should be contributing to the Hartford children’s education. Bair, having been superintendent in wealthy cities such as Lexington, Massachusetts and Carmel, California, had no experience within cities such as Hartford, where the exodus of white families to the surrounding suburbs contributed to the decrease of white students in Hartford schools and the increase of minority students, in this case black and Puerto Rican students. With this shift in population, Bair states, he “found the pressure people – the people who wanted good schools – moved out of the city. They now lived in West Hartford, they lived in Simsbury, they lived in Glastonbury, and the net result was that we don’t have people who know how to put the pressure on the superintendent of schools”. Thus, Bair begins to separate and distribute the blame the two high school girls placed on the school system.

     It is not just the schools that needed to change, the community and its people must have wanted the schools to improve and place enough pressure on Hartford schools to create change. This pressure, he continues, must come from the leaders of the community, eventually reaching Bair himself and when the community becomes unsatisfied with the superintendent, he will be fired. It is as this point he “ought pin a medal on and say I’ve done a good job”, saying this with an underlying tone of awareness that he is an obstacle that parents must face in order to improve the schools. Echoing the two high school girls, Bair explains that students are losing faith not in education, but the type of irrelevant schooling the Hartford school system is providing them, also hinting that this is due to the agency and independence Hartford students have developed in response to single parent households and the challenges that came with it. However, it was not just the students with “a little ego problem” causing the lack of faith, but also the lack of faith teachers have in their own students’ ability to learn: “Neither one of the pair have faith in the other”. Finally, Bair shares the the final key problem and solution to the Hartford school system, providing what occurred at the Barbour school as an example. All members of this school, parents, teachers, and students alike, were disinterested in the school, making it “kind of a dead school”. What turned the situation around was that the Barbour school “became heavily involved with community people and the community moved into the school so that in essence they became one.” When the Barbour school began to engage in the affairs and issues of the community, and vice versa, a lackluster school evolved into the golden standard of schools Hartford needed.

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Isabel Blake, Resident of Hartford (Source)

Bair explained that the families who cared about changing schools all moved to suburbia, leaving behind the people who did not care, let alone fight, for the education of Hartford students. Isabel Blake, a Hartford-born black parent parent of ten, stood as a counter-example to what Bair believed. She was raised by her mother, who Mrs. Blake says “never learned to read or write, but the things that she knew, she knew them well”. As her mother had been taught, a deep appreciation for obtaining an education was ingrained into Mrs. Blake—”There was no other way to live in our house”. Mrs. Blake also mentions that, during her days in public school, she had a teacher that taught all her students the same thing, that “respect gets respect”, echoing one of Bair’s observation  to the problems Hartford schools have. Mrs. Blake, again, serves as a counter-example to Bair’s observations, raising her children with the same lesson of respect she was raised taught as a child. Continuing on from reminiscing about her childhood, she expresses her concerns on the racial inequalities that surface within the Hartford school system, though first taking the chance to say that though she hates white people and does not care whether white teachers hate her or her children, “All I want from teachers is education.  When they can’t do that, they’re no good.” She recognizes the failure of the Hartford school system, one that needs as many effective teachers as possible. If white teachers needed to be tolerated because they are the ones actually teaching the children, then in Mrs. Blake’s mind, sacrifices needed to be made for the betterment of oneself. Noting that racial inequalities are not restricted to the black/white dichotomy, she expresses her concern for Puerto Rican children as well as black children needing to get represented in schools in the form of language and ethnic accommodations. Basically, she would like to have more attention given to the underrepresented minorities that make up the city of Hartford, again beginning to echo Bair’s opinions. Though it should be noted that the difference between Bair’s and Mrs. Blake’s opinion on minority student representation is that while Bair simply acknowledges that these students, especially the Puerto Rican children, will face hardships during their students careers, Mrs. Blake advocates for the language accommodation of Puerto Rican students. Therefore, while Mrs. Blake’s opinion of the white population is negative, she is willing to make changes to the school system in the form of integration and representation if it means Hartford students, including her own children, are provided with a rich, thorough, engaging, and sustainable schooling.

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John Barnes, Principal of Vine Street school (Source)

While Bair incorrectly assumed parents that stayed in Hartford had no interest in their children’s education and schooling, his observation of the success of the Barbour school began to touch upon what the two high schools girls and Mrs. Blake were advocating for: a school system in which the community and school are not separate entities that reside in two differing spaces, but bodies of influence that need to work hand-in-hand in order to provide Hartford a relevant, effective education. John Barnes, a principal in a Hartford school, immediately recognized this separation issue. Reflecting the sentiments of the high school girls, Greg, one of the students attending Barnes’ school, felt school simply “place to come to during the school year. And despite all our efforts, and I guess I have to admit our efforts were to make him conform, he’s resisted and has been successful in resisting.” It is not just the older students that recognize the school system’s declining efficacy and relevance, but also the younger students such as Greg. Barnes openingly admits he feels there must be something that could be done in order to compensate for the Greg’s troubled home and create a suitable environment in which he “could function . . . reasonably well.” Barnes, having come from a suburban white school, recognizes that there are certain “traditions” schools follow, traditions that monitor the the way the students go to the bathroom to how the teachers teach their students. It is the latter which Barnes sees as critically troubling: “it’s woven into a very very complex pattern I’ve found, that attitudes of teachers, some of which are not overt, they’re not necessarily, you know, racist or whatever else.  They’re just people who have been trained to teach in a particular way, and may or may not have seen that this particular way is not terribly effective with this particular child or the children in this school.” Yet again, fault is placed to another portion of the school system, though in this case the fault is placed on the intricately woven structures of tradition within the school system, the ones contributing to the resistance to drastic change. Included in these traditions are the separation of school and community, keeping both bodies distinct and with incompatible purposes and goals. Thus, in order to improve Hartford schools, as the high school students, Bair, Mrs. Blake, and Barnes have elaborated on, again, is the integration of school and community into connected bodies. Nevertheless, Barnes, like the principal of Barbour school, turns theory into practice by using what Bair referred to as “pressure”. With the help of Horace Bushnell Church, Barnes put pressure on the Board of Education, eventually convincing the Board to provide positions for seven classroom aides. Additionally, the Clay Hill Mothers, a group described as “militant”, also decided to take it upon themselves to the provide cookies and crackers to the students of Vine Street schools as snack in order to supplement the school’s budget, which could only provide the students with milk. Barnes explains that the reason behind this group’s willingness to donate to the school is due to the school finally acquiring aides, a demand they had been discussing with the school previously. The acquisition of aides symbolized the school’s effort to begin changing and unweaving the traditions holding it back from changing, a message that the community had been heard and so the community will hear back. Barnes knew that, though these were just the beginning of transformation for the school, he had set in motion the chance to push the school to even greater educational limits.


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James Guerrero

Likes: long walks on the beach Dislikes: educational inequality, peanuts

2 thoughts on “1969: What Did Hartford Schools Need?”

  1. Readers: please comment on the following questions, and feel free to add your own.
    1) Does the essay tell a compelling story from the perspective of people at that point in time?
    2) Does the essay make insightful claims about the past, supported with persuasive evidence?
    3) Does this blend of text and digitized sources make you think about the topic in new ways?

  2. Thank you for pulling together these perspectives of students, community members, and faculty from the Hartford public school system in 1969! You did a good job interweaving the anecdotes from these interviews to express both the discontent with the school system and the inklings of solutions that they were able to begin to implement.

    Your introduction and thesis statement could use a little more clarity. This will help with your flow and help you to come up with a stronger conclusion. I think it’s all in there, just needs to be stated a bit more directly. You end with Barnes but don’t bring this back to the overarching claim I believe you are saying: that it was crucial for the community to be an integral part of the function and support of the neighborhood school.

    I love the stills you pull from the footage. Is there a way to embed any clips from the footage? There are two other interviews that relate directly to education, that I think would make your claims even more dynamic. But I am not sure if they are public yet and perhaps that is why they weren’t included. We can discuss this more in person.

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