really cares about the children of Simpson-Waverly should be looking
at the best ideas to bring Simpson-Waverly together. The children
are going to suffer.”
- JOHN MOTLEY President of the Travelers
Foundation, which gives generously to Hartford’s schools
January 16, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff
When students at Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School
have conflicts, their teachers have them walk the "peace path" to air their grievances
and make up.
Now, it seems, some of the teachers and their new principal could use a walk
down that path to bridge what one teacher is calling "a racial divide."
For years, the school in Hartford's Northeast neighborhood has been a singular
point of pride in a famously struggling district. But the divide is accumulating
costs: Veteran black and white teachers are talking about leaving the school
to escape the bad feelings, and some say their health is being affected.
The principal, Dee Cole, is feeling besieged as she tries to turn a good elementary
school into a successful magnet school. The president of the Travelers Foundation
is backing away from his plan to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into equipment
and grants for its teachers. And some are predicting that the all-important Connecticut
Mastery Test scores may plummet.
Since October, parents and now a teacher have stood up at school board meetings
and asserted claims of racism: A picture of a former black principal was temporarily
taken down in the library. A black teacher was not invited with her class to
an assembly to which white teachers and their classes were invited. A black teacher
had to apply for one of two special positions at the school while a white teacher
was quickly appointed to the other slot. And white teachers were hired to fill
all nine vacancies at the school this year, among other complaints.
Tammy Bradley, chairman of the local NAACP education committee, was called in
to investigate, but said none of the teachers with complaints would talk to her.
She concluded that allegations of racism could not be substantiated. Superintendent
of Schools Robert Henry has now ordered his own investigation.
Many gripes appear to be based on misunderstandings, although everyone, including
Cole, agrees that failing to fill vacancies with a diverse staff was a mistake.
But the string of accusations about a racially charged atmosphere at the city's
only federally recognized Blue Ribbon School has alarms ringing all over the
"Anybody who really cares about the children of Simpson-Waverly should be looking
at the best ideas to bring Simpson-Waverly together," said John Motley, president
of the Travelers Foundation, which gives generously to Hartford's schools. As
it stands, he said, he won't invest in the school unless the atmosphere improves. "The
students are going to suffer," he said.
So far, it does not appear that the children are suffering. During a recent visit
to the school, classrooms were quiet and children were focused and enthusiastic
about their work. Lines passing through the hallways were orderly and hushed.
As Cole walked down the hall or into classrooms, students gravitated toward her
for hugs. And on a day set aside for teacher training, everybody showed up and
sat together at one large table.
Still, signs of the fault line are evident. In the fall, three black teachers
called in sick on a day when some of them were to accompany their classes to
a performance at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Some of their peers
suspect it may have been a protest. The field trip went on as planned.
Both black and white teachers complain about teachers of the other race leaving
them out of the planning for events or failing to invite them altogether.
When veteran teachers returned to Simpson-Waverly in the fall, they were feeling
some loss: Their legendary principal of 17 years had retired, and so had about
a third of the teachers. Gone were many educators who had transformed the little
school of about 375 students, many of whom live in poverty, into a model that
federal education officials are touting as a prototype for other cities to replicate.
Now, the very structure of the school was changing, as it was being transformed
into an interdistrict magnet school.
At a school that serves a student body that is 96.5 percent minority, Cole, who
is white, replaced the school's legendary principal, James Thompson, who is black.
Henry said Cole, who grew up in Hartford and attended Hartford schools, was selected
because she is a proven leader who is passionate about her mission to develop
Simpson-Waverly as a classical magnet school.
Right away, though, the slights and misunderstandings materialized. The all-white
hires for the nine vacancies rankled, although the black teachers interviewed
for this story said they like the new teachers personally. The number of black
certified staff went down by three, leaving a ratio of 19 white teachers to eight
black. (There are also two long-term substitutes who are black.)
Cole said the human resources department didn't send any black applicants for
her to interview. But parents in this mostly black neighborhood and black teachers
were deeply disturbed by the lack of diversity in the hirings. The atmosphere
grew charged, and oversights and mistakes that might have been overlooked in
a less sensitive environment became rallying points for a campaign to oust Cole.
"The racial divide has devastated the working environment in our school," teacher
Doris Price told the school board.
Many of the teachers never shared the personal slights they perceived until now.
At the core of the black teachers' complaints is a sense that they are not respected.
Lou Oliver, who has been teaching in the school for about 30 years and has for
years been a "master mentor," guiding new teachers, said she was hurt when she
told Cole before the start of the school year that she planned to attend a training
session for mentors. As Oliver tells it, Cole said skeptically, "You want to
be a master mentor?" and told her that two other teachers, both white, would
be the mentors. Oliver said Cole changed her mind after one of the white teachers
said the school needed three mentors.
Cole said that she doesn't recall the exchange because it was in the crush of
preparations for the first day of school. But she said she has tremendous respect
for Oliver, calling her the "guru" of teaching in the seminar style that is integral
to the school's classical magnet theme. "She's got the respect of the whole staff
and I would never do anything to hurt her intentionally," Cole said.
Some white teachers perceive slights, too. One veteran teacher complained that
some black teachers she had long considered her friends won't talk to her and
won't explain why.
A new first-grade teacher, Janet Woof, who is white, said she was hurt when she
took her class to a Thanksgiving assembly and found that Price's children were
wearing special headbands they had made. Woof said that she and the other new
teacher had asked Price if they should do anything special for the assembly and
that Price had said no. Both teachers felt that their children would have liked
to have worn headbands, too.
Price said that she didn't think to mention the headbands because a handout from
the music teacher had suggested making them.
Even the idea of who uses which doors in the school has led to hurt feelings.
Price said a white teacher offended her by telling Price, in front of her students,
that she was not allowed to dismiss her class through a side door of the school.
Price said she was dismayed by the challenge to her authority in front of her
students. While Cole was not involved in the incident, Price threw some blame
her way, saying Cole created an environment in which black teachers are not respected.
The incident cast a spotlight on Cole's new policy restricting specific groups
of students to designated doors, a policy some black teachers and parents said
evoked segregation in the Old South. Neighborhood children must enter the front
door, while students on buses go through a side door. The buses carry students
of varied races and ethnicities from around the city, as well as suburban magnet
Cole said she instituted the policy to prevent the students exiting buses from
wandering through the parking lot and risking injury on their way to the front
door. The white teacher who confronted Price about the side door was in charge
of monitoring that door, Cole said.
Some of the estrangement may be the product of the transition to a magnet school. "This
is the birthing of a magnet school - this has been very, very painful," said
Lois Luddy, a former Hartford teacher of the year.
In September, for instance, some neighborhood kindergartners who registered late
were turned away while suburban children were admitted. The next month, the school
added another kindergarten class and invited the neighborhood children back.
Marcus Jennings, who teaches third grade, complained that some of the special
programs the school was to have offered when it became a magnet, such as Latin
and an extended day with enrichment programs, have not materialized.
Cole said that she's rolling out the changes slowly, but that all the special
magnet features will be phased in.
The trouble at Simpson-Waverly is rife with ironies. For starters, some of Cole's
most staunch supporters are black: Henry; Motley, of the Travelers Foundation;
Lead Principal Vivian Richardson; Gerald Martin, president of the principal's
union; Jacquelyn Hardy, the district's director of community involvement; and
the school's PTO leaders.
It is ironic, too, that Thompson recommended Cole to succeed him. Thompson continues
to work for the district as a consultant, but hasn't helped Cole negotiate the
thicket of controversy. He said he has chosen to stay away because it was hard
for him to make the decision to retire and he doesn't want to be involved further
in the school.
Finally, it is ironic that the school's theme for the year is respect and personal
responsibility. "When slights are felt, why don't we practice what we put the
children through?" Luddy said. "We put the children through the peace path where
they have to say, `This is what I feel.' It becomes hypocritical."
Henry, Luddy, Cole and others complain that the offended black teachers refused
many requests to explain their grievances. Price said the teachers were hesitant
to work through channels because, before he heard them out, Henry told teachers
that he would not replace Cole.
Michael Rufus, vice president of the PTO and a strong Cole supporter, said the
adults are letting their own disputes get in the way of running the school. "If
we can't work out our issues, we can't teach our kids to work out their issues," he
Motley offered to mediate an end to the conflict, though he warned: "I'm not
neutral. I like Dee."
With little chance that Cole will be removed, Price said reconciliation could
be possible. Cole "needs to acknowledge there are things that she's done to put
us in this position," Price said.
"She could start with a `Maybe I did this wrong,'" Oliver said.
Cole said she's eager to work through the problems with the teachers: "We have
to start talking. I want to mend. I so want to mend."
Henry said that healing this rift is not optional. "We can't afford to struggle
against each other. We need to struggle for the children," he said. He noted
the irony of this crisis coming so close to the celebration of Martin Luther
King Jr.'s birthday.
Just as King dreamed that his children would be judged not by the color of their
skin but by the content of their character, Henry said, Cole has the same right.
He said he assigned her to Simpson-Waverly because of her energy, commitment,
skill and courage.
"Most folks would shy away from taking a winning school and trying to make it
better," Henry said.
Cole said that when she was co-principal of one of Hartford's lowest-performing
schools, there was praise for any small gain. Making a good school great has
been a tougher assignment, she said.
"Teaching and learning has no color," Henry said. "This cannot be the legacy
of Simpson-Waverly. What students see at Simpson-Waverly will send a strong message.
The question is: What will that message be?"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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