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Learning Division

“Anybody who 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 Writer

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 city.

"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.

Hurt Feelings

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 school students.

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 said.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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