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Groundbreaking Students, 40 Years Later

Participants Gather To Reminisce About Landmark School Integration Program

September 24, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

They're grown men now, but for a few moments Saturday, Gerald Waite and Tony Williams flashed back to fourth grade, when, as black children from Hartford, they were adjusting to life with white classmates in suburban South Windsor.

Waite, one of the first students in the landmark Project Concern school integration program 40 years ago, remembered some of the fights that erupted as a result of taunts from whites.

"Fourth grade was probably our toughest year as far as the racial stuff," Waite recalled as he and Williams spoke with Mary Carroll Kennedy, their fourth-grade teacher, at a reunion in Hartford of former Project Concern students and staff members.

After fourth grade, however, Williams added, "then we made friends. ... It really smoothed out."

Waite, Williams and Kennedy were among about two dozen people who gathered to reminisce about Project Concern, a program that survived financial problems in the 1980s and '90s and nearly closed down after being hailed as one of the nation's first voluntary school integration programs.

Saturday's reunion was a reminder of the long, difficult struggle to promote racial integration in Hartford. Some Hartford children now attend integrated magnet schools or enroll in suburban schools in a school choice program that evolved from Project Concern, but more than 90 percent of the students in the city's public schools are black or Hispanic, and most are poor.

"I don't think anything has changed in Hartford in 40 years. The issues and problems are still there," said Kennedy, who, after teaching in South Windsor, joined Project Concern as a teacher and then became its longtime director.

The program started in 1966 with 266 Hartford children bused to schools in Farmington, Manchester, Simsbury, South Windsor and West Hartford. It is no longer called Project Concern, but today a similar program known as Open Choice enrolls more than 1,000 minority children from Hartford in 27 suburban towns.

The Open Choice program, an outgrowth of Project Concern, is part of the court settlement three years ago of the long-running Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation lawsuit, but some critics say the program has not expanded fast enough.

Many at Saturday's reunion said such voluntary choice programs have educational and social benefits.

"It gives [students] the opportunity to see a totally different education system and to interact with people of different cultures," Kennedy said.

Waite, now a mental health assistant at Cedarcrest Regional Hospital in Newington, said he got a better education than he would have in Hartford even though his South Windsor classes lacked things such as black history. "We heard nothing about Martin Luther King until he got killed. In social studies, we breezed over slavery."

Overall, Project Concern "had positives and negatives," he said, "but I think more positives."

Another Project Concern student, Concetta Lewis, was the only black third-grader in her class at Webster Hill School in West Hartford in 1966. She recalled arriving to class late one day and being insulted by a classmate. Later, the two became friends.

Lewis said Project Concern not only benefited black students but helped white children, too, by introducing them to children of different races and backgrounds. "It was an opportunity for me to show [them] we're OK," she said.

Trude Johnson Mero, one of the founders of Project Concern, said she was pleased to see the accomplishments of the program's former students.

Mero, who hosted Saturday's reunion at her home, attended segregated schools growing up in New Jersey. "Isolation," she said, "does not afford opportunities to live in the real America."

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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