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'Everybody's Friend' Goes Back To School

August 28, 2005

John Motley has been executive director for external affairs at the Hartford public schools since April. Before that, he was president of the St. Paul Travelers Connecticut Foundation. Commentary Editor Carolyn Lumsden spoke with him recently.

You used to give away $5 million a year. You were, as Hartford magazine said, "everybody's friend." Then you gave it up to work in what some people think of as the toughest school system in the state. What were you thinking?

I was thinking that if the school system is one of the toughest, then it's a huge challenge, and maybe I could make a little difference.

I absolutely loved the job I had at St. Paul Travelers. But it was not as much fun as you might think. Giving away money is fun. The part that is not fun is saying no 10 times for every yes. There were so few requests for funds that were undeserving.

Is the St. Paul Travelers Foundation still giving away as much money as when you were there?

The budget for 2005 is down from last year, but up substantially from when I started. The drop in the budget was related to several factors, primarily merger-related expenses and the awful hurricane season.

As profits of St. Paul Travelers grow, my hope is that the contributions to Hartford and Connecticut will grow. I'm confident that will happen.

The drop had absolutely nothing to do with my leaving. Zero connection.

You just decided you needed a sudden urgent drop in your income?

[Laughs.] Yes. My wife and I talked about that a lot, but her feeling was that if this is my passion, I should do it. So we'll tighten our belts.

Your job now is executive director for external affairs. You're supposed to do such stuff as get every child in Hartford into college?

Higher education is one of my passions. I'm the first person in my family to have finished college. I know what my going to college and graduating did for my family.

I have five brothers and sisters, two of which are Ph.D. college professors. My youngest sister, like myself, is a lawyer. One of my brothers has a bachelor's. Of the six of us, only one did not get a bachelor's, and even so, he is teaching at a technical college.

I went to segregated elementary and high schools. My elementary school had four rooms, but we only used two. One room had grades 1-4 and the other room had 5-8. Those of us who were in seventh and eighth grade taught in the lower grades. My older sister, as a result, decided she wanted to be a teacher.

When I was at Southern Illinois University, my older brother, my older sister and my father were all there together with me. [My father] was the first black male teacher in Springfield, Ill. Most recently, my wife finished her undergraduate degree at Central Connecticut State University.

I start almost every speech I give to any Hartford school, to the kids, "When are you going to college?" or "Where are you going to go to college?"

When I was at St. Paul Travelers, we adopted the Dwight Elementary School. One of the things I'm proudest of was a grant to send the entire school on a college field day. They have gone to CCSU two years in a row now.

Another initiative that I funded right before I left was to send every fifth-grader in Hartford public schools on a college field day, and that happened this year. Fifteen hundred kids to colleges. We can't start too early getting our kids aware of the need to go to college.

But how are you going to, in practical terms, do that in Hartford now? Is your job to raise money to run these programs?

There is already a lot of money going into various programs that will help get kids to college.

We have to continue to strengthen our curriculum. A huge amount of the education budget goes to curriculum. We've already raised the bar on that, including bringing on a new deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, LaVerne Terry.

Recently the mayor established a cabinet for young children. Jose Colon from the Hartford public school system has been named the director of that office. In Hartford, as in a lot of urban America, our kids, when they enter pre-K or K, start off behind and stay behind. The focus of the cabinet is to shift more of the emphasis to providing services from birth to 8 so that we can get ahead of this issue.

There were many kids in the graduating class last year who will be the first in their families to finish college, so we're still in that era when you can be first. They don't have any role models, or very few they can look up to and say, "My brother, my uncle, my father, my mother did it." So the pressure on them is huge. Not just entering college, but staying in college. The transition is a tough one. We need to do everything we can to help that. We need to make sure that when they graduate, they're ready. There is still a gap, not just here in Hartford but in the cities across the country - too many of our graduates aren't truly prepared for rigorous college work.

Roughly half the graduates of the Hartford public schools who go on to college go to community college, and the other half go into four-year colleges. I'm a huge fan of the community college system, but we need to get folks to understand that if you're a graduate of a two-year college, you're not finished. Enter now into the second leg of that, so you can get your bachelor's degree.

You're a lawyer, you've been in real estate, in the corporate environment happily giving away money. How does that translate into a public school environment? I would imagine it's been a not easy transition.

It's been an extremely easy transition in many ways. On my first day, I knew every single person who was assigned to work with me - every single person. I knew every member of the superintendent's senior cabinet and many members of his junior cabinet, the next level down. I knew probably 90 percent of the principals.

The tough part of the transition is that in business, quite frankly, we expect things to move faster. So it's a little frustrating for me sometimes that things can't move faster. There are reasons that they can't. Some of them are legal, some are contractual with the various bargaining units, some are the requirement that jobs be posted before you fill a position.

This is an extremely hard-working group of people. I wish more executives, for instance, would take advantage of "Principal for a Day." It would give a peek into what a principal's day is like. There are so many demands on a principal's time. I needed a nap once I finished my principal day.

I had no idea there were so many folks here in the central office who work the hours they do. There's a requirement that the senior cabinet be at every board of education meeting and the informational meeting. So after a long day, we go to meetings that begin at 5:30 and end after 9 p.m. A lot of the parental involvement activities are after work and weekends. People just do it week in and week out without complaint.

Can whites teach blacks?

Absolutely yes. And whites can teach Latinos. And blacks and Latinos can teach blacks, Latinos and whites. More important than race are competence, dedication, caring, cultural sensitivity and high expectations of teachers.

Blaming the race of teachers for low performance of schools or the achievement gap is a cop-out. Parents, students, caregivers, administrators and the community also have roles to play, and each must accept responsibility for encouraging and demanding higher student achievement.

We need greater parental and community involvement, and more attention to the inequality of health care, poor housing and job opportunities, crime, illiteracy and other poverty-related symptoms as they impact students.

Having said that, the sooner we get to a no-excuse environment, the better. Our dedicated teachers deserve our support (including professional development), respect and thanks so that they can focus on helping all students achieve at their highest potential.

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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