“The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil, knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; and contact between pupils, and between teachers and pupil, on the basis of social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge; facilities for education, equipment and housing, and the promotion of such social and extra-curricular activities as will tend to induct the child into life.”
WEB Du Bois
One day during second grade at Kearny Elementary School, I was called out of class to go to the office. This would have been sometime during the 1964-5 school year. I was introduced to a white man in a dark suit and told to sit at at table. I don’t remember what the man looked like or what he said – only that he gave some games to play and puzzles to complete. Some of them were on paper, and others involved blocks and other manipulatives. I think it was afterward that my parents told me that I had been given an IQ test, that I had scored well, and that I was now being placed on the waiting list for admission to a special school called Masterman. Masterman was described to me as a special school for children like me – children who liked to think, read and ask questions about the world. While the previous post in this series was intended as a broad sketch of those factors in my early life that laid the groundwork for my interest in writing, this post focuses more on the barriers to equal educational opportunity that existed in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, and reflects on one particular intervention in my own early schooling that I suspect was crucial to my future academic progress.
At the time that my entry into Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School was first discussed, the school was only five years old. It was named for the founder and first leader of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, and according to a brief New York Times article announcing her death in 1958, she left the School District of Philadelphia a $10,000 trust fund “to help bright pupils finish high school.” Masterman School opened its doors the next year. (Masterman obit)
Mrs. Masterman’s gift appears to have been made necessary in part because of the miserliness of Add Anderson, the District’s business manager from the 1920s until 1962. Reportedly, Anderson’s first priority was to keep taxes down, and as a result, schools throughout the city were poorly staffed and maintained. More than one scholar quoted Peter Binzen’s description of Anderson as, “a penny pincher all his life…a ruthless man filled with contempt for ‘educators.'” Anderson presided over the school district at a time when the number of black children in the district increased substantially because of the Great Migration. Wealthier whites abandoned the schools and the city in droves, and white working-class ethnics were made to feel as if they had been left holding the bag, fomenting a resentment that would spark the rise of tough cop mayor Frank Rizzo.
Structural disparities.Although the district schools had been legally integrated since since 1881, they were functionally segregated: black students were consistently assigned to the most dilapidated schools and fewer resources were directed to those schools. Tracking systems within schools led to black students being disproportionately assigned to “RE” (retarded educable) classes. (References) Scholar Lisa Levenstein recalls a 1960 Philadelphia Bulletin series entitled, “The Slow Learners,” in which schools superintendent Allen Wetter blamed black children for their plight, calling the children of the Great Migration “culturally deprived slow learners.” The series referred to these “slow learners” as “unlovable characters” responsible for “a tragic deterioration of our schools.” (Levenstein)
In December, 1966, when I was in fourth grade, change came to the Philadelphia schools in the form of a new superintendent named Dr. Mark R. Shedd. According to a New York Times story announcing his appointment, (Reference) Shedd was the 40-year-old Harvard-trained superintendent of the Englewood, New Jersey public schools. He had won praise for negotiating the integration of the public schools there after years of sit-ins and marches. Shedd would bring experimentation to the Philadelphia schools, and become an advocate for disadvantaged students.
Ever since the release of the 1966 study on Equality of Educational Opportunity by sociologist James Coleman, education researchers have been debating the degree to which these kinds of racial disparate investments and attitudes matter. Coleman’s study pioneered the use of regression analysis of large-scale data sets in order to understand the multiplicity of factors that affect school performance. Coleman found family dynamics and the opportunity to attend an integrated school were stronger determinants of success for students of lower socio-economic status than the state of school facilities or teacher training. Subsequent analysis of the data from that study, as well as subsequent research, yielded more nuanced conclusions. Among those conclusions was the view that smaller classes (which presumably allow more teacher attention to students) and particular kinds of resource investments can positively affect educational outcomes, especially for African American children. I am reminded of this as I recall a small intervention by one of my teachers at Kearny that was, I suspect, crucial to my subsequent academic success. It was the moment that I still recall with some emotion, nearly half a century later.
Mrs. Jefferson’s “sympathetic touch”
My recollection was that I was enthusiastic about the idea of going to a new school. Although I had warm memories of first grade at Kearny, by second grade I was already feeling out of place. I had started first grade in Mrs. Hayes’ class, where I remembered a lot of picture books and finger painting. After a few weeks, I was moved down the hall to Mrs. Marie Jefferson’s class, where the children were already reading Dick and Jane books. I could sound out letters, but I did not know how to read words yet. (Sonia Manzano, the actress and writer who plays the character Maria on Sesame Street, bears such an uncanny and poignant resemblance to Mrs. Jefferson as I remember her.)
Seeing my plight, Mrs. Jefferson had me come to her desk at the back of the room when the other children were reading silently. She sat me on her lap, opened a Dick and Jane book, and asked me to read to her. I told her I could only sound out letters. She asked me to do that and pointed to a word. “O-H,” I said. “Not ‘o-h,'” she responded. “Oh. The “H” is silent.” We “read” together in this way for a little while longer, and I went back to my seat with the feeling that I had been let in on an incredible mystery.
After that, there was daily reading at home, the arrival of a set of Britannica Junior Encyclopedias, and regular exposure to children’s literature alongside the sessions spent reading Shakespeare and Plato aloud with my father. (A conversation with my father about those sessions is forthcoming. Suffice to say that it bore many similarities to Chicago educator Marva Collins’ use of the the Socratic method in urban classrooms.)
So while I attended a school where teachers could give us little more than love, my father and stepmother created an incredibly rich intellectual environment for me. These were the things that, in retrospect, probably prepared me academically for Masterman, even as they made me the odd child out at school. For me, going to Masterman promised that I would finally find other kids like me. Educator Salome Thomas-El, who attended Masterman for 5-8 grade in the late 1970s, recalls his own sense of dislocation as he tried to negotiate between the culture at Masterman and that of his inner-city neighborhood:
“I never felt that I was as good as many of my [Masterman] peers, or that I belonged there, or that I was part of [Masterman.]…The kids I knew and liked were still back in the inner-city.
“Each school day, as they went in one direction, I took the bus and went a different way. By my second year at Masterman, I felt strange. I didn’t feel comfortable at Masterman, and yet I no longer belonged with my old friends.” (Thomas-El)
This feeling of dislocation strikes me as a natural companion for child sent on a journey across the boundaries inscribed by race, class, gender, age and geography – what the late newspaper publisher Robert Maynard called the “fault lines” of American culture. It was a journey made by thousands of black children between the 1950 and 1970s – children integrating schools with or without federal troops, court orders, or civil rights marches. We did not face dogs, hoses or jeering crowds as we entered schools such as Masterman, and except for one teacher, I don’t recall any instances of racism there, but we were crossing barriers nonetheless. Masterman, and later, Girls’ High, would also teach me that black children weren’t the only ones facing obstacles to academic achievement. It was there that I would begin to be introduced to the frustrations experienced by the white ethnic families in Philadelphia who had, they thought, played by the rules of immigration and assimilation only to see those rules change overnight.
What I would come to understand in later years is that Masterman not only afforded me an opportunity for a superior education – it was an opportunity to be socialized into an intellectual community. Without the sympathetic touch of Mrs. Jefferson and her colleagues at Kearny, and the reinforcement I received at home, it’s very possible that it’s an opportunity that I would have wasted.
- “Mrs. John Masterman.” New York Times (1923-Current file); Mar 8, 1958; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007) pg. 17
- Sources for Peter Binzen’s description of Add Anderson and racial disparities in the Philadelphia school district: Paul Lyons, The people of this generation: The rise and fall of the New Left in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 2003. p. 15; and Lisa Levenstein, A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia UNC Press, April, 2009. p. 125. Levenstein details the policies that shunted black students into inferior schools, and the scapegoating of black families for the subsequent poor performance of black students on pages 126-137.
- Levenstein, p. 137
- Equality of Educational Opportunity: A 40-Year Retrospective
Adam Gamoran and Daniel A. Long, WCER Working Paper No. 2006-9 December 2006, 27 p.
- Thomas-El, Salome and Cecil Murphrey. I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City. New York: Kensington Publishing. 2004, p. 26
- “Englewood Educator Named Head of Philadelphia Schools.” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1966. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007)