“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 3)

Continuing story of my teaching history at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH), 1956-1963

Then I got married in 1958.  Evenings which I had used for grading homework and preparing lessons and weekends for completing graduate papers were no longer as available as when I was single. Fatigue and the growing awareness that I could have a life outside of Glenville brought me face-to-face with choosing how to combine the demands of work and being with Barbara and eventually my two daughters, Sondra and Janice. Threading that needle was never easy for me as a teacher and later, as an administrator.

In seven years of teaching, I had created in fits and starts, with many stumbles, a home-grown history course than I had neither expected when I arrived at Glenville in 1956.  I was an unheralded, unknown classroom reformer creating a different American history course in a de facto segregated school.

I came to believe that any teacher could adopt and adapt lessons tailored to their students, especially economically disadvantaged students in segregated schools. My belief in engaging classroom materials turning around such students and schools grew out of those lessons I had created. If more teachers and schools did what I did, I believed, then urban schools would improve. Although my reform-driven belief turned out to be too narrow and too demanding of teachers given the working conditions they faced, the ideas I offered and practiced in my classrooms of getting students to connect the racial-inflected past to the present, I hoped would help my students understand what was happening in the South with Freedom Riders and student sit-ins in segregated restaurants and bus boycotts. Without fully knowing it myself, my belief in the power of education to reform society, as Dewey put it, lay behind the materials I developed and classroom activities I managed.  That is my small part in the civil rights movement.

In the next decade working in Washington, D.C. my work as a classroom reformer developing curriculum materials and lessons to engage minority students continued. Events, however, spilled over public schools. A generational and organizational split over Black Power reshaped the Civil Rights movement. Urban riots in Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit and other cities over police brutality, inadequate housing, few jobs, and segregated schools broke out year after year in the mid-1960s. Anti-Vietnam War protests spread. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead by a white sniper. Civil unrest—looting and fires–in over 100 cities leap-frogged across the nation. Governors and mayors called in the National Guard to quell disturbances and bring order to cities.

All of these events inexorably seeped into school lessons and activities. In these years, I began to see a much larger picture of the nexus between the worlds outside and inside schools and how the complexities of school reform stretched far beyond my students in one classroom.

Cardozo High School 1963-1967

After seven years at Glenville and going part-time for a doctorate in American history at Western Reserve–I had already written chapters for a dissertation on black leadership in Cleveland–two job offers came to me in 1963. One was to teach U.S. History at a Connecticut college with the understanding that I would complete my dissertation and another was to move to Washington, D.C. and work in a federally funded teacher-training project located in an all-Black high school.

The job was to be a “master teacher.” That is I would teach two classes of history and train four former Peace Corps Volunteers who had just returned from two years abroad in the craft of teaching social studies. Yes, I was ambitious, I wanted recognition and approval but I had a family now and was uncertain what to do with these competing offers.  I was at a fork in my career and had to choose.

I took the one-year job in 1963 at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C.. My previous work in developing racial content in instructional materials at Glenville, I would guess, helped the director hire me.   It was a big risk to move Barbara and toddler Sondra for only a year to D.C. but I was eager (and pushy) to join like-minded educators drawn to Washington in the Kennedy years. Career ambition drove my decision-making.

Federal policymakers in those Kennedy-Johnson years (John F. Kennedy was assassinated a few months after the project began and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson became President) had framed the problem of low-performing urban students dropping out of school as having too few skilled and knowledgeable teachers who could create engaging lessons to motivate teenagers to go to college and prevent them from dropping out of school. The solution to the problem was neither added funding nor more jobs for unemployed nor better and inexpensive housing. The solution was: prepare better teachers.[i]


So easy to forget that the District of Columbia, the seat of government for the United States, was a segregated city until the late-1950s.  Schools had been divided into two administrative divisions, White and Colored since the early 20th century.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Bolling vs. Sharpe decision in 1955 desegregated the D.C. schools consolidating the two administrative divisions into one school system. The slow movement of white families out of Washington to the emerging suburbs in Maryland and Virginia accelerated as desegregation slowly proceeded. By 1960, Black students were 70 percent of D.C.’s enrollment. And at Cardozo High School, the “castle on the hill” over 95 percent were Black.

On that 13th St. hilltop, Cardozo students looked out large windows and saw both the nation’s Capitol and the Washington Monument. The neighborhood at that time had a mix of middle- and working-class and poor Black families. [ii]

By the early 1960s, however, the neighborhood was changing. Percentages of families on public assistance, unemployment, and students not living with both parents had grown. Crime escalated. While mostly white- and blue-collar families sent their sons and daughters to Cardozo, the neighborhood had acquired a reputation of being poor and neglected. Local media labeled the Cardozo neighborhood as a Black ghetto and “slum”, terms that students, teachers, and parents bitterly resented.[iii]

In the early 1960s, the school had over 2,000 students of whom less than 10 were white. Nearly all faculty were Black and ranged from a core of dedicated, well- qualified teachers to the usual time-servers who counted the weeks until retirement. Like all D.C. high schools at the time, the track system sorted students on the basis of IQ test scores and performance into the Honors, College Preparatory, General and Basic tracks.  At Cardozo there were very few Honors and College Preparatory tracks when the Cardozo Project arrived and settled into room 111 in fall 1963.[iv]

[i]A more detailed description of Cardozo High School and the Project can be found in Larry Cuban, Teaching History Then and Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2016), pp. 43-70.

[ii]“Central High School (Cardozo Senior High School” D.C. Historic Sites at: https://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/items/show/77

[iii] Eve Edstrom, “Slum Children a New Challenge to Peace Corps Group,” Washington Post, September 8, 1963, E2; Maxine Daly, “Urban Teacher Corps, 1963-1968, (Washington, D.C. Public Schools of District of Columbia, Office of Staff Development), May 1968, p. 4.

[iv] That organizational approach to schooling lasted until the track system was abolished by a U.S. court decision in 1967. See Alexander Bickel, “Skelly Wright’s Sweeping Decision,” New Republic, July 7, 1967 at: https://newrepublic.com/article/90822/skelly-wrights-sweeping-decision

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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