Posted on July 20, 2005

Can Whites Teach Blacks?

Rachel Gottlieb, Hartford Courant, July 17

Race was at the heart of the Hartford school system’s most wrenching incidents this year.

A white principal didn’t make it through the year at Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School, in a mostly black neighborhood, after she hired all white teachers to replace retirees, setting the tone for a racially charged atmosphere that seemed to worsen every week.

At the end of the year, parents and students also complained bitterly to the school board that a Simpson-Waverly music teacher told kids she didn’t like “black music.” The music teacher, who denies ever saying such a thing, had previously filed a complaint of her own accusing three black teachers in the school of racially harassing her and encouraging their students to misbehave in her class.

And a black principal in the district’s most troubled school, Milner Elementary School, attributed her school’s woes, in part, to white teachers being culturally out of tune with black students.

Hartford’s political focus on racial balance has long helped determine the composition of the school board and the selection of the superintendent and even principals. But it has rarely reached down to the classrooms as it did this year.

School officials whiplashed by this year’s incidents are now debating some tough questions: Can white teachers effectively teach children of color? Is the lagging achievement of children of color caused in part by low expectations of white teachers? And are white educators to blame for the high rate of minority group members directed to special education services?

Michael C. Williams, vice chairman of the board of education, is pushing hard for an aggressive affirmative action plan to drastically increase the number of minority teachers. The way he sees it, the achievement gap is inherently a racial problem. “We need a race-based solution,” said Williams, who is black.

Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry, who is black and Latino, strongly disagreed and said Hartford’s record of hiring a diverse teaching force is the best in the state. Half of all administrators, including Henry, eight of his 11 senior administrators and 32 percent of the teaching force are black or Hispanic. The student body is 96 percent black and Hispanic.

The debate about the race of teachers has spilled beyond board meetings and is creeping into broader public forums.

Former Hartford Mayor Thirman L. Milner addressed the issue in a recent column in the Northend Agent’s newspaper. “There is nothing wrong with white teachers,” Milner wrote. “I had them, respect them, was the only black in an all-white high school, and appreciated the education that I received, but when they are sent into a problem environment that they are not used to, and may not want to get used to, what do you expect and what do you expect the students to learn?”