Not much gets by Bill Scheffler.
Somehow, the 1966 Staples grad spotted an eBay ad for a 16mm film. It couldn’t have been more obscure — an introduction to the field of social psychology — but Bill was intrigued that it included “community reactions to bussing and integration in Westport, Conn.”
He bought it sight unseen.
Because 16 mm projectors are almost as rare as 8-tracks, Bill had it copied to DVD. The other day, he gave me a copy.
The video focused on a long-ago local controversy: Project Concern.
In 1970, a number of Westporters — backed by the 2 Congregational churches, the Unitarian church and Temple Israel — urged the town to follow Hartford’s lead, and bring a small number of Bridgeport children to our schools.
In April, 1000 people packed a tense Board of Ed meeting. There were hisses, boos, and tearful speeches on both sides of the issue.
In December the board voted 3-2 to bus a limited number of Bridgeport youngsters — on a voluntary basis — to Westport. Almost instantly, a campaign began to recall Board of Ed chairman Joan Schine.
Republican Allen Raymond, Democrat Jim O’Connell and Westport Education Association representative Dick Leonard led the battle against recall. The fight reached the state Supreme Court. The 3-2 vote was upheld, and in 1971 25 or so Bridgeport children enrolled in Burr Farms, Coleytown and Bedford Elementary Schools.
Burr Farms Elementary School. (Computer image by Steve Katz)
They continued on through junior and senior high school, with other children taking their place in the lower grades. They joined after-school activities; slept over in Westport homes, and became valued members of our community.
Project Concern ended in the 1980s, when state funding for the buses ended.
The video Bill Scheffler bought focused on the experiences of 2 Project Concern students in Walt Melillo’s 3rd grade Burr Farms classroom. A few years before the program began, I had been a Burr Farms 3rd grader — and Mr. Melillo was my teacher.
The video — a “Psychology Today Film” — is not exactly The Hunger Games. Talking heads pontificate about the pros and cons of busing. “When black kids get to white schools, they sing white songs that is part of colonization,” one says.
Another “expert” offers: “It is bewildering for white kids to have black children suddenly disgorged in their midst. They probably talk with their parents about it. Liberal parents explain slavery and poverty, and say, ‘We don’t talk nastily to them.'”
The tape shows 2 boys — one black, the other white — hugging each other. When the white child smiles at the camera, the same “expert” explains that the white child was “seeking normative approval.”
The videos taken inside Mr. Melillo’s class, and on the Burr Farms playground, are far more compelling. The teacher helps 2 Project Concern children — Leonard and Durwin — with lessons, interact with classmates, and sing and play.
Mr. Melillo is interviewed at length (though never identified by name). He describes the differences between the 2 boys — one is very outgoing, the other introverted — and talks about how he treats them very differently based on their personalities.
He says, “This has been a tremendous experience for me. And this year my classroom is a richer place.”
The talking heads dissect Mr. Melillo’s methods, as if he and his students were creatures in a zoo: “The teacher is quite conscious of helping. He is very skillful….The teacher is willing to physically touch them. Many of us are not willing to do that.”
Walt Melillo's 1973 class did not include any Project Concern students.
The video also includes scenes of furious protest meetings. “Are we going to get a colored teacher or white?” one woman wonders. “What if (our kids) don’t understand the lingo?”
Another accuses educators of “trying to bring people from the jungle here.”
Those are not Westporters. The meetings shown were taped in Great Neck and Boston, during similar busing controversies. The video does not make that clear. On the other hand, it also does not make clear exactly who Mr. Melillo is, or where the Burr Farms scenes take place.
But I know. I remember Mr. Melillo, Burr Farms and Project Concern.
I know how much the program contributed to Westport.
And I know something the “experts” never mentioned: That as much as the Bridgeport youngsters got out of Project Concern, Westport got far more back in return.
(Thanks to Woody Klein’s Westport, Connecticut: The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence for some of the historical background.)