Tag Archives: Joan Schine

An Old Video Causes “Concern”

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.

Walt Melillo

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.)

Joan Schine’s Legacy

Joan Schine — the former Board of Education chairman who died Saturday at 87 — is being lauded for her strong commitment to Westport, and education in all forms, during a lifetime of service.

WestportNow.com‘s James Lomuscio wrote a fond remembrance, citing her courageous stand in 1970 in favor of Project Concern.  That program — proposed here in 1970 — allowed 25 Bridgeport students to be bused to Westport, from elementary through high school. 

Outraged opponents threatened a recall drive, which ultimately failed.  The  Board of Ed — with the backing of Schine and prominent Republican Allen Raymond, and buoyed by the support of well-respected citizens like Lou Nistico — voted 3-2 in favor of Project Concern.

It lasted for a decade, and brought dozens of Bridgeport youngsters here to study and socialize.  It is fondly recalled today, by schoolchildren from both towns who are now well-established adults.

Joan Schine’s legacy has lasted far longer than Project Concern’s decade.  The values established by that program — and fought for so fervently by her — have underpinned much of Westport’s educational philosophy in the years since.

We have mostly — though not always supported — those values with Board of Ed votes, and with tax dollars.  But they’re still there.  We still believe that education is vital; that we must involve ourselves with surrounding communities, and that our students must be part of something larger than themselves.

I’m not sure what kind of school system Westport would have today had Joan Schine not prevailed in that decisive 1970 vote.

And I’m even less sure what kind of town this would be.

Project Concern’s Long Legacy

When Staples’ Class of 1980 met last weekend for its 30th reunion, Janet Dewitt joined the festivities.

She’s not a Staples grad — she left Westport schools after junior high — but she was welcomed joyfully nonetheless.

In fact, Janet never lived in Westport.  From grade 3 in Burr Farms Elementary School through grade 9 at Long Lots Junior High, she joined dozens of other Bridgeport youngsters enrolled in Project Concern.

At the time, Janet did not realize how controversial the program was.  Opponents railed against bringing Bridgeport children to Westport schools.  Some adults were so inflamed, they tried to recall one of Project Concern’s staunchest champions, Board of Education chair Joan Schine.

Proponents worked hard to make the program a success.  School administrators involved the youngsters in every facet of school life, offering academic help, social support and transportation home after extracurricular activities.

Westport parents supported Project Concern too.  Many opened their homes to the Bridgeporters youngsters, after school and on weekends.

That’s why when Janet came to the 30th reunion, she had nothing but fond memories of her experiences here.

“I met a lot of great people.  I loved the teachers.  I learned a lot.  I had a lot of very nice friends,” she says.

Her 1st year here, Janet met Susan Robins.  The women remain in frequent touch.  “Her family took me in,” Janet says.

As Janet got older, she understood that some Bridgeport friends were jealous of her Westport education.  Some were angry at the opportunity she had.

Many were curious as to why she became part of the program.  She herself did not know why.

At the end of 8th grade, Janet transferred to Bridgeport’s Bassick High for personal reasons.

“Bridgeport schools were different,” she says.  “It was tough to adjust.”

More than 3 decades later — when Susan told her about the Staples reunion — Janet wanted to attend.  She’s glad she did.

“It was beautiful,” she says.  “I remembered quite a few people.”

They remembered her too.  Many also knew her brothers, Bo and Ricky.  They too were in Project Concern, from Green’s Farms Elementary School and Long Lots Junior High through Staples.

These days, Janet babysits for her 3 grandchildren — the oldest is 11 — and works for the Connecticut Post.

Like many people — in Westport and Bridgeport — she wonders why Project Concern was allowed to end.  (Budget constraints and transportation difficulties contributed to its demise.  There is another program in its place, but it does not offer as much academic or social support as Project Concern did — and it serves fewer youngsters.)

“It was a beautiful program,” Janet says.  “It would really be nice if they still had it.

“A lot of kids here don’t finish school.  I think they’d be better students, and they’d learn more about life, if the program was still around.

“Westport schools made a difference.  As long as you wanted to do something for yourself, the schools were there to help.

“And of course everyone just really needs to get out and meet different people, as much as they can.”

Pioneer Honors

If you know the names Tracy Sugarman, Joan Schine and Venora Ellis, you know why they’ll receive Diversity Trailblazer Awards this Sunday.

If you don’t know them, you don’t know 3 important pieces of Westport history.

The Trailblazers — all involved in some way in the battle to dismantle racial barriers — are being  honored by TEAM Westport, the town’s official committee on diversity.  The ceremony and reception is set for Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler’s Stony Point home, at 3 p.m.

Tracy Sugarman

Tracy Sugarman

Artist, writer and filmmaker Tracy Sugarman has chronicled the civil rights struggle since the 1950s.  His lectures — based on his eyewitness accounts of marches, sit-ins and much more in Mississippi and throughout the South — have had profound impacts on generations of Americans, including many Westporters.

As chairman of the Board of Education, Joan Schine fought to establish Project Concern in Westport.  The program — which brought Bridgeport youngsters to our schools — was so controversial in the early ’70s that the state Supreme Court had to strike down a recall attempt against her. 

In her 68 years as a businesswoman and resident of Westport, Venora Ellis challenged traditional social mores and shattered racial barriers, by action and example.  For much of her last  40 years here, Venora and her late husband Leroy were instrumental in attracting citizens of color to live in Westport.

It’s easy to dismiss Westport as an unrealistic bubble.  It’s also easy to pat ourselves on the back for not being as white-bread a town as cookie-cutter New Canaan or Darien.

Sunday’s celebration will provide context for both views.  No community is all — for lack of a better phrase — black and white.  It is filled with colors.  This weekend, TEAM Westport reminds us all how rich those colors can be.

(This Sunday’s TEAM Westport ceremony and reception is freee, and open to the public.  RSVP to info@teamwestport.org, or call 203-227-9671.)