Tag Archives: Project Concern

Project Concern: 40 Years Later, Memories Live On

Eve Potts is a longtime Westporter. She’s been active in the arts, history, education and much more. Today, she shares a special encounter with “06880” readers.

Those of us who have been in Westport a long time remember vividly when there was a great deal of discussion (not all of it positive) about inviting a group of youngsters from Bridgeport to join classrooms in Westport. The program was known as Project Concern.

Over 40 years have passed since those first eager kids jumped off a bus from Bridgeport and were enrolled in Westport elementary schools. My 2 daughters were in the lower grades at Burr Farms. They were excited to welcome one of the girls, Anjetta Redmond, to stay at our house overnight each Tuesday so she could be part of the special early morning music rehearsals.

Eve Potts painted Anjetta Redmond’s portrait 40 years ago, when she was a guest in their home.

A couple of months ago — after all these years — we had a wonderful reunion with Anjetta Redmond Holloway and her close friend, Lisa Jones Mendenhall, who often joined Anjetta at our house overnight.

The conversation was lively. Besides getting reacquainted and sharing photos of kids, grandkids and husbands, we talked a bit about their Westport experience.

Both talked frankly — and enthusiastically — about what a great experience it had been for them. They were emphatic that coming to Westport, and learning about this other world, had impacted their lives.

We asked how they were treated back in Bridgeport after they enrolled here. They said there was teasing, and some pretty derisive comments from some of their friends.

Both women insisted that they honestly never felt any prejudice from their Westport schoolmates, even as talk of recalling the Westport Board of Education chair swirled and became reality here in Westport.

There was a lot of reminiscing — about funny happenings, and about Lisa’s brother Leonard who had been accepted into the program because an older sister had suggested it would be good for him. Leonard was a favorite at Burr Farms School for his incredible ability to walk on his hands and do other acrobatic feats.

The women mentioned the treats that were available in Westport, like Baskin- Robbins, that weren’t available in Bridgeport. Amy remembered how her Bridgeport friends brought Now & Laters — candy not available in Westport — to school to sell to kids here.

It was a wonderful morning: very loving, very happy, and very nostalgic.

Both Anjetta and Lisa have had very successful careers and marriages. Anjetta has had a long career at People’s Bank, and is a research representative. Lisa, who also worked for years at People’s Bank, is now employed by the Board of Education in Bridgeport. She is involved in discussions about the validity, balance and fairness of magnet school policies.

Here’s what Lisa posted on Facebook when she got home:

OK. So the year is 1971. There’s a program called Project Concern being introduced to inner city communities. Myself, along with my friends Anjetta Holloway and Wanda Thompson-Mosley, to name a few, were allowed the opportunity to attend.

We joined Brownies, then Girl Scouts. We played the flute and clarinets, mastered cartwheels and splits, and went to sleepaway camp. Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips was good eating (no Arthur Treacher’s in Bridgeport), and we were completely fascinated with Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors.

Fast forward. It’s 2019 and you receive a friend request from Amy Potts. Hmmm. Amy and Abby from Westport — could it be?  Yes, it was, and this morning after 40-plus years we met for breakfast with Amy, her mom, and her auntie.

What a great time we had reminiscing of how great life was way back then. Life is good. Always cherish each moment.

(For more “06880” stories on Project Concern, click here, here and here.)

Remembering Dick Leonard

Dick Leonard — a beloved English teacher at Staples High School, who continued educating long after he retired — died early today. He was 88.

Dick was also a Westport Education Association president, attorney, husband of a Staples graduate, and father of 5 Staples grads.

He approached life as an adventure, even a competition —in the best sense of that word, “to strive together” — and inspired all through his example.

Dick Leonard

The youngest of 4 sons and a Brooklyn native, he attended St. John’s Prep and was in the first graduating class from Fairfield University.

Dick served as a Navy pilot in the mid-1950’s. After a brief stint flying for TWA, he decided he preferred people to machines and became a teacher.

He spent over 4 decades teaching several generations of Westport teens to write with purpose and clarity, and appreciate the beauty of literature. His favorite book was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, as it underscores the dignity of each person.

Dick met students where they were, capable of challenging those in AP English and participating in a novel interdisciplinary program, Alternatives, with colleagues in the mid-1970’s to engage some of the more disaffected Staples students.

As president of the WEA for 20 years, Dick led the effort to attract, retain and adequately compensate Westport teachers, helping make this school system one of the finest in the country. His skill as a negotiator on behalf of teachers was legendary.

Dick Leonard, as Westport Education Association president.

Dick was also a central figure in efforts in the early 1970’s to bring greater opportunity to underserved students from Bridgeport through Project Concern.

Always up for a new intellectual challenge, Dick returned to school at night and received his JD from the University of Bridgeport Law School in 1982. This proved invaluable during labor negotiations.

In retirement, Dick led short story discussion seminars with small groups in private homes, the Westport Library, Senior Center, the porch at the Abenakee Club, and most recently at Atria, Darien.

Dick worked hard, and creatively, to provide for his family. A natural salesman, his summer jobs included selling World Book Encyclopedias and getting his real estate license. Dick was a lifelong athlete, from stickball on the streets of Flatbush as a kid to baseball, boxing (and later softball) as a young adult, to golf, squash and finally tennis — his greatest love, and a sport he played vigorously into his late 70’s.

Dick and Paula introduced his family to Biddeford Pool, Maine, in the summer of 1974. In 1997 Dick and Paula built a second home there, which continues to serve as a family gathering spot for summer fun.

Dick and Paula Leonard’s grandson Ned Hardy graduated from Staples High School in 2013. They posed in the courtyard of the “new” Staples with their daughter Anne — Ned’s mom.

His vegetable garden was important too. Tomatoes were his specialty, as a boy in his Victory Garden in Brooklyn and later in full splendor on Ludlow Road and Orchard Lane.

He is survived by Paula, his 5 children, and 11 grandchildren: Rick and Amy Leonard (Lizzie, Charlie); Jim and Story Leonard (Kelsey, Molly, Campbell); Anne and Jim Hardy (Will and Ned); Carey and Cheryl Leonard (Amanda), and Colin and Kadie Leonard (Megan, Annie, and Sophie).

A memorial service will be held Sunday, June 3, 2 p.m. at Town Hall. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Dick’s name to the Westport Library (20 Jesup Road, Westport, CT 06880, www.westportlibrary.org).

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In 2004, I interviewed Mr. Leonard for my book, Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education. He said:

Dick Leonard, Navy pilot.

I got out of the service in December of 1955. I was a Navy pilot, and [Staples principal] Stan Lorenzen had been a World War II officer. He told me he was letting a teacher go.

I taught there from January to June of ’56, then went to work as a pilot for TWA. But I would get up at 3 a.m. to fly a 7-minute flight from LaGuardia to Idlewild. I found I wanted to work with people, not machines, so I returned in 1958.

My first classroom was in a Quonset hut on Riverside Avenue. There were 4 classes between the old and new buildings. I taught there with Wyatt Teubert, Wayne Ross and Ray Tata.

In the spring of ’58 I subbed for Frank Gilmore, who was clerk of the works for the new school. I started full time in September of ’58, the same time the new building opened here. Everything was clean. I had my own classroom – Room 612. I taught 5 periods a day, and no one else shared the room.

I loved the layout of the new school. It was beautiful, with all the walkways leading from building to building. The vista from Building 6 across the fields was great. A lot of parents complained over the years about students going outdoors all the time with their coats, but the kids were pretty accepting.

At the time the English department was led by Gladys Mansir. She was an old-time teacher, who’d had nearly everyone who went through Staples. Then V. Louise Higgins took over. She was a tough, bright gal who really fought hard for English teachers to have four classes. That was a big plus. We could really do a lot with the writing program.

Dick Leonard, in his classroom.

Paperbacks came in in the mid-‘60s. Before that, English was taught like it had been in the ’40s, with different big anthologies for sophomores, juniors and seniors.

In the ’60s we started English 4-E, led by Charlie Raphael, Marue English and Joe Duggan. Rather than us teaching the kids, we said “let’s have the kids tell us what they want to learn.” That was highly controversial. In the ’70s we had more changes. Changes take place every 20 years, regardless of anything else.

[Principal James] Calkins was the best thing that could have happened at the time. He was loose, flexible, and friendly enough so the kids didn’t rebel the way they did at other schools. But the parents eventually thought there was too much looseness. I thought open campus was a good idea, and that it worked out well.

The George Cohan years were a difficult time, with the renovation and all. George was an academician. There was a forward push in English toward electives, led by Joy Walker. Kids could fit in the courses that best fit their needs. There were more courses than just AP, A, B and C. Some kids chose to goof off, but most didn’t.

As for the Jaffe years: I liked Marv. He was an easygoing, flexible principal. I was president of the [teachers’] union, and we got along well.

I taught for a while in the Alternatives program, with Karley Higgins and Frank Corbo. That was before special education – for kids who were unable to be successful in mainstream education. We had up to 75 kids, below Building 6. Then special education grew, and we needed to have smaller classes for those kids.

By the time I retired in ’95 we’d gone from a small school to a big one, and back to small. But we always had a faculty that was professional and academic-oriented. The school became more of a closed place after renovation, though, and less aesthetically pleasing.

Staples has always been a “lighthouse.” It was an important place even for parents of younger kids, who weren’t yet in high school. There’s always been strong support for education in Westport, and it’s even stronger now because of the number of parents with young kids in town. The Taxwatchers [a group devoted to lowering taxes, with a particular emphasis on education budgets] seem to have disappeared.

Staples was, and still is, a special school. I think it’s because of the kids we have, and their parents. Everyone aspires to be the best they can. And the faculty is bright and hard-working.

I’ve certainly changed. I came from a very conservative Irish Catholic background. I moved to Westport after my junior year in high school, and commuted as a senior back to St. John’s Prep in Brooklyn. I started out as a fairly rigid teacher, but I became much more flexible, more able to recognize individual differences in kids.

It’s funny. Last year, I came back to fill in for two 2A classes. We did Araby by James Joyce. But instead of writing essays for the final, we talked for two hours about the personal experiences of infatuation, unrequited love, and life as teenagers. They said it was the best exam they ever had. You couldn’t have done that in a lot of other schools, but that’s the way education really should be.

Proud veteran Dick Leonard, in Westport’s Memorial Day parade.

Remembering Venora Ellis

Venora Ellis — whose long life and civic contributions in Westport would be memorable even if she had not been a proud, pioneering black woman in this almost entirely white town — passed away peacefully on May 23. She was 96 years old.

Her death cannot go unnoticed.

In 2009, TEAM Westport honored her with its Trailblazer Award. It said:

“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.”

That only scratches the surface.

Venora Ellis

Venora Ellis

Venora arrived in Westport from Mississippi in 1938. A dean at Tougaloo College told her there was work here as a “mother’s helper.” She liked the area, returned every summer, and in 1942 — thanks to a scholarship from Columbia University’s Teachers — she came north to stay.

Race relations were as hard to define here as down South. There was a bustling black enclave off Main Street, where Bobby Q’s restaurant is now. In the 1940s and ’50s it included a church, barbershop and nightclub. One night, it burned to the ground. The cause was never determined, and most residents never returned.

Venora opened a house couturier business. For 42 years, she dressed homes with draperies, bedspreads and slip covers, using expensive silk. She created items that were featured in Seventeen Magazine.

In 1952 she married Leroy Ellis, whom she had known at Tougaloo and who then went on to play music at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. He ran a home and industrial cleaning service. Every year, he sang at the Memorial Day ceremony.

The Ellises lived on Jennie Lane, and bought an investment property on Gorham Avenue.

They were active in town affairs. Venora joined PTAs, served on housing and human services committees, assisted with Project Concern and at the Senior Center, chaired the Bicentennial Ball, volunteered for the Red Cross and Westport Library, participated actively in Brown Bag luncheons, and was a docent at Martha Stewart’s Long Lots Road house.

Venora chaired the Experiment in International Living, which placed college students with families across the US. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, students stayed in her home — joining the one she and Leroy were hosting.

She also helped found the Intercommunity  Camp, which brought together youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport. She helped the innovative effort succeed.

Venora Ellis TEAM Westport

Life was not always easy. Storeowners on Main Street sometimes looked at her with suspicion — while, she said, white teenagers stole whatever they could.

Her 2 daughters were occasionally taunted. Venora told them to respond: “You spend all your time at the beach trying to get tan. What’s the difference?”

After 64 years in Westport, Venora moved to Pennsylvania to live near her daughter. Before she moved, AJ Izzo of Crossroads Hardware called her “The Mayor of Gorham Avenue.”

Also before she moved, Venora reflected on her time in Westport. “I’ve enjoyed this town so much,” she said. “It’s given me a lot — spiritually, culturally, educationally, business-wise. But I’m 87, you know. It’s time to move on.

Venora moved away, physically. Now she is gone from the earth, too. But her mark on Westport can never be erased.

(Venora is survived by 2 daughters, Nona Brady Ellis of Washington and Myra Parker of Pennsylvania; 2 grandchildren, Richard Ellis of New Jersey and Cheryl David of Washington, and 2 great-grandsons, Tommy and Jack Ellis.

(A memorial service is set for Saturday June 27 , 11 a.m. at The Church of the Good Shepherd, 186 Corum Avenue in Shelton. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Tougaloo College Office of Institutional Advancement, 500 West County Line Road, Tougaloo, MS 39174).

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.”

Jerry Davidoff’s Concern

It’s ancient history to many Westporters, but in 1970 our town engaged in an ugly battle over a plan to bus a few Bridgeport students to Westport.

The proposal — Project Concern — was passed by the Board of Education.  Enraged citizens initiated a recall petition against the board chairman, Joan Schine. 

An enormous crowd packed a hearing in the Staples auditorium.  When Westport Education Association president Dick Leonard announced that his executive board had voted to endorse Project Concern, and oppose the recall effort, a man standing in the front leaped to his feet. 

That started a standing ovation — in part of the room.  The other part booed.

Jerry and Denny Davidoff

Jerry Davidoff and his wife, Denny (Photo courtesy of http://www.uua.org)

The man was Jerry Davidoff.  He died Saturday at 83.  A 40-year resident of Westport, he served for nearly a decade on the Board of Ed — 2 as chairman — and 4 more on the RTM.

“Jerry was willing to stick his neck out, and stand up for what was right,” Leonard recalled this morning.  “He was a liberal thinker, and a very constructive influence on Westport life for many years.”

Jerry Davidoff accomplished much in his life of service to Westport.  In addition to politics, he earned renown as a champion of civil liberties, and a national lay leader in the Unitarian Universalist church.

But Dick Leonard will always remember Jerry Davidoff for the moment he rose to his feet, in a moment of passion and power, and led a standing ovation for a cause he believed was right.