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Written by Patricia A. Steuert
Teachers, students and their families from the Motley School arrived at The Children's Museum for an evening of socializing and exhibit exploration. An ordinary event for the museum today, in 1975 this was a new experience, full of surprises. We didn't expect much of a turnout ("The parents won't come out at night"), but 160 parents with their K-5 children came in four busloads and in their own cars. We were impressed to see so many fathers. "They don't get involved," we had been told. We were thrilled with the effort that the families made bringing food to share, and we were gratified to see that the museum could serve as a neutral, attractive meeting ground for newly integrated school communities. The night was jam-packed, lively, almost overwhelming and enlightening. It defined a program that continued another thirty years: Community Nights.
The school was named for the Dorchester-born historian and diplomat John Lothrop Motley, and the irony was that until 1974, it was completely homogenous, reflecting its white Catholic neighborhood. Recent court-ordered busing that was mixing up Boston's neighborhood schools, brought African-American children and teachers to Motley, and the forced integration was tough on all parties. White families felt threatened with cultural change and a loss of control of their neighborhood school; black families felt unwelcome and at sea in a new environment. Rock throwing—at the buses and at children themselves on the playground—physically endangered the children. Throughout the city, many of the white families chose to send their children to parochial or private schools from first grade on, leaving Motley's lower grades almost entirely black. That, in turn, created difficulties. The principal at Motley described the children's perception that " kids turn black when they move up from kindergarten." Faculty, too, were struggling to cope, with teachers shifted around to integrate them as well. Motley was ready for assistance, and the deputy school superintendent connected them with the museum.
The school-museum partnering was part of Judge Garrity's plan for Boston. He called on area colleges, universities and cultural institutions to help with the adjustments desegregation demanded, paired them up with schools and found state funding for the programs.
The Motley collaboration attempted to solve some of the school's problems. Jeri Robinson, early childhood specialist, and Nancy Sato, multicultural program developer, represented the museum. Jeri recalls: "We were coming in to listen and be responsive. We met with teachers every two weeks and gave them the opportunity to discuss issues, raise issues, have suggestions. We came back with a menu they could choose from. (In those days, teachers had more flexibility to try out things.) First, we developed a self-discovery course for students. We wanted kids to figure out who they were so they could eventually relate to others. We worked with every class in the school, two classes each grade level. We took pictures of students and made puzzles of them. Kids traced themselves on paper, made dancing murals, and did an ethnic discovery project. To celebrate at the end, we had a picnic that included Brother Blue, a joyful, engaging African-American musician. To increase communication between children in different grades, we paired every kindergartner with an upper grade kid. They originally came in different doors and didn't have contact with each other. Families also had little contact with each other. Many wouldn't come to events at the schools because it was not a safe neighborhood for black families to enter, and that is what prompted the Motley night at the museum.
Following the collaboration about 50 percent of the teachers reported feeling more connected with their students' families. They felt better equipped to solve problems for themselves. The family night helped us to realize the museum's worth as a destination for all Boston families, not just the ones in suburbs or within walking distance.