Story 09: Beyond Museum Walls

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How did the 1970s turmoil of Boston's desegregation plan affect the schools and the museum?

Written by Patricia A. Steuert

In 1974 Judge Arthur Garrity declared the Boston Public Schools to be segregated and mandated a plan to better integrate the schools. He asked local universities and educational organizations to work with Boston on this effort. State funds were allocated through Chapter 636, a 1974 amendment to Massachusetts' Racial Imbalance Law, and a school busing program was developed. Statewide, Chapter 636 programs included four basic types: 1) school-based programs (elementary, middle, and high); 2) school system or district-wide programs; 3) part-time and full-time magnet programs; and 4) Metco (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities) school communities, another desegregation program in which Boston minority students were bused to more affluent suburban schools.

Several years earlier, Mike and other museum directors had begun meeting to discuss their common needs and to problem solve. These meetings, which eventually resulted in the formation of the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance, included representatives from several large museums who already worked with the state to provide line items for field trips. The goal was to assure that every Boston Public School child had the opportunity to go to the Museum of Science, the Museum of Fine Arts, and The Children's Museum. Eventually this funding was folded into the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which to this day distributes funding statewide. Speaking for The Children's Museum, Mike Spock wanted museums to be included in the desegregation plan and worked collaboratively with other institutions to form the Cultural Education Collaborative (CEC), an educational component of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Anne Hawley, now director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, as the head of the Council at that time, petitioned Judge Garrity to include museums in the legislation so museums could also receive funding to provide services to schools.

Thus in 1974 a ten-year program began with more than thirty institutions and thousands of children. Every museum, theater company or music school created its own individual program with teachers and administrators from particular schools in their district. CEC established criteria that specified that programs must be multi-sessioned, not single field trips, because repeated social encounters helped newly integrated students get to know each other better. CEC further specified the teaching staff needed to represent the demographics of the schools. This meant that museums and other cultural organizations with primarily white staff members needed to hire more people of color. Not every museum was prepared to work in difficult situations; some dropped out. But many groups continued to work with Boston Schools for nearly a decade.

636 programs were very popular with students. Some teachers participated actively; others took it as an opportunity to grab a break in the teacher's lounge. Content evaluation was a challenge because the programs ranged from dance to theater to Native American culture. But teachers reported that more students attended school on the day these programs were happening.

During this decade, in addition to the Cultural Education Collaborative, Boston corporations and universities worked with the Boston Public Schools in partnerships that continue today. The Harvard Graduate School of Education's HGSE News (September 1, 2000) featured an article about the longlasting results of this citywide collaboration to help the entire community adjust to a new social order.

...the legacy of the responses to busing includes a transformed commitment of universities to the public schools. [Bob Peterkin, director of the HGSE's Urban Superintendents Program] calls it 'a reinvestment in urban areas.' Peterkin mentions the work of any number of HGSE-based programs, from the Principals' Center, founded in 1981, to the...Boston-Harvard Leadership Development Initiative, sponsored by the Fleet Financial Group, to his own Urban Superintendents Program, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary. And he argues that these programs can trace their origins or their spirit back to programs that flourished as part of Harvard's response to the busing crisis, such as the now-defunct Center for Urban Studies, directed by the late HGSE faculty members Ronald Edmonds and Kenneth Haskins. Robert Schwartz (HGSE academic dean) agrees: 'Boston is the place people go today to see dynamic examples of corporate and university involvement in urban public education. That is in part a direct legacy of 1974.'

Learning went both ways. Museum staff who had not taught in urban classrooms learned to respect the diversity in the classroom, which was far greater than in the museum at the time. Every third grade class in the city came to the museum but for many children that was their only visit. When museum staff members came into the classroom six, eight times or even for a full semester the word "museum" became more familiar to the students.

Next: How did the museum spread its new ideas about interactive learning?