Does Race Matter? A Dialogue on Education.

I had been trying to reach Norma for a bit.  I knew that she wanted to participate in Education 2010’s third dialogue, “Successful Students Ready for the 21st Century,” but somehow, we kept missing each other. Finally, I opened my email and Norma left me her cell phone number.  I immediately dialed and when Norma answered, she opened the conversation with “I am sitting by the water [in a nice warm climate] on vacation.” Oooh, envy! I am a water person but the only water I am surrounded by is like the rest of the eastern seaboard, cold, endless rain that is threatening to flood certain areas.

Besides sharing with Norma the details of our third dialogue, I wanted to have the opportunity to chat and get to know each other.  The beauty of organizing these dialogues is that I get to meet so many wonderful people, share ideas, concerns and engage in a meeting of mind and mission. Sometimes we agree on the road to take to achieve our mutual mission, and sometimes we are on completely different paths.

Sometimes I take off my “organizer” hat and put on my probing writer’s hat; the one that in my youth, I used to envision the comic strip character, “Brenda Starr – Star Reporter,” would wear.  Does that mean asking a bunch of probing questions that are often stereo-typical? No.  It means listening very carefully to answer “And … Who are you?”

The youthful voice on the other end of the phone belied the fact that Norma Neumann-Johnson, principal of Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, has been an educator in Hartford’s public schools for 42 years.  As I read Norma’s biography that she quickly wrote (no doubt from the waterside) and emailed to me, I was pleased to note that she referred to the many roles she has been in as having “served” and not having “worked.” In her own words, Norma has:

[S]erved in the roles of classroom teacher in elementary and high schools, teacher team leader and trainer, and charter and magnet school principal … I designed a “School Within A School” model in a large elementary school in Hartford, called Project Breakthrough, which served students for seven years, then was granted a charter by the CT State Department of Education to be director of the Breakthrough Charter School for four years.  This charter school was designed with character education as its central theme, based on our learnings from Project Breakthrough.

We were invited to become the first of Hartford’s magnet schools along with the Sports Academy Charter School in 2002, and charged with the new responsibility of reducing economic and racial isolation in Hartford Schools by drawing students from the suburbs surrounding Hartford to join our 98% minority charter school.

Our school, now completing its 12th year of operation as charter and/or magnet, has achieved the state’s guidelines for “diversity” for the past six years, leaving more than 1000 on its waiting lists annually over that time.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Springfield College, a Master of Education degree from University of Hartford, earned my certification in education administration from the University of Connecticut, and have earned 90 credits beyond my master’s degree in math, science and education studies.

My family, including two biracial children (African American and white) out of three, began and led a multi-racial family support group for 10 years in Greater Hartford with a membership of 25 families.

Breakthrough’s mission says it all:

The mission of Breakthrough II is for staff, families and community members to work in partnership developing students as models of outstanding character, ie. students utilizing problem solving, responsible choice making, and agreement forming and keeping. [Full Statement]

Norma will focus her discussion and co-facilitate the breakout session on “Does Race Matter” together with another leading figure in school diversity and equal access, Elizabeth Horton Sheff.

In 1989, when her son, Milo, was a fourth grade student at Annie Fisher Elementary School in Hartford, Elizabeth Horton Sheff joined with others and began a long and arduous journey to redress the inequity between the level of education provided to students in Hartford public schools and that available to children in surrounding suburban districts. [Full timeline on Sheff]

There are few in this state and region who do not know the name and the case, Sheff vs. O’Neill associated with it. No doubt, this dialogue will be lively and engaging, as well as informative.

Other panelists are Honorable Kenneth Green (State Rep. 1st Assembly District), Paul Diego Holzer (Education Programs Director at Achieve Hartford), Elizabeth Horton Sheff (The Sheff Movement Coalition), Jim Boucher, Director of future work Division of Capital Workforce Partners), and Clifford Wallace Thornton (Author, International Speaker and Founder of Efficacy).

Each panelist will serve as a facilitator of the four breakout sessions, “Does Race Matter,” “Fixing Broken Schools,” “Prisons. Eliminating the Pipeline,” and “Workforce Development.”

Click here to sign up for this event, which is free and open to the general public.

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