Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

"We Just Don't Want to Keep on Going to Useless Meetings": Community Organizing at Detroit's Jefferson Junior High School, 1966-1967

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

"We Just Don't Want to Keep on Going to Useless Meetings": Community Organizing at Detroit's Jefferson Junior High School, 1966-1967

Article excerpt

"We just don't want to keep on going to useless meetings," declared Susan McCarroll, an African American, public-housing resident, and Jefferson Junior High School parent, explaining the November 1966 formation of the Community Organization of Parents (COP). (1) In launching COP, McCarroll and at least thirty other parents broke away from a larger group of Jefferson parents, teachers, and administrators who had gathered regularly for nearly two months in order to study conditions at the junior high school. The members of COP, who were in favor of a more confrontational approach in dealing with Detroit school officials, began a series of direct actions, picketing the Jefferson school as well as Detroit's Board of Education Building, and presenting board members with a list of demands. The people who remained with the original study group called themselves the Jefferson Parent-Teacher-Community Organization (JPTCO). Both groups stayed active during the 1966-1967 school year, dueling with each other, the Jefferson administration, and the Detroit Board of Education. The groups' concerns and demands, and the conflict between them, helped widen the fissures in Detroit's educational terrain in the mid-1960s and are the focus of this article.

The "useless meetings" decried by Susan McCarroll were sparked by a highly critical series of articles in the Detroit Free Press that appeared in late September 1966. The reporter, Jim Treloar, went undercover at Jefferson as a substitute teacher for seven days and then wrote four front-page articles about his experiences. Treloar painted a bleak picture of inner-city education as marred by stultifying school-board policies, dilapidated facilities, inadequate supplies, irrelevant textbooks, and poor management. The central thrust of his comments, though, addressed relations between students and teachers. The former were portrayed as kids needing help and deserving sympathy. One student, "Mary," told Treloar, "You're the first person that's ever really talked to me." Treloar recounted how his kindness toward her was rewarded with improved behavior and work. In order to get readers to appreciate the material and social challenges faced by inner-city children, the reporter detailed Mary's broken family life. (2)

Conversely, Treloar depicted the teachers as the chief cause of Jefferson's failures. Treloar's story on Tuesday, September 27 ran with the headline "They're Just Dumb,' Slum Teachers Say." This article indicted the teachers for their negative attitudes toward the students, the school, and educational innovation. Treloar saw teacher-student interaction as "the most critical problem," followed by inadequate funding for inner-city education. He also concluded that "the inner-city classroom was a battleground on which the middle-class values of the teacher and the poverty-enforced values of the student clashed." Yet, he argued, the parents actually wanted a middle-class life for their children but they had failed to tell either the children or the school. (3) Outraged by these articles--though for different reasons--school personnel and community residents gathered to examine and address the articles' findings. Six weeks later, McCarroll's group of parents walked out in frustration.

Although the founding of COP and its subsequent activities were not front-page news, they received ongoing coverage from Detroit's leading newspapers. Historians have spent much less time on these events. Both Sidney Fine and Jeffrey Mirel used Treloar's articles to illustrate the deterioration of Detroit's schools, and placed the articles in larger narratives, but neither followed up on local developments at Jefferson. In Violence in the Model City, Fine showed how Treloar's stories tapped into African-American frustration with school conditions in Detroit, a frustration that partially underlay the riots of July 1967. (4) In Mirel's excellent study of the Detroit public-school system, the Free Press expose appears as one of several harsh indictments of public education in Detroit in the aftermath of a student boycott at Northern High School in April 1966. …

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