Over an almost 50-year career in education, including 25 as principal of the preK-8 Barclay School in Baltimore, Gertrude Williams was celebrated and criticized as a one-of-a-kind maverick. Her story, as recorded in historian Jo Ann Robinson’s new oral biography Education as My Agenda: Gertrude Williams, Race, and the Baltimore Public Schools (Palgrave Macmillan) is an inspirational but also cautionary tale of what a principal must endure in challenging the status quo.
Williams’ most provocative move came in 1988, when she decided her predominantly African American school would adopt the classically oriented curriculum of the Calvert School—a venerable Baltimore private school. While the program’s success drew praise from parents and visitors from around the world, the district superintendent and others attacked it as elitist, and it took two years to get the school board to approve it.
Williams, who retired a decade later, was reached just before the holidays at her Baltimore home. Now 78, she spoke passionately and sometimes sadly of the many educational battles she had fought over the years—battles of which, she said, “I have had enough.”
Q: What led you to reject the standard curriculum in favor of one from a wealthy private school?
A: The city’s curriculum was one that would change every year or even, in some cases, every six months. Every time someone would write a new paper and say “This is the way you should do it,” the district would buy it. I told the administration, “Anyone can sell you anything.” The curriculum not only lacked stability but lacked high expectations—the children weren’t getting basic skills. The schools in Baltimore and elsewhere had watered down the curriculum because the children were poor and supposedly couldn’t learn these skills. Then some “expert” would come up with something new and say, “Poor children learn this way.” It was just stupid.
Q: So when you proposed that Barclay implement the Calvert curriculum, how did the administration react?
A: The then-superintendent met with some of the city’s African American leaders and convinced them I was doing this for the white parents. This was ironic because the school was predominantly African American. Even the local leader of the NAACP was a bit ticked, but that didn’t bother me. As a principal, you have to stand for something, and you can’t allow people to sidetrack you from what you know is right. These children needed more than what they were getting, and I was determined to prove that African American children could do as well with a demanding curriculum as any other children.
Q: Did your opponents make it seem like you were choosing a “white folks” curriculum?
A: Oh, yes. The superintendent said to me, “That’s a rich man’s curriculum.” I told him, “I wouldn’t look for a poor man’s curriculum because we already have it.” Our children simply weren’t being given the skills they needed to become successful.
Q:What is the Calvert curriculum like?
A: It leaves nothing to chance; all the basic skills are developed. Beginning in preK, for instance, students would learn the various sounds involved in reading and how to classify simple things, like animals. In 1st grade, they started doing cursive instead of manuscript because it’s easier for children. They also started writing simple compositions and keeping a log of words they had learned. They learned the tables in math, which sounds like no big deal. But if you go into many schools today, you might not know if the children are adding, subtracting, or multiplying.
Becoming culturally literate is also a big part of the curriculum. In 3rd grade, for instance, they study mythology, and then, in 4th grade, the history of civilization. Our children became very articulate, culturally knowledgeable, and many of them went on to college.
Q: You also introduced departmentalization into the early grades. Why?
A: Teachers in elementary school are supposed to be masters of everything. But I noticed over the years that some teachers were excellent in teaching reading and poor in science, or vice versa. This meant that if a child was spending all day in a particular teacher’s classroom, they weren’t getting all the skills they needed. So I talked to the faculty about departmentalization, which we first started in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. The following year, the primary teachers said they’d try it for a year. But once they tried it, they didn’t want to change back because they liked becoming specialists in teaching one subject.
Q: You say that it’s important for city schools to retain a middle-class population. Does Barclay today still have that population, as it once did?
A: No. When they took the Calvert curriculum out after I left, parents started taking their children out of the school. If you want to keep the middle class in your school, you must have high academic expectations and a rigorous curriculum—it’s the only way.
Q: Your school was famous for the Calvert curriculum, yet it didn’t survive your departure. Why?
A: It took a lot of work, and the three principals that followed me didn’t want to do the work. The biggest issue is teacher training—if you want to have a rigorous curriculum, you have to train teachers thoroughly on how to use it. And this means you have to have a principal or specialist within the school to help them develop the necessary teaching skills. Many [new teachers] have not been taught, for instance, reading out loud as a skill. So you have adults who stand before the children to read and you want to scream because they haven’t been taught to read with inflection.
We not only trained the teachers in the Calvert curriculum but also worked with the parents—you have to. We had reading workshops because some of them had been dropouts and lacked basic literacy. We kept parents up to date with what was going on in their child’s classroom so they would know what their children should be learning. We also developed booklets on topics like when to have a conference with your child’s teacher and how to prepare for it. It was all very exciting and very sustainable, but you’ve got to keep working at it.
Q: It must be hard for you to see that many of the reforms you brought to Barclay are no longer around.
A: Yes, it’s disturbing, but I have to learn to live with it unless I start my own school, which I’m now too old to do. It’s sad to see that no matter what you do, it can be thrown out once you’re gone. People visited our school and took back our ideas to their own cities, but my own school district would not accept them.