By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
The Ancona School continued with its 50 year anniversary celebration last Saturday by hosting a symposium to discuss how the school has created and cultivated a diverse school environment for the past 50 years.
The event, titled “50 Years of Diversity: Teaching and Learning at the Ancona School,” took place from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 2 at the school, 4770 S. Dorchester Ave. The school’s 50th anniversary celebration began Sept. 4 with the opening of its historical exhibit and a coat drive. Upcoming anniversary events include a gala on May 4 and grandparent’s day/birthday party on May 10.
Bonnie Wishne, the head of Ancona, opened the panel discussion by exploring how the school embraced cultural diversity and met the challenge of the needs for another type of diversity.
“Comedian Dick Gregory, who is the parents of an Ancona alumnus, once joked that Hyde Park was Black and whites working together against the poor,” Wishne said. “The school worked with him to create scholarships so that students from low-income families could also attend Ancona.”
Panelists for the discussion included Diana Slaughter-Defoe, the Constance E. Clayton Professor Emerita in Urban Education and Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania; Deborah Johnson, professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University; Enora Brown, associate professor of Educational Policy and Research at DePaul University; Gene Batiste, vice president for School Field Services and Equity and Justice Initiatives at the National Association of Independent Schools and Barbara Schneider, John A. Hannah Chair and University Distinguished Professor in the College of Education and Department of Sociology at Michigan State University.
Many of the panelists published studies that included Ancona in its research and reflected on the school’s success in creating what they called an “authentically diverse” school.
Slaughter-DeFoe said in a past study she examined four private schools in the city and she and her research team were amazed by the diversity and academic excellence they found at Ancona.
“We were concerned that people wouldn’t believe it so we asked for achievement and self concept data,” Slaughter-DeFoe said. “Ancona was superior on every account. It was able to tackle the issue of diversity and excel in the process.”
Schneider said the city’s school climate is similar to the way it was when Ancona opened in the ’60s.
“We still live in a world of segregation, major displacement and gentrification,” Schneider said. “People think the idea of charters just started now – no, it started in the ’70s.”
Schneider said she compared her study of Ancona to a Catholic school she also studied in the Uptown neighborhood.
“This was a Catholic school but many of the African American families were not Catholic,” Schneider said. “This was another way of denying who they were and not finding their identities.”
She said what makes Ancona stand out in the current school climate is its child-centered approach of helping the students develop a flexible mindset and the quality of instruction shows a real sense of community togetherness to reach a shared goal. She said the trust and respect that the leaders have for everyone from the faculty to the custodians shows a humanistic side that has been shown to be effective in education.
Brown said her love of Ancona started 37 years ago when she visited the school for a friend who wanted her professional opinion as an educator on the quality of the school.
“I saw 3 and 4 year olds talking about the Rain Forest and they were looking at a map,” Brown said. “I told my friend to bring her child here immediately.”
Brown returned to the school several years later to do research on her study “The Construction of Youth and Teacher Identities in Divergent School Context.” She planned to study Ancona and a public school with students from low-income families but after spending time with students at Ancona she said she decided to “live here.”
After sharing some of the comments and conversations on race, classroom behaviors and beliefs and social circles among the students she gathered from working with 7th and 8th graders in focus groups and interviews, Brown complimented the students’ abilities to engage in investigating their racial identities, their capacity to have conversations and conflicts constructively and their creativity in developing an experiment when they believed a teacher was being unfair.
“They decided that a Black student should walk out of the classroom and then a white student should walk out of the classroom to see what happens,” Brown said. “They observed the differences and talked to the teacher about what happened.”
Brown said this doesn’t happen at other schools. At another school both students would have been in the office.
She said at Ancona students are allowed to learn new things not repeat the old.
“Diversity is a journey not a destination,” Brown said. “We don’t have all the answers but we keep searching.”
Johnson and Batiste closed out the panel discussion by responding to the other panelists’ observations of the school. A community member also raised a question about how independent schools such as Ancona could share their diversity practices with schools and community programs citywide.
The panel discussion was followed by workshops, a poster walk and closing remarks by Wishne.