Reunion will mark 125 years of Montclair’s trailblazing Glenfield school
(KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Glenfield Middle School's Student Action Team for Partnership has planned a 125th anniversary party to celebrate the history of the trailblazing magnet school.
The event, set to take place on June 12, will highlight the school’s focus on visual and performing arts, while showcasing Glenfield as an integral part of Montclair's community.
Since its establishment in 1896, Glenfield’s evolution has taken place in many steps. As the first public school in the area, Glenfield, originally an eight-room elementary school known as Maple Avenue School, provided education to Montclair’s South End, including its prominent immigrant and Black community. A junior high school division was added in 1933.
"This school was the promise of America to so many people in this community,” Daniel Gill, a social studies teacher at the school for more than 50 years, said. “The people in this part of Montclair were Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants and African Americans who had emigrated to Montclair from the South. The building of this school was at least a testament to Montclair's intention to provide opportunity to everyone within the community."
For many in the community, Montclair’s magnet system — where students don’t necessarily attend the elementary and middle schools closest to their homes, but can apply to ones throughout the district based on learning styles — is a source of pride. The story of the development of that system is deeply tied with Glenfield’s.
In 1967, then-State Commissioner of Education Carl Marburger, in Rice v. Board of Education — dealing with racial imbalances in district schools — found “any consideration of the issues herein must begin with the admitted fact that certain schools under respondent's jurisdiction are attended by a preponderance of Negro pupils,” The New York Times reported in 1977. That set off a decade of efforts to integrate before the magnet system was developed.
The racial imbalances were as stark at Glenfield as anywhere in the district. By 1961, a junior high program at Glenfield was 90% Black, according to a history of the school shared at the rededication of its Catching Owens Community Suite earlier this year.
Gill recalls attempts at busing students to and from Glenfield failing, when parents from Upper Montclair objected that their students weren’t receiving an adequate education, and parents whose students would have otherwise attended Glenfield complained their children were late getting home.
The Times report and others in the 1970s describe a decade of false starts toward integration — multiple variations on plans that were criticized for falling short of solving racial imbalances, and that still drew pressure from anti-busing families.
In 1977, the magnet system began — first with just two schools and later encompassing the entire district.
Gill took part in a task force that helped find a mission for the magnet school. They needed to find a centerpiece of its experience to draw community members outside of the South End.
"What are the things that we could do to create a magnet here at Glenfield? That would, in fact, attract people? To come here regardless of whether their child was being bused or not, and then therefore naturally integrate the school," Gill said.
Creating a magnet program could also help demonstrate investment in the school, and demonstrate a need for further investment from the district itself, he said.
"It would not only be in support of the people here in the South End. It would show that this school had been underserved and not renovated over many years," Gill said.
Ultimately, Glenfield’s magnet was chosen — a gifted and talented program with an emphasis on performing arts, according to the history shared at the community suite dedication.
Students would have the option to specialize in various art forms, such as acting, dance and musical production, Gill recalled. The school also implemented a "house system," in which students were paired with the same teachers for their full stay through the grades.
Flash forward several decades, and the system has continued to attract families like that of Kimya Nielsen, one of the organizers of the reunion celebration. She sends her daughter to the school.
"It's a large school and yet they all seem to know each other. The design of the house system, I think, does a lot to create these learning communities. They're with this core group of kids and then they get to go outside of that for their extracurriculars. So, you're getting to really interact with your peers," Nielsen said.
Gill says the house system promotes stability at a crucial time in children's lives, and allows them to build better relationships with their peers and teachers.
Stronger relationships directly resulted from the magnet system, relationships like the ones now-Councilman David Cummings of the Fourth Ward built while he attended Glenfield from 1979 to 1981. He recalls his experience with teachers, including those he remembered as Dr. Barksdale and Mr. Truman. They supported kids not only in the classroom, but in the community, he said.
“Now you have a sense of belonging and a sense of expectation when you walk those halls,” he said.
Cummings described the teachers as “determined to make sure that their students were prepared” and said they built relationships with whole families as siblings made their way through the grades.
“Anyone who graduated from Montclair High School up until the ’70s, they will tell you how important those teachers were to them,” Cummings said.
He still attributes his Glenfield education to his knowledge of Black history.
"I'll never forget Dr. Barksdale, my African American studies teacher when I was in eighth grade. A Black man that was a doctor teaching social studies and African American history. I learned a lot, and not just about slavery but also Africa and the diaspora. When you have that type of education, that's what Glenfield really meant,” Cummings said.
In 1978, Glenfield adopted a community school concept. The minutes of a June 25, 1984, board resolution say community education is “a philosophy based on the belief that learning is a lifelong process which takes place in the classroom and embraces all life experiences such as work, social activities, recreation and civic settings.”
Funding to support the idea came through a grant written by district employee Stephanie Robinson, who traveled to Washington, D.C., with longtime civic leader Wally Choice (namesake of the community center in Glenfield Park) to promote it, according to the history provided at the Catchings Owens event.
Facilities such as a planetarium were built for the public and students alike to use. The Catchings Owens suite itself opened in the school after a 1980 renovation, originally under the name “Glenfield School Community Suite.”
Performance art, community and history are three aspects that shape what Glenfield Middle School is today. As committee co-chair for the June 12 celebration, Nielsen hopes to include all three of these features in the event.
Slated to start at 1 p.m. at Glenfield, the event hopes to follow a "Hidden Figures" theme by highlighting alumni who went to the school and their achievements. Organizers also hope to include as many art programs as possible, including the orchestra and jazz band.
Like Glenfield, the event is open to all in the community: "So it is absolutely a celebration and a reunion. It is a community reunion. We want everybody to really come together. We want to show off what Glenfield has to contribute." Nielsen said.
— Includes previous reporting by Diego Jesus Bartesaghi Mena and Jaimie Julia Winters
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