Gwen’s Story, A Final Letter

Gwen’s Story, A Final Letter


The time has come and I want to write about it all, or as much as I am able. It may help to explain some of who I am or have been for you. If you’ve heard this before, feel free to skim or not read!

I was born in Rangoon Burma in 1952 and lived in Haiti as well as a young child. My parents, both physicians, were out to save the world. After they realized it was a monumental (and undoable!) task, especially in Haiti, with a brutal dictator, they retreated to Yellow Springs, Ohio where I spent from 2nd-12th grade. My 4 siblings and I felt then and still do that we grew up in a nearly utopian community – that was racially and economically integrated, influenced by Antioch College and many intentional folks who believed in the power of our village to right inequities and raise children to be actively involved in the democracy that was/ is the USA. It wasn’t perfect and has changed some like so many towns and cities have, as the social contract in this country has been eroded, racism contuse to be a pandemic, and the concentration of wealth is now clearly in the 1%.

I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a little girl. As I came of age, I felt more and more that teachers had the power to change the world – for the better – by supporting children’s critical thinking, providing authentic and relevant curriculum, and giving them a voice in their learning. Growing up in the 60’s with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war protests, I wanted to work for the revolution, bringing these tools of critical thinking and empowerment to my classroom. Summerhill by A.S. Neill was formative reading for me as were other radical educators

of the time. I needed adventures as well, so I dropped out of Pitzer College to travel and work. I ended up in the UK. There I discovered the British Infant School (children ages 5-9 years) approach – an incredibly progressive philosophy in all the state schools, based on the work of Piaget, Erickson, and Kohlberg, and all who had trans- lated the tenants of child development into ways of teaching. That was not happening in the States at the time so I applied and did my undergrad work there, at Nottingham College of Education in Not- tingham University. I learned how to be the teacher I wanted to be as well as to drink tea – the rest is history, as they say. ☺

I returned to the States in 1975, to Cincinnati, Ohio, where my parents had moved for a brief period before moving back to Yellow Springs. I found that the public elementary schools were not aligned with the theory and pedagogy I had learned in the UK. Fortunately, I happened to see an ad in the newspaper for a teaching position and adjunct instructor at Arlitt Child Development Center, a labora- tory school at the University of Cincinnati for 3, 4, and 5 year olds, that also had a Head Start contract. The enrollment of children was diverse racially and economically. We taught one half day with chil- dren, worked in Head Start outreach and with student teachers and professors doing research in the other half. It was the very best place I could have wished for to begin my teaching career. From 6 years there, over the next 10 years, I taught at labs schools at the University of Rhode Island and at Wheaton College. Though I was trained to teach in early elementary grades, being able to put child development into practice was what I knew I had to do as an educator and the only place for that, at the time, was in preschools.

Along the way I re-met (first met him when he was a student at Antioch) Tom Marantz, when he was in medical school at the Uni- versity of Cincinnati. We lived together and then eventually married and our daughter, Eleanor (Nell) was born in 1978. Fast forward to our move eventually to Northampton, in 1984, when daughter, Kate was born two months after we moved here. Tom got a job as a cardi- ologist. I taught at Cloverdale Preschool and then at Smith College’s Fort Hill and then finally put my toe into the public schools, in 1988, as the Early Childhood Coordinator. I count my experience working with Barbara Black and Clare Higgins, both childcare administra- tors (Vernon St. and Amherst Childcare respectfully), as helping me navigate the public schools, keeping my early childhood hat squarely on. I was given the task, through a substantial grant from MA. Dept of Ed., to move the public schools’ kindergartens and early grades to a more developmentally appropriate model of teaching and learning. I had done my masters at Antioch New England Graduate School in a grant-funded combo program in special education and Develop- mental Teacher Education – basically how to be a change agent. At the same time, I began what has been a lifelong study in working to be an anti-bias/anti-racist/early childhood/activist educator.

Another grant program in the Northampton Public Schools, Chapter 636 Desegregation & Equity was secured to monitor and ef- fectively deal with racial imbalance and segregation in Northampton Schools. When the full time coordinator for this grant – we worked closely together – resigned, a portion of the work was added to my job as Early Childhood Coordinator. It clearly should have been two fulltime jobs but I did my best to merge and align the work in plan- ning and implementing professional development and support for

Northampton educators in social justice, anti-bias/anti-racist, developmentally appropriate education. At the time, MA Dept. of Education was committed to the safety and support of LG- BTQ students and staff so my job was to help the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances for students and additionally, specific professional development for educators of students in their classrooms. I also, as the Civil Rights & Equity Coordinator/ Officer, was responsible to monitoring hiring (affirmative action) and investigating and mediating complaints of bias and harassment by students, families, and staff. It was when I was in this position that Andrea Ayvazian, then head of Com- munitas, an anti-racist organization, and I started our work together, leading workshops and discussion groups in anti- racist practices, both in the schools and in the community. I loved my job – it was an exciting time of change and being paid to be a change agent was just my cup of tea, as it were.

The 80’s and 90’s in Northampton were also decades of great change – from a predominantly blue-collar mill town with an Ivy League College to more like what it is now, with a lot of pain and angst along the way. There was the infamous ABC 20/20 TV program about “Lesbianville”, as the popula- tion shifted – the city became more diverse, economically and politically. It was continues to be a mostly racially and economically segregated town, due to housing, with most of the global majority and of poverty living in income-eligible housing developments. Jackson St. School’s student popula- tion was then borderline segregated – it was the school for the two largest developments, Hampshire Heights and Hampton Gardens (now Hathaway Farms) and was not a viable choice for many who were able to choose alternative private educa- tion. It did not have a good reputation amongst the privileged. I knew this reality both as a parent – our daughters went to JSS – and as the officer in charge of monitoring racial im- balance. We, as a district, debated whether to implement a magnet school system in order to have voluntary desegrega- tion and offered free busing to any families who chose other schools their neighborhood ones if their move contributed to racial balance. I found that being a part of the schools, as a parent and as an employee responsible for monitoring enrollment data and planning professional development to address educators’ needs to learn and grow in their knowledge of developmentally appropriate and anti-bias practice, was both personally and professionally challenging and exciting.

My office was located at the Bridge St. School in what we called “The Parent/Teacher Resource Center”. It was a place for community meetings and workshops and had an extensive library of books, references, videos, and materials for teachers. Deany Andersen was my assistant in the grant – she also worked for Casa Latina, so we were able to merge our work. Patty Dubiel (newly retired BSS 1st grade teacher) and then Brenda Colon moved into Dean’s position when she left. IlovedmyjobandbeingintherolethatIwasin.Oneday,in the fall of 1994, Superintendent Bruce Willard popped into my office to explain that the Bridge St. Principal who had planned to retire in 6 months, found that he had to retire in 2 days, for some financial glitch in his pension. His replacement had

been hired but she could not start for 4 months. He asked me if I would be the interim principal . I asked for some time to think about it – he said fine – he gave me 24 hours! I spent the night writing a letter – basically laying out my terms and conditions, which included that I knew nothing about boilers and would not yell at kids. He agreed to this and I began what would turn out to be a career-changing experience.

My time as Bridge St.’s interim principal led me to obtain a principal license so I could apply for future openings – I was happy in the role of principal, as “the big teacher” of a school, as I was able, with Bruce’s permission, to define it. Two years later, in 1996, there was an opening – at Jackson St. Bruce took a chance on me – the least experienced of the 3 finalists – and stayed with me as mentor and support for the first 7 years at JSS.  I am sure that if it weren’t for Bruce, I would have had a very difficult time staying with the challenge of the early years of my time at JSS.  I had been told by some that the school was viewed by many in Northampton as the “ghetto” school, its reputation was not great amongst the more privileged in the community, mainly because of its demographics (over 50% students of color and nearly 70% of families qualifying for freed and reduce lunch. I ended up knowing the “inside story” of the school, both as a parent and an having been the Early Childhood/Civil Rights & Equity Coordinator educator – the good, the bad, and the ugly, to coin a phrase. In both roles, I knew there were many excellent educators at JSS and all were the most part, good-hearted and well-intentioned. Many were long-term teachers in the district and I sensed that those who felt unappreciated and under-resourced in some ways – with all the English Learners in the city clustered there, the high poverty rate, and teaching techniques by some members of the faculty that needed attention and revision – and the reality, I knew, was that it was not given what it needed to meet the needs of the population. The students, based on the model and philosophy dictated by the district at the time, received special education services in separate resource rooms, not in the mainstream, for much of the day and the English Learners were in the bilingual/ESL rooms, separated from their peers. There were teachers who were distrustful of me, not having gone through the ranks of the Northampton schools or being a local. I mustered all that I knew about authentic curriculum, equity, anti-bias/anti-racist practice, educational change and human development (not really any different from child development) to build trust while modeling, encouraging and gentle but firm and respectful insistence, that there be real professional growth and change. 

Early days at JSS for me were indeed some of the most difficult of my professional career. I had to make some very tricky hiring decisions in the first summer. I encountered educators who dismissed, marginalized, discriminated against, and disparaged students – mostly due to race and class. “Don’t worry about them, they’ll just end up in the police log anyway”, “He’s only good for flipping burgers at McDonalds”, “Homey homey cracker” (said directly to a 1st grader) , “Gwen, why are you concerned (about worksheets that had Easter bunnies on them), this is a Christian country”– were among some of the things said to me in response to questions and concerns. A teacher singled out a student who had just arrived from India, in front of the class, asking him not to wear the “bad-smelling” gel on his hair. A student, who was sent to me by her teacher for disrupting class, told me when I asked her if raising her hand instead of calling out in class, could help, “Ms. Agna, the teacher only calls on the kids who read chapter books”.  I began the careful, deliberate, respectful process of listening, modelling, and drawing lines for the unacceptable. 

Gwen Agna with Jackson the dog standing in front of the Jackson Street School main entrance.
Gwen Agna, stands in an empty Jackson Street school with Jackson, the therapy dog. Agna is retiring after 24 years as principal and is spending her last months working from home.

To say that there was pushback is to put it mildly. Many a night I would find myself alone, in the darkened school, breathing in and then out, and saying I can do just one more day. Again, if it were not for Bruce Willard and some very key and supportive allies on the staff/faculty, I would not have made it. I inherited an extraordinarily difficult situation – the previous principal identified who they thought were “the bad and the ugly” and told me all about it while I was a colleague of theirs. The way they dealt with it- targeting, disrespecting, marginalizing –  made my work all the more difficult. I could not and would not treat even the most egregious of acts by the most inappropriate of educators the way the previous principal did. They had engendered such resentment that the behavior and the teachers that needed addressing simply could not be when I arrived. I felt sad for those – and there were many – who were so clearly wanting to do best by their students.

It took years – research says that for substantive school change it takes at least 7 – to establish a culture and climate to welcomed, challenged, supported, and held all students and their adults (including the staff, many of did not feel safe to express their opinions.). We secured another grant, “The Accelerated Schools Project”, out of UCONN Dept, of Gifted and Talented -the program supported our work in including and holding high standards for ALL students, particularly those for whom we now label “High Needs”. We examined our curriculum to analyze it for relevancy, appropriateness, and accessibility. The students met and wrote their own Code of Conduct – called “Respect – For oneself, For others, for property” and we had a big campaign of posters, announcements skits, assemblies to promote and imple- ment it. I asked the students in my first year, “Is it OK with you that we have a school where there are daily fights and students feeling disrespected and not included?” Of course, there was a resounding NO to that question so the work became school wide and led, in large, part by the students themselves. Another important action was supported by Bruce Willard in the school budget – to identify that Jackson St., with the highest needs in terms of demographics and largest enrollment in the district elementary schools, had also the largest class sizes and also the same number of Title I reading and math teachers as the other schools with very different demographics. He approved my re- quest for class size reduction and increased reading and math services as a critical intervention.

I believe that all of the above – plus the opportunity over the years to hire teachers, ESPs, and staff (office and custodians) who are scholar-practitioners from diverse backgrounds – have brought us to where we are today. Jackson St. School has an ex- cellent reputation as a welcoming, joyful, intellectually stimulat- ing, and community-committed and minded school community. The adults view their work through lenses that include being the best possible in academic and authentic challenge, social/ emotional, equity, social justice, and fun (“Have Fun “is one of our school rules!). We have been on the forefront of bringing Lucy Calkins Readers/ Writers workshop through self-study and sending some to Teachers College to become “teachers of

the teachers”, Investigations/TERC Math (Holly Ghazey, retired 5th grade teacher, worked in the early days of TERC to develop it), Fountas & Pinnell Phonics Lesson & Comprehensive Took Kit, through a grant and continued self-study, Responsive Classroom through self-study and sending some teachers to Northwest Center for Education to be teachers of teachers, Emotionally Responsive Practice through Bank St. Graduate College of Education (Professor Lesley Koplow included work at and with JSS in three of her books, “Bears Bears Everywhere”, “Schools That Heal”, “Politics Aside: Our Children and Their Teachers is Score-Drive Times”), being invited to present at the DSAC Dept of Education Conference to explain how it was that our MCAS growth scores were good, given our demographics, and managing, for the most part, to ensure that everyone feels as if they belong and deserve their place at our table. Mindfulness, school-wide twice a week and in all classrooms, all-school assemblies and singalongs (accompanied by our staff, Uke Ohana) that start with a Moving Meditation, 5th grade leaders, Principal’s Table, Hershey’s Kisses for students and for the JSS and High School grads who are invited back for the annual hon- oring assembly, JSS Rules (Be Kind, Be Respectful, Be Safe, Try Your Best, Play Fair and Have Fun), the MCAS mantra of “Try Your Best and it Will be Fine”, DAY(s) of PLAY, student-led voter registration, student protests, poster campaigns, petitions, and VOICE, and much more (I’m sure I’ll remember some after I publish this – and you will too!). I am proud to have been a part of this extraordinary school community and I am also so happy to leave it in the capable hands of Lauren Brown. She knows what we have here and will bring great leadership and plenty of ideas to share with all.

Gwen Agna standing in front of an old car filled with baloons.

I will leave you with LOVE. It’s all you need, or at least the es- sential ingredient in it all. One of my favorite authors, Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot (my fave book of hers, “RESPECT”), wrote the Foreword to another favorite book of mine, “Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School” by Carla Shalaby:

…(Shalaby) speaks about “teaching love and learning freedom” as deeply relational , respectful endeavors that must (my emphasis) be threaded into the fabric of a humanistic education. She is referring to the kind of love that she believes should permeate every relationship between teacher and student; a love of symmetry and devotion; a love that is tough and demanding; but also enduring and forgiving; a love that makes the other person feel seen and worthy. Shalaby believes that the language and culture of love should be a part of scholarly discourses about education: love and advocacy should shine through teachers’ relationships with their students and love should be at the center of community building and belonging in classrooms. She also sees classrooms as places where we must practice freedom; places where children must be treated with reverence and dignity as free persons; “microcosms of the kind of authentic democracy we have yet to enact outside those walls”; spaces for children to lift up their voices – individually and collectively, in harmony and cacophony – and say what the need and who they are.”

Yes, oh yes, oh yes. Thank you dear JSS – you will live forever in my heart. I love you.

Ms. Agna