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Teacher, Warrior

Barbara Sizemore: An insider reports on the decades-long fight to teach our children.

Walking in Circles: The Black Struggle for School Reform, by Barbara A. Sizemore, Third World Press, $19.95 (February 2008), ISBN-10: 0883782529, ISBN-13: 978-0883782521, pp. 370.

Barbara Sizemore boasted that when she taught elementary school on Chicago’s West Side, parents would say, “Mrs. Sizemore can teach a brick to read.” 

While that is certainly hyperbole, if she could not, it was not for want of trying, based on the record she left in this posthumously published account of her life in education.

Her colleagues, Dr. Safisha L. Madhubuti and the late Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III, who recall her work in the foreword and afterword, portray her as a fearless reformer and children’s crusader who skillfully marshaled data as her weapon of choice. She was also an advocate for the scholarship and practice of teaching methods, administrative structures and educational policies that produce results.

After 27 years as a classroom teacher and administrator, Sizemore, who died in July 2004 at age 79, became the first Black woman to be superintendent of a major city school system (Washington, D.C.) in 1973 and later served as dean of the School of Education at DePaul University.

Her guiding principle was that every child can learn, and if for some reason a child does not, those charged with teaching him or her are almost always at fault. That she took this as a personal responsibility is apparent in every page. She once asked for, and got, all the students no one else in the school wanted to teach.

Sizemore, who grew up in Terre Haute, Ind., and later moved to Evanston, Ill., devotes considerable space to explaining her own background — her family, her education and her biases.

She wrote the book in the final two years of her life while battling cancer and appears to have been intent on setting it all down so we might have a record. It is like having an expert tour guide through all the philosophies, research, reform efforts, curriculum fads, fiascos, misguided undertakings, political wars and educational gains that have impacted American schooling in the last 60 years.

Madhubuti describes it as a “critical analysis of the political forces that have shaped the course of African-American education, indeed African-American life, over the last 50 years.”

As a teacher, principal and later administrator of experimental “community control” schools, Sizemore was accustomed to controversy and not averse to stirring it up, sometimes to her own detriment, as she candidly points out at several junctures.

Ultimately and sadly, she came to believe that much of her good work and that of others to provide schools that actually taught something to poor, Black and otherwise disenfranchised students was an exercise in futility, thus the title Walking in Circles. The enemy, she states emphatically and often, is an educational hierarchy and supporting political structure devoted “to the preservation and expansion of White supremacy and its counterpart, the imputation of Black inferiority.”

That would mean that our society does little to improve the schools and to make sure each child learns because the power structure has a vested interest in maintaining its own status. It is a cynical view, but one based on her considerable experience on the front lines of urban education.

Sizemore urges successors to her legacy to confront the supremacy/inferiority dynamic “at every opportunity, and keep the glare on it.”

It is no wonder that Hilliard calls her a “warrior scholar,” adding that she was “uniquely qualified” to offer this chronicle and critique of American education.

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