Roxbury Weston Programs
In april of 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech on Boston Common in front of a crowd of 20,000. In it he stated that America “must not become a nation of onlookers” in the struggle against segregation. He spoke of a “serious racial imbalance” in the Boston public schools and called for an end to inequality and school segregation. “This will go down as one of the greatest days that Boston has ever seen,” he said. “The vision of a New Boston must extend into Roxbury.”
During that time, Nancy Baer, Harriet Elliston, and Imogene Fish were members of a subcommittee of the Weston League of Women Voters dealing with educational issues. Affluent towns were pouring private money into their public schools, ensuring the best programs, while the less-fortunate communities struggled to find even qualified teachers. Out of the committee’s deliberations and a burgeoning sense of powerlessness, an idea for a program that would bring together children from both Weston and Boston began to grow. It was the 1960s, after all. All across the nation people were standing up and acting out and making themselves heard. It was time for Weston to get involved.
Their goal was to provide an opportunity for children from the two communities to come together in a desegregated environment where they could learn together and grow up with a better understanding of their world and those with whom they share it. But what would that be? And would anybody be interested? And most importantly, how would they pay for it?
Baer, Elliston and Fish dreamt up the idea for a camp, further developing the program by enlisting family and friends, one of whom was Rev. Harry Hoehler. He put them in touch with the Blue Hill Christian Center in Roxbury which was receptive to the idea and became the site for the city-based part of the camp program. On March 18th, a letter was published in the Town Crier asking for an expression of interest, which received an immediate and encouraging response. The cost, including staff salaries, bus rental, refreshments, insurance, supplies and equipment, came to $5.00 per week per child, and was financed by a group of residents so that children would have a broader and more unique summer experience. As far as the founders knew, a project of this scope had never before been attempted. There was such a show of financial support that a number of “camperships” became available for those families who needed it. This tremendous collaboration across economic, social, racial, and religious lines led to the opening of Camp Blue Hill.
On July 5, 1965, 50 kids from Weston and 50 from Boston took part in the camp’s first session. They divided their time between Weston at the Case Estates and Roxbury at the Blue Hill Christian Center taking part in different activities at each location. “The thing I remember most was riding around on the buses, singing songs, fooling around with the other kids,” recalled Andy Baer of Weston, who attended the camp at age twelve.
The following summer, a day camp was added for preschool aged children and in the fall of 1966 the Roxbury Weston Preschool opened in the school space at St. Peter’s church in Weston. Like Camp Blue Hill, the preschool was focused on the equity of experience, regardless of race. The Roxbury Weston Programs was incorporated that same year as a non-profit educational organization and is now the longest running, voluntarily desegregated educational program in the country. “It’s true integration. There is no minority there. Everybody is treated like a person, and everybody learns from everybody else,” said Hannah Morehouse, who directed the preschool from 1975 to 1993.
Today, Roxbury Weston Programs continues to faithfully serve children from the MetroWest and Boston neighborhoods and the leaders are very proud of their accomplishments. “RoxWes came into existence and continues to survive and thrive in a context which values diversity and equity in educational opportunities,” says Winnie Hagan, Executive Director. With desegregation being the standard, “the resulting diversity creates fertile learning opportunities in which children gain invaluable awareness and knowledge of the world by interacting with others outside their immediate neighborhood.”
Although Camp Blue Hill’s last session was in 2001, the preschool continues to flourish at the First Parish Church of Weston where it has been since 1968. In 2002, Roxbury Weston Programs launched their after-school enrichment program, CATCH (Children Achieving Through Community Hope), which is located in Roxbury and was founded by RoxWes Preschool alum, Monique Marshall-Veale. It provides educational support for kindergarten through third grade students that goes beyond mere homework help. The curricula of both programs support each other and the staff bolsters the children’s academic success by helping them develop school smart skills, placing equal emphasis on their physical, emotional, social and intellectual growth.
Throughout the history of the program, some degree of financial aid has been given to families in need, and today approximately 30 out of 50 enrollees receive subsidized tuitions, which is remarkable because the Programs has never received any money from the Commonwealth. Everything they’ve done, all that they have and are able to offer, is the result of fundraising efforts and grants but still, it isn’t easy. “We struggle mightily to meet these needs and never quite have enough,” says Hagan who, despite that fact, considers the needs of each family with great care, never wanting to turn a child away.
For 42 years, Roxbury Weston Programs has survived because people from a number of very different communities care about keeping their mission alive. They understand that things like skin color, neighborhood, and personal beliefs should not be seen as obstacles, but recognized as unique opportunities for understanding. The founders of Camp Blue Hill believed this in 1965 and the families and communities served by the Programs believe it today. Hagan says she would like to see Roxbury Weston Programs’ model replicated in other communities. “Research findings attest to the powerful effects of quality pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and primary grade experiences,” she says. “Curriculum, assessment, instruction, and standards should all be aligned throughout the [pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade] experience of all children.”
Both programs are accredited and have maintained accreditation for a collective twelve years by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). NAEYC is considered the gold standard for the industry and accreditation is a distinction shared by less than ten percent of early childhood education programs. The preschool has received several merits for excellence. “My perhaps overly naïve feeling about that school,” Morehouse once said, “is that if everybody could go to a school like that, the world would be a much better place.”