When Cindy Booker was in first grade at Hale Elementary School, she tasted Tater Tot hot dish for the first time.
“I think for some of my friends, that was the first time they had collard greens,” she said.
Booker shared the memory Nov. 9 at the 45th-anniversary celebration of the pairing of Hale and Field schools in South Minneapolis. The two schools were largely segregated by race before they paired in the fall of 1971, a move that parents and students from that time say has paid off significantly.
“It taught us so much when we were so little, and it really helped me through my entire life experience,” Booker told a packed crowd at Field that included parents and teachers who led the pairing.
Before the pairing, Field was majority African American and Hale was almost all white. The pairing was the idea of parents at Field, who had to work to sell it to those at Hale.
“You’ve never seen such lively PTA meetings as during those days,” former Hale parent Jane Galbraith said.
The School Board was interested and supportive, Galbraith said, though it took effort to garner support from the Hale community. Hale had been a solid school, she said, with many teachers nearing retirement.
“Every classroom was kind of a little kingdom on its own,” she said.
Many teachers at Hale left when the schools paired, Galbraith said, and some classrooms became shared between teachers. Both schools also received extra funding for the pairing, which went toward hiring school aides.
Jill Vecoli had a daughter who went from Hale to Field in fourth grade. She said most of the parents who weren’t happy about the pairing said it was because they didn’t want their kids on the buses. At the time, most Hale kids walked to and from school, and some parents wanted their kids to come home for lunch.
“All those things were valid to a point, but many of them didn’t want their children to go to school with black children,” said Vecoli, whose husband was president of the Hale PTA around the time of the pairing.
Vecoli recalled contentious PTA meetings and unpleasant phone calls from people opposed to the pairing. One of the remarkable things that happened, she said, was that a pastor of the Catholic church adjacent to Hale made it clear that the church’s K-8 school would not accept people from Hale who weren’t members of the church.
Vecoli was part of a group of about 12 women who planned a 40th-anniversary celebration of the pairing five years ago. The group enjoyed each other’s company so much that they still get together every-other month.
She recalled Hale parents watching their kids get on the busses on the first day of the pairing and then driving over to Field to watch the kids get off the bus. The kids did just fine, she said.
Field, which took the kids in grades 4-6, made some changes to the school, including placing students in larger units, or groups. The kids got experiences they wouldn’t have otherwise, Vecoli said, such as environmental studies and opportunities to learn about new cultures.
“Like any bunch of kids, there were things that happened, but it had very to do with any kind of racial issue,” Vecoli said.
Gregor Pinney, who covered the pairing for the Minneapolis Tribune, said most of the Hale parents were against the pairing at the time. Not long after the pairing, the district was subject to a lawsuit alleging intentional segregation, he said. The district was under federal supervision for about 10 years after the lawsuit.
Heidi Adelsman was in fourth grade at Hale at the time of the pairing. “It was life changing for me,” she said. “It was really a wonderful experience.”
She told the elders at the event that “you gave us the gift of realizing there’s such a richness in who we are with our differences and how we are the same.”
Zamara Cuyún began at Field in 1985 in the Gold Unit. She said 20 years later, she found out that she and her husband couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhood.
Cuyún at first placed her two kids in a predominately non-white school, but in 2009, she pulled them from that school and placed them in Hale. Within a week, her son was diagnosed with dyslexia. Within a few weeks, her daughter’s homeroom teacher was able to get her daughter the support she needed.
Cuyún said she was appreciative of the support but that the move came at a price for her kids’ self-esteem. Her son, Luis, became Louis for five years, she said. Her kids didn’t bring rice and beans to school for five years, either.
“They had to leave parts of themselves at home,” she said.
Greg King, an education organizer for the faith-based group ISAIAH who had three kids go through Hale and Field, said we as a society need to be willing to ask ourselves, “How am I advocating for every kid?”
“I think diversity is an amazing asset,” he said. “For a kid like me, who grew up as Filipino American in a white community, it means self-esteem and bringing up differences as something to share and be proud of. Diversity for a kid who’s in majority means learning empathy, learning compassion. It means developing a vocabulary that allows you to identify with and better navigate the world.”
Booker said she’s hoping schools can get back to diversifying their schools and staffs. She said she’s had young employees tell her bluntly that they’ve never had an African American teacher or supervisor before. Diversity, she said, “teaches everyone. It doesn’t just teach students of color. We need to be accountable for that.”