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Allegations of Racism Ignite Citywide Debate

The Commonwealth Day School

By Matthew M. Hoffman

By the time the Commonwealth Day School became a hot topic of debate in the city of Cambridge this fall, it was too late for anyone to help.

Overwhelming pressure from its wealthy Brattle St. neighbors had already forced the private elementary school--whose student body was more than 90 percent minority--to sell its Cambridge building after only one year of limited operation. Forced to relocate into Boston, the school had already seen its enrollment drop to a handful of students.

And according to headmaster Robert Myette, the school had no intention of returning to protest the hostile environment it had so recently vacated. "It was always our intent to protect the students and the parents and the children so they wouldn't have to get involved in anything political," Myette said, shortly after the school's departure.

But in Cambridge, the issue of the Commonwealth Day School's departure was anything but over. Fueled by an onslaught of media attention, city residents and local politicians were quick to point to the school's racial composition as evidence of a serious racial bias in the Brattle St. area.

And the fact that more than 200 of the city's most prominent individuals--including several prominent Harvard professors--had lent their signatures to the campaign to force Commonwealth Day out of the city did nothing to help matters.

"All these people are very political, very liberal about what should be," says Elaine Daily, a teacher at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and member of a special mayoral commission which investigated the school's departure. "But it was their turn, and it didn't happen. And that's it in a nutshell."

A Stormy Arrival

Commonwealth Day originally arrived in Cambridge in the spring of 1988. after buying the historic property at 113 Brattle St. While the building had been used for a school for early 50 years, its most recent occupant was the predominately white New Preparatory School.

No one had objected to New Preperatory, or any of its predecessors, but Commonwealth Day was not so lucky. Only days after school officials began to move furniture and equipment into the building, they were slapped with a cease-and-desist order--requested by Arthur Brooks, a next-door-neighbor with several influential connections in the city.

Over the course of the summer, the school had to contend with a number of similar hassles--including a five-week period in which the city stopped all trash pickups at the newly-acquired property. And although Commonwealth Day requested--and received--permission from the city to run a kindergarten in the building, it ran into immediate opposition from Brooks and other neighborhood resident when it applied for a special permit to run an elementary school.

Brooks and his wife even went so far as to circulate a petition opposing the school's expansion among some 230 of their neighbors, ranging from City Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55 to celebrity telechef Julia Child.

Petitions said they objected to Commonwealth Day because it would create traffic tie-ups and safety problems with the daily dropping off and picking up of children.


Of all the names on the petition, none attracted so much attention as that of Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law Lawrence H. Tribe '62. One of the nation's foremost experts on the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, Tribe is a darling of the national liberal establishment, and his name is often bandied about as a likely bet for a Supreme Court seat under the next Democratic administration.

And last summer, when Commonwealth Day finally announced that it was leaving the city, it was Tribe's name on Brooks' petition, more than any other, that drew attention to the matter. While the law professor was quick to repudiate his signature, the appearance lingered that the liberal, tolerant image of Harvard and Brattle St. was nothing more than a thin veneer.

"I think those people believe that those minority students deserve better," says Janice Platner of the city's human rights commission, who also sat on the mayoral commission. "But I think they believed that they deserved better somewhere else."

"Intellectually, they aren't racists," Planter says. "But in their hearts?"

"I don't think anyone who signed that petition was blameless," she adds.

Could so many people from one of the most liberal areas of one of the country's most liberal cities possibly have been motivated by racism in their efforts against the school? Could Brooks have really goaded city officials into launching a campaign of systematic harassment against the school over the summer of 1988, as some school affiliates have suggested?

Or were the majority of the petition signers duped into lending their support to a matter about which they had been misinformed, as many contended? The answers to these questions are still far from obvious, and throughout a hotly contested fall city council race, politicians of all stripes--but primarily the city's conservative bloc--jumped on the school's departure for their own political ends. "Hypocrisy doesn't end with the Commonwealth Day School," read one popular banner displayed by the anti-rent control Small Property Owners Association.

And while the mayoral commission appointed to investigate the matter found significant evidence of bias, the City Council has yet to take any significant action to address the findings. Stanley Eichner of the Massachusetts attorney general's office says that the state is still conducting its own investigation into possible civil rights violations.

And throughout the controversy, Myette and school officials have remained silent, explaining that they do not want to cause any more problems for their parents, teachers or children. When addressing an October rally prompted by the school's departure, Myette made no mention of any racial problem. "Our needs are simple," he told the crowd. "Students, students, and scholarship funds for them."

"It was already over before anyone got involved," says the mayoral commission's Daily, arguing that despite the city's sudden burst of concern over the school's departure, it has done little to remedy the situation.

"I think it's probably the worst thing that ever happened to Cambridge," Daily says.

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