Sizemore, Barbara A. 1927–
Barbara A. Sizemore 1927–
Barbara Sizemore is a woman for whom the restrictions placed on African American achievement actually led her to her life’s calling. A classical languages major with a gift for Latin, Sizemore dreamed of becoming a translator with the United Nations. But in 1947, when she graduated from Northwestern University, teaching was one of the few professional avenues open to African American women, and it is within the realm of education that Sizemore has reached the highest level of professional achievement.
Barbara Laffoon Sizemore was born in December 17, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents, Sylvester and Delilah Laffoon, had moved to Chicago from Terre Haute, Indiana in search of jobs and a better life. However, shortly after Barbara was born, the Great Depression destroyed any opportunities for economic advancement and forced her family to return home. It was in Terre Haute, 72 miles southwest of Indianapolis, that Sizemore spent her formative years.
For an African American living in Terre Haute in the 1930s, daily life mimicked that of northern Kentucky; that is to say, while Indiana had never been a slave state, Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced. Sizemore still vividly recalls the segregation of her childhood: her inability to try on clothes at a store or to eat at lunch counters, seats at the back of the bus, theater tickets only in the balcony. Her elementary and middle schools, from kindergarten through the eighth grade, were also segregated. Throughout these years, all of her teachers were highly-educated African Americans. Despite the obstacles presented by segregation, Sizemore received an excellent education.
It was not until the ninth grade that Sizemore attended an integrated school. She quickly deduced that the segregation of the community at large had deeply penetrated into the school structure. In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography, Sizemore recounted her initial placement in section 9B3, the highest section available to African American students. When her mother was dismayed at the ease with which Sizemore sailed through her coursework, she marched into the school and demanded that her daughter be placed in the most advanced ninth grade section. However, according to Sizemore, “white supremacy” prevented this move, and she was elevated only to section 9B2.
Born Barbara Ann Laffoon December 17, 1927 in Chicago, IL; daughter of Sylvester and Delilah Laffoon; married and divorced; children: six. Education: Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, BA in classical languages, 1947, MA in elementary education, 1954; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, Ph.D. in educational administration, 1979.
Career: Teacher, Chicago Public Schools, 1947-62; served as principal of Anton Dvorak Elementary School, Chicago, IL; principal, Forrestville High School, Chicago, IL; director, Woodlawn Experimental School District; associate secretary of the American Association of School Administrators, Arlington, VA 1972-73; superintendent of schools, Washington, D.C., 1973-75; educational consultant, 1975-77; associate professor, professor, interim chairperson, Department of Black Community, Research and Education, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, 1977-92; professor emerita, University of Pittsburgh, 1992-; dean, School of Education, DePaul University, Chicago, IL, 1992-98; professor emerita, DePaul University, 1998-.
Selected awards: Charles D. Moody Service Award, National Alliance of Black School Educators, 1999; Harold Delaney Educational Leadership Award, American Association of Higher Education, 1999; New Jersey Association of Parent Coordinators Award, 2000.
Selected memberships: Delta Sigma Theta; Urban League; NAACP; Phi Delta Kappa; board member, Consortium on Chicago School Research, 1992-.
Addresses: Office— School of Education, DePaul University—Levan Zoic, 2320 N. Kenmore Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614.
In 1935, Sizemore’s father was killed in an accident. Her mother remarried in 1940, and the family moved to Evanston, Illinois in 1943. At the time, Sizemore was a senior in high school, ranked number one in her class, and was president of the national honor society. Concerned that her daughter would lose her number one ranking, Sizemore’s mother paid the state of Illinois to allow her to graduate from Wiley High School in Terre Haute, the same school from which Sizemore’s parents had graduated.
In return, Sizemore spent the final semester of her senior year at Evanston Township High School, “the most racist place I have ever been,” she told CBB. “It was as if the teachers were trying to make me fit into the stereotype of the Black student that they had in their heads.” For instance, she was assigned more difficult work than her white classmates. In a contest to judge students’ performance of a sonnet, Sizemore tied for first place with a white student. In order to declare one winner, the teacher assigned each finalist a new project. While the white student was asked to prepare a Milton sonnet with a simple structural scheme, Sizemore was instructed to learn the first 22 lines of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales —in Old English. When the Women’s Club of Evanston was prepared to present the graduating senior with the highest marks in social studies with a $500.00 cash prize, Sizemore’s social studies teacher did not give any A grades to her students so that Sizemore, the leading candidate, could not claim the prize.
Sizemore’s mother would not allow such blatant racism to detract from her plan to ensure that her daughter would earn a college degree. Both of Sizemore’s parents had graduated from Indiana State Teacher’s College. During Sizemore’s senior year, her mother worked as a domestic for a dentist who was president of the Northwestern University Alumni Association, and she asked him for assistance. Sizemore’s mother told her employer about her daughter’s ability to speak Latin. In an interview with CBB, Sizemore wittily commented that being able to speak Latin fluently was comparable to “being born in the 20th century with a gift for being the world’s best chariot driver.” While speaking Latin may have seemed anachronistic, it proved critical to her future. The dentist told Sizemore’s mother that Northwestern University offered a classical language scholarship, and encouraged her daughter to apply for it. However, Sizemore was informed that the scholarship could not be presented to an African American. Unwilling to accept this outcome, the dentist researched the award more closely and ensured that Sizemore received the scholarship.
Sizemore attended Northwestern from 1944 until 1947. Her experience at the university was not a happy one. Appalled by the racism that was prevalent on the campus, Sizemore helped to form a group called Students for Educational Equality in 1946. The group was composed mostly of African Americans and Jews, who also faced racism on campus. One day, Sizemore recalled in an interview with CBB, the group picketed the university president’s home. She looked to the west, and saw a person approaching her. “That looks like my mother,” Sizemore recounted to CBB. Her mother was working at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and had traveled to the campus. Sizemore’s mother grabbed her daughter and dragged her from the protest. She begged Sizemore to protest only after she had received her degree. Other mothers also appeared on the scene, and the protest was disbanded.
Despite her unhappiness, Sizemore remained at Northwestern. Upon graduating in 1947 with a bachelor of arts degree in classical languages, she immediately began to teach in the Chicago public schools. Initially, Sizemore taught English and reading to the mentally disadvantaged and Spanish in an elementary school. In 1954, she earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Northwestern. Sizemore eventually left teaching in 1963 to become principal of the Anton Dvorak Elementary School. She became the first African American woman to be appointed principal of a Chicago school. In 1965, Sizemore became the principal of Forrestville High School. As Nancy Arnez explained in The Besieged School Superintendent, by this time Sizemore’s “creative spirit had reached its stride as she initiated efforts to turn Forrestville from a gangland oasis into an innovative hiatus for the creative energies of her students, using the arts as a vehicle for learning the basic skills.”
After four years at Forrestville, Sizemore embraced a new challenge in 1969 when she became director and district superintendent of the Woodlawn Experimental Schools Project. She also served as an instructor at Northwestern’s Center for Inner City Studies, an innovate multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic graduate school program located on Chicago’s impoverished South Side. When the project went bankrupt in 1971, Sizemore became the coordinator for proposal development within the Department of Government Funded Programs for the Chicago public schools. In 1973, she left the Chicago public school system to become the associate secretary of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Virginia. One year later, Sizemore was elected superintendent of schools for the District of Columbia public school system. The election marked the first time that an African American woman had been chosen to head a public school system in a major city, and Sizemore was thrust into the national spotlight. In The Besieged School Superintendent, Arnez remarked that Sizemore was elected superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. because of her impressive accomplishments as a principal in Chicago and her philosophy of education. This philosophy was based on the principle of equal education for all students. As Arnez noted in her book, Sizemore argued that “All can learn equally in general only as they can learn differently…what we need is an educational system for people, all of whom are different instead of one for people who are assumed to be alike. All talent then becomes significant in an institution where there is justice for all.”
Given this core value, Sizemore fervently believed that the organizational structure—the teaching and learning environment—had to be changed so that schools met the needs of all students as they mature. She also held that public schools do not fully utilize the talents of African American students. In Sizemore’s opinion, the situation demanded a reconstruction of the teaching/learning environment along multi-modal (containing children of different ethnicity, age, and size within the group), multi-lingual, and multi-cultural lines. In interviews leading to her selection as superintendent, Sizemore also articulated additional systemic changes, including non-grading, team teaching, a K-12 integrated structure, curriculum changes, and an administrative team concept, which she hoped to implement.
During her tenure as superintendent of the Washington, D.C. public school system, Sizemore tackled several highly visible and politicized issues, including the abolishment of standardized testing and the decentralization of the school system. Standardized tests, she believed, reflected a bias toward Anglo-Saxon values and placed minority students at a disadvantage. As Arnez further explained in The Besieged School Superintendent, Sizemore emphatically held that these tests were not used “as tools for learning what special services or extra resources each child needs to meet his special ’growth rates, development patterns, learning styles, cultural heritage and sociolinguistic experiences.’”
Sizemore pushed ahead with her plans to restructure the District of Columbia school system. On July 1, 1974, she authorized the decentralization of the school system into six regions. The system, as Sizemore envisioned it, would provide multi-age, multi-level groupings within individual classrooms. She also sought to flatten the administrative hierarchy by involving parents, administrators, community leaders, teachers, and students in a collaborative decision-making body that would help to set and achieve educational goals.
After two controversial years as school superintendent, Sizemore was fired by the District of Columbia school on October 9, 1975. As Arnez remarked to Ann Bradley of Education Week, Sizemore was “before her time…she’s a brilliant person. She tried to do some things in D.C. that people couldn’t accept. The fact that she could stand up to authority is one of the things that frightened people. Her approach to Congress was not one of supplication and of begging. She was just putting forth, in a strong manner, the kinds of things she had in mind to help these nonachieving students achieve…[No one expected] that she would openly challenge the school board and demand that a majority Black school system serve the needs of Black children, and that curriculum be designed to fit that need.”
Sizemore told CBB that she “didn’t know the first thing about D.C.” before her arrival. She also called Washington, D.C. “a colony.” Governed by Congress or, as Sizemore remarked to CBB, its “racist white power structure,” citizens have no power to enforce their own decisions. Even their elected congressional representatives have no power to vote. Her behavior as superintendent, Sizemore told CBB, did not reflect this reality until it was too late. “I pretended I had power to make decisions when I didn’t have power to do anything. It took too long for reality to burst into my consciousness to allow me to make good decisions and, by the time that it did, I had made too many bad ones.” The D.C. Board of Education, moreover, also pretended to wield power that it did not possess. When the Board discussed the decentralization of the public school system, Sizemore thought they were serious and believed that such a move would make a difference. In truth, how-aver, the school board feared change and predominantly voiced support for the status quo. “What they really wanted,” Sizemore told CBB, “was for me to fire the people they didn’t like and hire those they did.”
Needless to say, Sizemore’s experience within the Washington D.C. public school system greatly affected her world view. Previously, she believed that democracy was esteemed as the highest value in the United States, and that American citizens truly sought equality of opportunity and access for everyone. Sizemore came to believe, however, that capitalism and the pursuit of wealth actually stood as this nation’s most cherished values. As an economic system, capitalism does not allow for equality. Instead, some will benefit greatly from the system, while others are victimized by it. When this realization became clear, Sizemore found a context for the nation’s focus and insistence on standardized testing, as well as her next mission. “Once I understood this,” Sizemore told CBB, “my mission became clear: help African Americans to pass the tests.”
From 1975 until 1992, Sizemore taught at the University of Pittsburgh. During her tenure, she conducted research on schools that effectively served low-income African American children. Sizemore returned to Chicago in 1992, and assumed a professorship at DePaul University. As Dean of the School of Education, she created her School Achievement Structure (SAS) program, which is designed to enable African American students to compete successfully on any standardized exam. As Sizemore remarked in an article for Catalyst —Chicago, “School improvement will not happen until the school employees make student achievement their highest priority and agree to cooperate and collaborate in changing their educational routines to attain it.” SAS laid out ten routines dealing with assessment, student placement, curriculum pacing and acceleration, monitoring, measuring, discipline, instruction, evaluation, professional development, and decision making. Assimilating SAS into the curriculum would, according to Sizemore, help low-achieving schools in Chicago convert into high performers.
SAS, at its fundamental level, embodied a complete reversal of Sizemore’s position while in Washington. No longer arguing for the abolishment of national standardized testing, she now put forth a curriculum in which standardized tests dictated the course of daily classwork. Within this structure, Sizemore’s SAS program helped to determine progress and enable students to move quickly through specific, pre-determined tasks.
In 1995, the Illinois State Legislature gave control of the Chicago Public Schools to the mayor. Paul Vallas was chosen as CEO of the public school system. He immediately asked Sizemore to serve as his chief education officer because he was impressed with her vision, commitment, and dedication. As Vallas commented to Bradley in Education Week, “Barbara takes over schools that no one wants to take and makes them work. Period. They have nowhere to go but up. Everybody wants to take the elementary schools, and nobody wants the high schools. She’s the only one with the guts.” Sizemore declined Vallas’ offer, but promised to help him close the achievement gap between minority and majority children.
Sizemore is also deeply committed to teaching children how to read. A talented reading teacher, she is harsh in her criticism of schools. As she insisted in an interview with Education Week, “There is too much laxness in our schools. The fear of the progressive people is that teachers will get caught up in the mechanics. Their own flaw is that they don’t teach the kids how to read.”
Sizemore continues to serve as a consultant to Vallas. Test scores in her targeted schools have started to rise, fueling renewed optimism in the SAS program. Schools in Indianapolis and Dallas/Fort Worth have also enlisted the help of this dynamic and strong-willed woman. With ever-increasing attention being focused on the poor condition of public schools in the United States, Sizemore may once again stand in the national spotlight.
The Politics of Decentralization: A Case Study of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia, 1979.
The Ruptured Diamond: The Politics of the Decentralization of the District of Columbia Public Schools, University Press of America, 1981.
Arnez, Nancy, The Besieged School Superintendent, University of America Press, 1981.
Catalyst - Chicago, September 1998.
Education Week, March 13, 1996.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Contemporary Black Biography on June 21, 2000.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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