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As they lived and breathed: 1971 experiment in integration resonates

One of the two Sidetrack classes from 1971, which brought together students from Lincoln and Roxbury for one year that's been etched in the memories of those who participated.John Hagenbuckle

So many discoveries to make ‘on the other side’ of the racial divide

Re “The radical, forgotten experiment in educational integration that changed my life” (Ideas, Jan. 22): In my 20s I owned a house in Roxbury with my boyfriend. He bought it with money from his Italian American parents, and we lived there for several years during the period Peter Thomson recalls in his story about the 1971 Sidetrack program, in which kids from Roxbury and Lincoln spent half the year attending school together in the city and the other half in the suburb. That is why so much of it resonates with me.

It wasn’t my first experience of a Black neighborhood. At 16, I had volunteered to be a reading tutor for a Black 6-year-old who lived in the Cathedral Projects in Boston’s South End. That idea was met with a torrent of objections from my immediate family that sounded much like the objections of some of the Lincoln parents in Thomson’s article: “too dangerous,” etc. I respectfully ignored them, and since it was a school-sponsored program, they were too intimidated to stop me. I only stopped because we moved away.

This article brought back so many memories of that time and our own experience of living “on the other side.” We both learned something fundamental about racism in America by being “on the other side”; being the only white person on the subway platform; being the only white couple at the City Hall meeting, where we were kindly asked if we were “in the wrong room.”


I’m grateful to Thomson for having written this article. That period has been on my mind during the last few worrying years of watching as things begin to revolve backward. This is an important story for people to hear.

Ann Thompson

Biddeford, Maine

Me-first ethos has collapsed the promise of public education

Peter Thomson and his classmates drew many lessons as they looked back on their experience in the Sidetrack program. However, there is a sense of wistfulness that can obscure why efforts such as Sidetrack have floundered.


Our country has lost the belief that schooling should benefit all children equally and that this in turn would benefit our communities and the larger society. Indeed, the combination of racism and a view that the only goal of education is to provide individual benefits has not only doomed such important experiments as Sidetrack, it has also hobbled all efforts to make our public schools purveyors of a democratic ethos. The term “learning community” that used to be central to all discussions of education has all but disappeared.

Our schools are increasingly segregated, the economic inequality between white households and households of color is growing, and urban public education is hemorrhaging students. The tragic irony of all this is that the supposed beneficiaries of these changes — families at the top of the social and economic ladder — are also suffering.

We’ve seen an epidemic of adolescent depression, an increase in suicide, and a rise in destructive and self-destructive behavior. Meanwhile, young people entering adulthood are facing a mountain of student loan debt. To recover the potential of Sidetrack and similar experiments in education, we must return to the idea that schools should serve all of us, not simply the children of those who benefit from inequality.

Paul C. Mishler

South Bend, Ind.

The writer is an associate professor of labor studies at Indiana University South Bend.


LAB School was another experiment that worked, for a moment

Thanks for publishing Peter Thomson’s article about the Sidetrack program. I remember and honor another program, the LAB School (“Learning About Boston”), sponsored by the Educational Collaborative for Greater Boston, which from 1976 to 1978 brought students together from Boston neighborhoods and suburban high schools. The success of the program, which was housed in the Peter Faneuil School on Beacon Hill, proved that students from different backgrounds and social classes could learn together, exploring the city as a classroom.

The experiment worked, but Boston and the suburban school systems did not appropriate the funds needed to keep it going. It changed my life and those of my students, some of whom I am still in touch with.

Young people today deserve to participate in programs like these.

Ellen Kaplovitz


The writer was a teacher at the LAB School from January 1976 to June 1978.

Best years of our lives are but a glimmer at the time

Peter Thomson’s reflection on Sidetrack was both moving and revealing in ways possible only for the most exceptionally engaged journalism. Even as we try, it’s impossible to understand our times as we are living them. We must go back to ask ourselves how it truly was, how things could have been better, whether a new policy that was greeted with well-publicized raucous disdain, such as busing, actually had many quieter virtues.

The message, over and over, is that the more days we spend with people from as many varied backgrounds as possible, the more empathetic, and fulfilled, we become as individuals. These memories of suburban and urban children who attended an experimental integrated classroom in 1971 are fascinating and poignant.


Only much later can we know for sure what were the best years of our lives.

Nicholas Dawidoff

Hamden, Conn.