On Tuesday, Hartford rededicated its largest elementary school to Michael D. Fox, possibly the most controversial and devoted educator ever to serve as superintendent of schools in the city. Fox was not only one of the most successful superintendents, he was also one of the longest serving.
Built on Maple Avenue as the original home of Bulkeley High School in the 1920s, the Fox school just underwent a $54.4 million renovation and, beyond being a physical connection to the time when Michael Fox served the city, it recalls educational issues similar to today's from nearly a century ago.
Fox oversaw the schooling of a large immigrant population struggling to get a basic education. He was a misunderstood figure in his time, but, like many visionaries, history should look favorably upon him.
Indeed, Fox was a charismatic personality, intensely devoted to his profession, putting education and discipline at the forefront of his goals. He never lowered expectations or ignored a single student. In 1916, his entire class of students delivered perfect scores on one of the state's first standardized tests. In 1917, The Hartford Courant reported, "Fox has won unprecedented popularity among pupils, parents and fellow teachers."
Fox was innovative and ahead of his time. He founded the Convalescent School in 1924, which was devoted to educating homebound children with disabilities. Visiting teachers taught in students' homes three times a week to provide continuity to the work normally done in the school.
Fox was the first teacher to develop a course in child safety at home and while traveling to school — a program that was adopted nationally. Recognizing that young girls were being left behind, in 1924 he created the Hartford Secretarial School, now known as Fox Business Institute — renowned for producing the best secretaries and executive assistants in the United States. Fox was also the first administrator to secure pensions for teachers. While securing rewards for his teachers, he was a taskmaster, demanding excellence and accountability in the classroom. He was known for firing underperforming teachers.
Different than today, Hartford had three school districts that annually elected committeemen who, in turn, chose their superintendents, one of whom was Fox. Although the annual elections did not include Fox on the ballot, he was thrust into the public spotlight because the votes were an indirect endorsement of the superintendent and an approval of his policies. And, those elections could be volatile.
Control of the public school system became increasingly political in Hartford in the 1930s. There was pressure to create a single school district with one superintendent. Fox believed that consolidating the old district school system run by independent boards into one large school system would lead to centralized power and decision-making, remove parental input and subvert student success.
On voting days, neighborhoods would be filled with pro- or anti-Fox lawn signs as his strategies became the focal point for those who wanted to retain him for his success or remove him and consolidate power into a centralized city school system.
For many years, Fox fought the corrupt politicians on behalf of the teachers, parents and students — who overwhelmingly supported him and his flourishing policies year after year. While the political establishment could not remove him at the ballot box, his detractors found an opening by attacking his original teaching credentials from University College of Dublin — ruling by fiat that an Irish college degree was not sufficient. When he was removed, students lost their greatest advocate.
In 1958, the old Washington Street School was named the Dr. Michael D. Fox School in his honor. In 1974, this was renamed the Dr. Michael D. Fox Senior Housing Center and, subsequently, the old Bulkeley High school on Maple Avenue was renamed the Dr. Michael D. Fox School. He is said to be the only unelected figure in Connecticut to have more than one building named in his honor.
Michael J. Hallisey, M.D., of Wethersfield is the grandson of Michael D. Fox and grew up in Hartford.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun