Gertrude S. Williams, a retired Barclay Elementary/Middle School principal who gained recognition tangling with Baltimore school leaders to bring a “rich man’s” private school curriculum to low-income students, has died at 93.
Ms. Williams, who lived in Tuscany-Canterbury in North Baltimore, died of adrenal insufficiency due to a dermoid tumor Sept. 24 at Gilchrist Center Towson.
The former principal retired from Barclay in 1998 after nearly 25 years at the helm and nearly half a century in Baltimore education. Despite standing less than 5 feet tall, Ms. Williams could make her presence felt. She was tenacious and outspoken when it came to advocating for her beloved Barclay students and community.
“She had a magical relationship with children,” said Jo Ann Robinson, a friend and former Barclay parent who co-wrote a book with Ms. Williams on her career. “She loved them, and they loved her. She spoke their language.”
“Aunt Gert,” as her family called her, could always find some humor in interactions with people, said a niece, Lisa Jewett of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.
“She often shared funny stories about her students — what they said or did — that would have her and us in stitches.,” Ms. Jewett said. “And, she told those stories very dramatically.”
Early in her career as a Baltimore City Public Schools teacher during segregation, Ms. Williams was appalled at disparities in resources available to students in impoverished neighborhoods compared with their counterparts in higher-income communities.
As principal of Barclay from 1973 to 1998, Ms. Williams oversaw expansion to include pre-K and middle school. She was known for seeking out the most creative ideas within her vast education network and forming strong partnerships with families, often inviting parents in for feedback.
“She had this sense that the mission of every educator should be to help each child find his or her full potential,” Dr. Robinson said. “You couldn’t have a cookie-cutter approach.”
Her reputation was cemented by hard-fought efforts in the late 1980s to bring a traditional, demanding and highly structured curriculum used by Calvert School, a nearby private school. At the time, nine of 10 students at the Charles Village public school lived in poverty. The Abell Foundation offered to finance the experiment.
But Richard C. Hunter, a new superintendent hired in 1988, balked at the idea. Not one to take no for an answer, Ms. Williams persisted, finally getting a meeting with the school system chief only to have him tell her she could not impose a “rich man’s curriculum” on public school students.
Her retort that “We’ve never wanted a poor man’s curriculum” became widely known through media accounts and her book, “Education As My Agenda: Gertrude Williams, Race, And The Baltimore Public Schools.”
After mobilizing parents and community members and appealing to then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke during a public forum, Mr. Schmoke intervened. Barclay got the Calvert curriculum in an eight-year partnership.
Barclay students proved Ms. Williams’ theory, she would say, that kids can learn regardless of socioeconomic factors.
“As we knew they would be, Barclay children were successful with the Calvert curriculum,” Ms. Williams said in her book.
In an independent fourth-year evaluation, Dr. Sam Stringfield at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University found that the Barclay–Calvert students scored above local and national norms on a standardized basic skills test used by the city.
On a standardized test used by most independent schools, Barclay-Calvert students scored above the norms in writing and on par in other subjects. Barclay had fewer student absences, transfers and disciplinary removals. Word of the experiment spread, and educators and journalists from around the globe visited the school.
Mr. Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore, touted Ms. Williams as an innovative and inspirational educator.
“Her commitment to the children and families of Barclay Elementary school was legendary,” Mr. Schmoke said in an email. “She fought hard against bureaucratic rules that she thought would prevent her and her teachers from offering the most creative educational experience possible.”
“I’m sure central administration must have viewed her as causing what former Congressman John Lewis called ‘good trouble.’”
As a former Barclay student, the Rev. Dwayne Pate Jr. had no idea his pre-K-through-middle school curriculum was unique or controversial. But he knew the principal believed in him and his friends, even though he often acted out in anger and ended up in her office.
If students misbehaved and failed to live up to Ms. Williams’ high expectations, she would admonish them with “How dare you?” the Rev. Pate recalled.
“Most of us were taller than her, but it didn’t matter,” he said. “She knew how to command a room and set the standard for what she expected from us as students.”
The Rev. Pate, who graduated from Barclay in 1997 and eventually earned a master’s degree, credits Ms. Williams with helping to pave the way for his success as a husband, father, executive minister at his church, and mental health therapist for city elementary school students.
“She took the time to learn about my family and understand what environment I was coming from and did her best to see I was given every resource to thrive in that environment,” the Rev. Pate said. “She meant business, and you knew she was there for the kids.”
Ms. Williams was born Oct. 1, 1927, in Orange County, Virginia, the seventh of eight children of Horace E. Williams, a carpenter, and Mamie W. Williams (Wallace), a domestic worker. The family moved to Philadelphia while Ms. Williams was in elementary school. She graduated in 1949 from Cheyney State Teacher’s College, near Cheyney, Pennsylvania, becoming the first in her family to graduate from both high school and college.
She moved to Baltimore for her first teaching job at Charles Carroll of Carrollton Elementary School, a Black school in a segregated system.
In 1957, she earned a master’s degree in reading from Temple University, as Maryland did not offer graduate degree programs for African Americans but instead paid Black students to study out of state. From 1965 to 1969, she headed the counseling department at Mordecai Gist Public School, a historically white school that was desegregating when she arrived. She earned a counseling certificate from what is now Loyola University Maryland in 1967.
She was appointed assistant principal of Barclay in 1969 and became principal four years later.
She never married, dedicating herself to her vocation. But she often returned to Philadelphia for family gatherings with her many nieces and nephews. Sandra Jewett, a niece who lives in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, said she shared with her aunt a passion for education’s role in providing access and opportunity for all underserved and children of color.
“Her energy, passion and wit were infectious,” Sandra Jewett said. “We shared countless conversations since I was a little girl discovering who I was to become and my purpose. Through the years we talked about everything.”
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In 1990, Ms. Williams was awarded The Johns Hopkins University Presidential Medal for innovative and dedicated leadership.
“Gertrude Williams truly was a hero in the field of elementary education,” U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat who represents the 7th District and did so previously from 1986 to 1996, said in an email. “It was Gertrude’s creativity, love of students, and innovative spirit that won her praise from parents, educators, and elected officials.”
Jared Williams of Crum Lynne, Pennsylvania, a great-nephew, recalled his aunt as a woman of conviction.
“When she believed in something, she really believed it and was willing to speak up about it and take action,” he said.
After retiring, Ms. Williams continued her work in the community, serving on the board of the Fund for Educational Excellence and on the legislative committee of Maryland Retired School Personnel Association. She belonged to the Association of Baltimore City Public School Retirees. And she remained active with the 29th Street Community Center, the former Barclay Recreation Center, next to the school.
A memorial service is planned for Saturday at Sharon Baptist Church at 1375 N. Stricker St. in Baltimore.
She is survived by a brother-in-law, Preston I. Jewett of Philadelphia, nieces, nephews, a great-nephew, a great-niece and numerous great-great-nieces and great-great-nephews.