Bill Cosby, once the voice of cartoon character Fat Albert, is intent on making sure New Haven’s schoolchildren speak English well enough not to end up in a junkyard gang.
“Would it make you feel wonderful to hear your surgeon say ‘wassup’?” Cosby said, mocking the informal, ungrammatical words he said he fears children today use too often.
Cosby was the final speaker at the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute’s 25th anniversary celebration Wednesday night at the Omni hotel. Author Calvin Trillin ’57 served as the program’s emcee and a host of others, including New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo and Yale President Richard Levin, were on hand to laud the institute’s efforts to educate New Haven public school teachers and to expose them to all of Yale’s resources.
“With Yale sitting here, something has got to be done,” Cosby said.
Though he is known primarily for his venerable acting career, starring in “The Cosby Show” and more recently “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” Cosby is no stranger to the fight for better public education.
Cosby, who holds a doctorate in education and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, worked with public school students in Philadelphia while he was an undergraduate at Temple University. He recently established a teacher outreach program there to help improve the quality of the city’s public schools. At the celebration, Cosby joked that he had no problem finding funds to support the program.
“The beauty of it is I don’t have to wait for a grant,” Cosby said. “I am the grant.”
The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute was established in 1977 when former Yale President Howard Lamar and James Vivian, the institute’s current director, proposed the idea after Yale history professors and New Haven public school teachers participated in the History Education Project. Like the institute, the History Education Project was designed to encourage Yale educators and local teachers to do research and develop curricula for nontraditional subjects.
“I felt a revolution had taken place,” said Lamar, who was the honoree at Wednesday’s celebration.
Every summer, the institute selects New Haven public school teachers to participate in seminars facilitated by Yale faculty. The program grants all participants the privileges afforded to Yale faculty, such as access to libraries and other university resources.
“[It shows how] a great university and a great city can work together in a common enterprise,” Levin said. “It’s just what America’s universities ought to be doing.”
Cosby, speaking more seriously, turned his attention to what he called the hideous conditions of most public schools.
“What did the children ever do to deserve this?” Cosby said, expressing his distaste for the current educational environment in many schools nationwide, specifically those in low-income areas. While teachers at some of these schools are simply unequipped to deal with some of the everyday problems that arise, Cosby said it is the system that must be fixed.
“How do you grade a teacher where the system is an ‘F’?” he said.
In recent years, the institute has expanded to become a national phenomenon. Levin said programs modeled after the Yale institute were created in Albuquerque, N.M.; Irvine-Santa Ana, Calif.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Houston, Texas.
“It’s been a big help for all the teachers in our area.” said Mary Jefferson, a teaching fellow at the Houston Teachers Institute, which was started in 1999 based on the Yale-New Haven model. “My goal at this point is to try to reach out and get younger teachers involved with the institute.
Those who attended the celebration had only positive feedback to give about the institute’s work.
“I had found that many of the teachers are among the noblest teachers at any level,” said Yale architecture professor Kent Bloomer, a member of the institute’s executive committee.
“I wanted to work with other teachers in a collaborative manner,” said Elsa Calderon, a Spanish teacher at Hillhouse High School.
By the end of the night, Cosby had rallied the teachers, professors and other attendees to continue working to improve the public schools.
“You’d be surprised how brilliant these children are if they’re given an opportunity,” he said.
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