Shirley Kountze, a woman who has lived a noteworthy life, was Medford’s first African American school Principal. In this position, she implemented a multicultural vision that resonates back to the diverse neighborhood in which she grew up.
Born on September 2, 1938, Shirley was raised as an only child in New York’s Bronx neighborhood by her lawyer father and schoolteacher mother. This was a middle-class ethnic and racial mosaic populated mainly by Jewish and Italian immigrants with a block and a half of African Americans. Her parents created a safe and encouraging environment: “One of the things that they instilled in me,” Mrs. Kountze remembers, “was that there was nothing I couldn’t do and there was no place I couldn’t go.”
Shirley met her husband Elmer (“Al”) Kountze when they were both attending Boston University as History majors. In 1959, when Shirley was going into her senior year, they got married and they moved in with Al’s parents in West Medford. Everybody in this community knew each other and were supportive of one another. Yet it was painful to know that African Americans were unwelcome “across the tracks,” beyond the three streets-Jerome, Lincoln, and Arlington-that formed the focus of the Black community.
For Shirley, who had grown up in a diverse community, the racial pockets in Medford were all too obvious. Her remedy was to bring schoolchildren together across racial and cultural differences.
After moving to West Medford, Mrs. Kountze earned her Masters degree in Elementary Education from Salem State College in 1968: as a teacher, she could spend more time with her children. For two years she taught at Tufts’ Elliot-Pearson School. Then during the busing controversy in the Medford Public Schools in 1969 she became very active in the desegregation of the Hervey Elementary School in West Medford, working with other African American parents who wanted equal treatment for their children. Through this process, she was one of a few African American teachers hired at the Hervey in 1970. At that time it became a “k-3 Magnet School” that was designed to create a multicultural environment, drawing students of all races. For Shirley this was a wonderful opportunity to put her ideals and teaching philosophy to good use: she introduced a more progressive teaching style than had been usual at the Hervey.
After teaching in the Hervey for four years, and supervising a Language Arts program for one year, she was made Principal of the Hervey and Hillside schools in 1975. In 1981 she was transferred from the Hillside to the Brooks School in order to expand the successful magnet program from k-3 to k-6, thus becoming Principal of the Brooks and Hervey Schools. In 1984, the small Hervey School closed and the magnet program was expanded to Grade 8 at the Hobbs Junior High School: Shirley was now Principal of the Brooks/Hobbs k-8 Magnet School. As Principal, her primary goal was to create a multicultural environment in which every student had access to all programs. “I was going to make sure that everybody was exposed to everything the school had to offer,” she says, “And everybody was going to know about everybody’s culture. And celebrate that.” As she had always done as a teacher, she looked past her students’ and teachers’ limitations and sought what they needed in order to excel. Her expectations were always high but never unreachable, and she provided the resources for both students and teachers to attain them.
Through her career she has touched many lives. People of her generation, with children attending her schools, could see how instrumental she was in making school a better place for all children. They could see how her schools had transformed since their own schooldays. West Medford was home to a great Principal, who laid a foundation of respect, understanding, compassion, and self-worth that will not be forgotten. “You’re smart, you’re proud, and you’re skilled,” insists Mrs. Kountze.
Pearl Emmons, May 2005
Resource persons: Mrs. Shirley Kountze, Mr. Elmer Kountze, Ms. Carol Rickenbacker