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Frances Connor, Pioneering TC Special Educator, Dies at 95

TC Professor Emerita Frances Connor (Ed.D. '53, M.A. '48), whose fierce and savvy efforts during the 1960s, 70s and 80s to win schooling for children with disabilities helped lay the groundwork for the present-day inclusive education movement, died in March at age 95.

TC Professor Emerita Frances Connor (Ed.D. ’53, M.A. ’48), whose fierce and savvy efforts during the 1960s, 70s and 80s to win schooling for children with disabilities helped lay the groundwork for the present-day inclusive education movement, died in March at age 95.

Connor served as President of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and was a member of the five-person committee that helped shut down the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. The closing of the school, famously decried by Senator Robert Kennedy as a “snake pit,” helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980. Connor’s work also helped bring about passage in 1975 of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, since reenacted as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

At Teachers College, where she was the Richard March Hoe Professor of Education, Connor served for 23 years as Chair of what was then TC’s Department of Special Education, leading a group of pioneering faculty members that included Ignacy Goldberg, Leonard Blackman and Herbert Rusalem in establishing the College as the nation’s foremost destination for students in the field and as a national research hub. Blackman, whom she hired to lead research on the learning potential of children with intellectual disabilities, put together a proposal for the federal funding to build Thorndike Hall, and Connor ensured its success in Washington.

“Fran was the person who really built the program of special education at TC,” said Blackman, now Professor Emeritus of Psychology &Education. “Research was not her primary focus, but she had the vision to add research capabilities to the department. It was through her relationships with the government that we got federal support and were able to bring in more students and more research. And through her work in prominent organizations, her impact extended beyond TC to the nation and the world.”

“Fran was notable for her political acumen, her advocacy, her sense of the history of the special education field, and her vision for where it needed to go,” said Linda Hickson, TC Professor Emerita of Education. “She was an advocate for the physical, cognitive and emotional development of people with disabilities, and perhaps the one person of her time who was knowledgeable about and devoted to the whole range of those issues.”

Frances Partridge Connor began her long career teaching children with cerebral palsy in Suffern, New York.

“There was no education for these youngsters,” she recalled in a lecture at TC in 2002, 16 years after her retirement. “These kids were not being thrown out of schools – they didn’t get into schools.” Those standing in their way ranged from lawmakers whose rulings consigned the most severely handicapped children to “the back wards of institutions” to parents of children with other kinds of disabilities.

“As children with cerebral palsy started to come to the surface, the parents of children with polio rebelled,” Connor said. “They said, ‘these children are contaminating our children – they don’t speak or walk well, we don’t want our kids to emulate them.’”

As a result of these early experiences, Connor sought experience in the policy arena, serving in research associate positions for the federal Department of Education and the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene before joining TC’s faculty. She also served on a CEC committee that drafted a statement calling for education for all children, and, in 1963 became President of the organization. A year later, at the CEC annual convention, she delivered an impassioned address titled “The Sword and the Spirit,” in which she argued that that “special educators are to be liberated, not trained”; that “special education depends upon an intensive infusion of new knowledge, not the perpetuation of past practice”’; and that the basis of the field should be “hope, not preconceived limits.”  The speech set an agenda that, half a century later, continues to define the field.

Around the same period, Connor also sent an eight-page memo to TC’s new President, John Fischer, arguing that the Special Education department should take global leadership on several fronts, including promoting the field, conducting research, assisting all educators to better understand the problems faced by special needs children, and preparing special education teachers to work with children with multiple special needs.

All of these goals were realized on her watch. As a direct result of the construction of Thorndike Hall in 1972, the Special Education department led the field in graduate student enrollment during the 1980s.  Under her tutelage, Connor’s own students became activists and key participants in securing grants for teacher training.

“There were hundred-thousand dollar grants available in those days, and to get them, you had to match the outreach and dissemination by showing where your past graduates were in the field or where current students were going to go,” recalls Christine Pawelski, who earned her doctorate in special education research while Connor was Chair of the Department and served for many years as an adjunct faculty member and project director in TC’s Center for Opportunities & Outcomes for People with Disabilities. “This was before computers, so Frances had us identify where all the graduates had gone from recent years and then color-code these crazy maps. It took forever, but she knew that’s what it took to get the money and she set a model of advocacy that we never forgot.”

Connor herself lectured and consulted around the world, chaired New York Governor Hugh Carey’s Committee on the Handicapped, and served for years on the National Advisory Committee to the United States Office of Education (now the Department of Education) and as a member of the Steering Committee of the White House Conference on the Education of the Handicapped from 1975 through 1978.

Over the past two decades, much of what she fought for has come to pass, with a growing number of children with special needs entering general education classrooms. Connor herself received the CEC’s Best Contribution Award and J.E. Wallace Wallin Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet when she spoke at TC in 2002, Connor decried what she saw as a continuing lack of services for children most in need, and a lack of consensus among special education researchers and teachers themselves about how best to provide them.

“Where are the thought-provoking and generally agreed-upon ideals for implementation of policy to ensure the broad application of our mission statement as a field?” she asked. “Are we creating the least restrictive environments in our schools, or merely the least expensive? I know that lobbying is a no-no these days – but there are people who act on behalf of all citizens who really want information about what’s appropriate, and we’ve got to get that information to them in a way that makes sense.” – Joe Levine


If you would like to make a gift to the Prof. Frances Connor endowed Scholarship Fund, please click here to a secure giving page.

Published Wednesday, Jun. 3, 2015

Frances Connor, Pioneering TC Special Educator, Dies at 95

TC Professor Emerita Frances Connor (Ed.D. ’53, M.A. ’48), whose fierce and savvy efforts during the 1960s, 70s and 80s to win schooling for children with disabilities helped lay the groundwork for the present-day inclusive education movement, died in March at age 95.

Connor served as President of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and was a member of the five-person committee that helped shut down the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. The closing of the school, famously decried by Senator Robert Kennedy as a “snake pit,” helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980. Connor’s work also helped bring about passage in 1975 of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, since reenacted as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

At Teachers College, where she was the Richard March Hoe Professor of Education, Connor served for 23 years as Chair of what was then TC’s Department of Special Education, leading a group of pioneering faculty members that included Ignacy Goldberg, Leonard Blackman and Herbert Rusalem in establishing the College as the nation’s foremost destination for students in the field and as a national research hub. Blackman, whom she hired to lead research on the learning potential of children with intellectual disabilities, put together a proposal for the federal funding to build Thorndike Hall, and Connor ensured its success in Washington.

“Fran was the person who really built the program of special education at TC,” said Blackman, now Professor Emeritus of Psychology &Education. “Research was not her primary focus, but she had the vision to add research capabilities to the department. It was through her relationships with the government that we got federal support and were able to bring in more students and more research. And through her work in prominent organizations, her impact extended beyond TC to the nation and the world.”

“Fran was notable for her political acumen, her advocacy, her sense of the history of the special education field, and her vision for where it needed to go,” said Linda Hickson, TC Professor Emerita of Education. “She was an advocate for the physical, cognitive and emotional development of people with disabilities, and perhaps the one person of her time who was knowledgeable about and devoted to the whole range of those issues.”

Frances Partridge Connor began her long career teaching children with cerebral palsy in Suffern, New York.

“There was no education for these youngsters,” she recalled in a lecture at TC in 2002, 16 years after her retirement. “These kids were not being thrown out of schools – they didn’t get into schools.” Those standing in their way ranged from lawmakers whose rulings consigned the most severely handicapped children to “the back wards of institutions” to parents of children with other kinds of disabilities.

“As children with cerebral palsy started to come to the surface, the parents of children with polio rebelled,” Connor said. “They said, ‘these children are contaminating our children – they don’t speak or walk well, we don’t want our kids to emulate them.’”

As a result of these early experiences, Connor sought experience in the policy arena, serving in research associate positions for the federal Department of Education and the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene before joining TC’s faculty. She also served on a CEC committee that drafted a statement calling for education for all children, and, in 1963 became President of the organization. A year later, at the CEC annual convention, she delivered an impassioned address titled “The Sword and the Spirit,” in which she argued that that “special educators are to be liberated, not trained”; that “special education depends upon an intensive infusion of new knowledge, not the perpetuation of past practice”’; and that the basis of the field should be “hope, not preconceived limits.”  The speech set an agenda that, half a century later, continues to define the field.

Around the same period, Connor also sent an eight-page memo to TC’s new President, John Fischer, arguing that the Special Education department should take global leadership on several fronts, including promoting the field, conducting research, assisting all educators to better understand the problems faced by special needs children, and preparing special education teachers to work with children with multiple special needs.

All of these goals were realized on her watch. As a direct result of the construction of Thorndike Hall in 1972, the Special Education department led the field in graduate student enrollment during the 1980s.  Under her tutelage, Connor’s own students became activists and key participants in securing grants for teacher training.

“There were hundred-thousand dollar grants available in those days, and to get them, you had to match the outreach and dissemination by showing where your past graduates were in the field or where current students were going to go,” recalls Christine Pawelski, who earned her doctorate in special education research while Connor was Chair of the Department and served for many years as an adjunct faculty member and project director in TC’s Center for Opportunities & Outcomes for People with Disabilities. “This was before computers, so Frances had us identify where all the graduates had gone from recent years and then color-code these crazy maps. It took forever, but she knew that’s what it took to get the money and she set a model of advocacy that we never forgot.”

Connor herself lectured and consulted around the world, chaired New York Governor Hugh Carey’s Committee on the Handicapped, and served for years on the National Advisory Committee to the United States Office of Education (now the Department of Education) and as a member of the Steering Committee of the White House Conference on the Education of the Handicapped from 1975 through 1978.

Over the past two decades, much of what she fought for has come to pass, with a growing number of children with special needs entering general education classrooms. Connor herself received the CEC’s Best Contribution Award and J.E. Wallace Wallin Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet when she spoke at TC in 2002, Connor decried what she saw as a continuing lack of services for children most in need, and a lack of consensus among special education researchers and teachers themselves about how best to provide them.

“Where are the thought-provoking and generally agreed-upon ideals for implementation of policy to ensure the broad application of our mission statement as a field?” she asked. “Are we creating the least restrictive environments in our schools, or merely the least expensive? I know that lobbying is a no-no these days – but there are people who act on behalf of all citizens who really want information about what’s appropriate, and we’ve got to get that information to them in a way that makes sense.” – Joe Levine


If you would like to make a gift to the Prof. Frances Connor endowed Scholarship Fund, please click here to a secure giving page.

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