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Audio recording of the interview with A. Spencer Denham

A. Spencer Denham 

(Interviewed by Orra Davage on 9/25/1984. Transcription: 33 pages)

A. Spencer Denham, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, moved to Hubert Terrace near Argonne Park with his parents in June of 1956. In September, he entered the fourth grade at Bryant School. Mr. Denham describes his childhood as being very pleasant and enjoyable. He recalls that he stayed very active by playing sports and participating in club activities and going to the movies. Previous living in a black community in upper Harlem, Mr. Denham describes the opportunity to become friends with many different types of people as being very interesting and adds that the diverse population of Teaneck was a new experience for him. Another vivid childhood memory he offers was the impact of discovering a robin's nest on his property when first moving to Teaneck. As a child it seemed "unbelievable" to him that he could observe the entire process from egg to fledgling in his own backyard. Mr. Denham remembers that on the first day of school, he wanted to take the now abandoned nest to school, regarding it as a prize and a treasure. In 1959 the speaker attended Benjamin Franklin Junior High School and later continued on to the high school. At that time, Mr. Denham explains there were 2,100 students in three grades and that there was about 712 students in his graduating class. 

Mr. Denham could point to only one racial incident that occurred in the fourth grade that involved a young girl at lunch time being bitten by a dog that supposedly belonged to a black student. The speaker remembers that an announcement was made over the PA system requesting "all the colored kids" to "please come down to the auditorium." Mr. Denham believes there were a dozen black students who attended Bryant at the time and recalls he and the other black students were lined up so that the girl could walk "back and forth to see if she could pick out the student that had the dog." He adds, "At that time, it didn't phase us one bit. We thought it was kind of, white, colored...didn't mean that much to us. We were all just kids and light or dark didn't really mean anything." Mr. Denham says his interest and participation in athletics shielded him from racial encounters and attributes being on a team and "building a little family" to breaking down the color and religious lines that often divide. Mr. Denham concludes that the diverse populations in Teaneck schools and the experience gained in working and playing with the many different types of people prepared him later in life to deal "with a plethora of viewpoints that are cut through it all and establish how you a foundation...and go from that point (p. 1 - 9)

Mr. Denham states in 1955, his parents were in fact predominately steered by realtors toward the northeast section of Teaneck. At the time, he claims his parents did not realize that there was much more to Teaneck. His father, who was a salesman for Standard Foods, attended the Presbyterian Church across the street. He recalls that some people were resentful that minorities were becoming members of the Presbyterian Church. However, one Sunday Rev. Willenberg, addressing this attitude in his sermon, announced everyone was welcome and entitled to become a member of the church whatever color they were as long as he was minister of the church. The church welcoming them with open arms, in addition to neighborhood friendships, contributed to making his parents feel very at home in Teaneck. At the time of this interview, Mr. Denham states they still reside in the same house (p. 10 -12).

After graduating from Teaneck High School in June of 1965, Mr. Denham attended the University of Dubuque in Dubuque, Iowa. From pages thirteen through seventeen, Mr. Denham relates some experiences he had in this rural liberal arts college. Primarily positive experiences, the speaker believes he succeeded in changing some minds out there from the narrow perceptions previously held about blacks as individuals; specifically that not all blacks participate in riots and uprisings.

After graduating in 1969, he returned to Teaneck to teach ninth grade World History at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. In 1976, he became the administrative assistant under Aubrey Sher. In 1981, he applied for assistant superintendent of schools and was selected by the Board after completing the interview process (p. 17- 18).

Mr. Denham discusses the racial makeup of the teaching staff when he came on staff in 1969, as well as the configuration of the student body at Thomas Jefferson in 1969. Mr. Denham submits that the children of the Fifties and Sixties are not the students of today; and as an educator, suggests that creative approaches be utilized in the classrooms and that teachers be trained in new techniques so that the twenty to thirty students assigned to the class get a challenging experience. He encourages teachers not to be "stingy" with "good ideas" and to share them with other colleagues. In this regard, Mr. Denham believes there should be more grade level meetings for the purpose of common planning periods. As an administrator, he discusses the frustrations and difficulties in instituting change but says the positive feedback he eventually receives from 90% of teachers makes it worthwhile (p. 19 - 22). From pages twenty-one through twenty-five, Mr. Denham explains how he progressed through the ranks from educator to administrator. The Assistant Superintendent admits in pages twenty-six and twenty-seven that a more concerted effort is required in the recruitment process to reflect more affirmative action.

As Assistant Superintendent, Mr. Denham has been the common denominator in the face of the "revolving door superintendency." The speaker addresses some of the problems that have occurred as a result of the rapid changeover, and he admits it has not been a good experience for Teaneck owning to the need for stability at the top (p. 27 - 28).

Mr. Denham concludes the interview expressing opinions relative to accountability and answers his self-imposed question: "How do you make sure teachers are doing their job." (p. 28 - 33)


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