Roosevelt Weaver Believes in Language Immersion

Roosevelt Weaver talks about a unique program he developed for a local elementary school that had students speaking French and Wolof.

Roosevelt Weaver, a retired Principal, believes American schools need greater language exposure.

roosevelt weaver
Photo courtesy of Roosevelt Weaver.

Growing up in the segregated South, Roosevelt Weaver remembers how white boys and black boys would often find themselves on opposite sides of the train tracks. They would start throwing rocks at each other until the cops came and dispersed the group. “I realized that I could run faster than boys that were much older than me,” said Weaver.  One of five siblings, Weaver’s mother was a nurse and his father was a Baptist minister who wouldn’t allow his children to play sports on Sundays.    

As a result, the first time Weaver participated in sports was in 10th grade. “One of my football coaches noticed that I had tremendous speed. So I went out for track,” said Weaver. A previous Montclair Dispatch article covered the impressive accomplishments of  “Dr. Speed.”  However, there is another side to Roosevelt Weaver, that of an innovative educator.

After college, he began substitute teaching and he also joined the Peace Corps which allowed him to travel to Senegal, Africa. This experience was perhaps the greatest influence of his life. He was made aware of how stereotypically we often view other cultures. He even had the opportunity to look at some of the schools there.  “It was so sad to see the conditions of some of the schools. Kids had to stand up because they didn’t have seats,” he said.

Weaver has a master’s degree in Urban Education from Simmons College in Boston. He then attended Harvard, earned a Doctorate in Educational Administration and became the first black principal of Bernice A. Ray Elementary School in Hanover, N.H.  

Weaver was invited by a friend to teach in the East Orange school system. “They had this new concept called Open Classroom Education,” he said. “I helped with the planning of the school for a year and then became its first principal.”   

What he experienced in Africa influenced his work as an educator. “When I came back I thought of developing a relationship with Senegalese students. At the same time, we had a large number of Haitian students coming to our school and they were treated as second class citizens. There were a lot of conflicts and fights. I had to think of a way to bring the black students and the Haitian students together. I thought about languages.”

In his program, the Haitians taught the black students Creole and the black students taught the Haitians English. They also welcomed Senegalese students to the school. Weaver took great care in assembling a faculty from France, Haiti, Canada and Senegal. Classes were taught entirely in French and Wolof (Senegalese).

The program was a huge success. “The so-called Special-Ed kids spoke French and picked up Wolof just like that,” said Weaver, proud of his students. “It got to the point where the parents were asking for classes.”

Weaver believes that language immersion is the key to improving American education. Around the world, most countries teach a second language early on. Being bilingual is a great help in life, whether it opens up job opportunities or simply inspires greater communication with the people you meet in this ever increasingly global world. In America, we don’t pay enough attention to it, and he says immersion is the only way to truly become fluent. “I’m on a committee now that is trying to get this kind of language training into the Montclair schools,” he said.

Weaver has been a Montclair resident for many years. He raised his children here, both of whom attended Montclair high school and ran track. His son, however, discovered a greater passion for soccer, and has coached the Montclair High School team with amazing success. His daughter is a landscape designer for a New York museum.

Weaver feels that Montclair, as a community, reflects his own love of diversity. He said the “openness of the people” is extraordinary. “It’s a saying among Harvard students that ‘when you leave here it won’t be the same.’ That can be said for Montclair as well. When you go other places, you see more negativity,” said Weaver. He shared that his daughter experienced racism when she attended college in Ohio.

“Montclair is a very good place for kids to grow up. Culturally there is a lot of interaction and a lot of opportunities,” said Weaver. “[When you leave for a time], you learn how beautiful Montclair is.”

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