SJC Brooklyn alumnae Dr. Frances P. Connor ’40 developed the Department of Special Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; worked in the U.S. Department of Education; advocated for special education in over 60 countries; and helped bring about the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, since reenacted as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
IDEA was signed into effect Dec. 2, 1975, which marks 2016 as its 41st anniversary. In recognition of this historical reformation, Special Education Day was created in 2005 and is acknowledged annually Dec. 2.
Connor dedicated her life to promoting special education. So it came as no wonder that the 1940 SJC Brooklyn graduate left behind a $220,000 donation from her estate when she passed away at 95 on March 28, 2015.
She loved St. Joseph’s during her undergrad. I guess that’s where she felt she started and she got a good start. She wanted to pay back.” — Kathy Mangan, Connor’s niece
In 2007, Connor donated $50,000 to St. Joseph’s College and created the Frances Partridge Connor Scholarship Fund at the institution — an endowed scholarship for students majoring in special education.
“She would first want a student with a love of special education to receive the scholarship,” Mangan said. “I think that her primary concern is that they have a passion and that they are going to contribute to the field.”
Embarking on Her Mission
Connor’s illustrious career in education began during her undergrad years at St. Joseph’s College, teaching children with special needs at a rehabilitation hospital in Suffern New York and working at the New York Rehabilitation Hospital in West Haverstraw, New York.
“There was no education for these youngsters,” Connor recalled during a lecture at Teachers College in 2002. “These kids were not being thrown out of schools – they didn’t get into schools.”
Connor’s devotion and passion toward providing adequate schooling for children with disabilities helped shape the present-day field of special education.
After graduating from SJC Brooklyn, Connor earned an M.A. in Education in 1948 and an Ed.D. in 1953 from Teachers College. She went on to develop the Department of Special Education at Teachers College and stood as the department chair for 23 years, from 1966 to 1989.
She was also a professor emeritus of psychology and education, the director of the Special Education Research and Demonstration Center and accountable for a multi-million dollar grant that allowed Teachers College to build the four-story Thorndike Hall on campus. Under her leadership, the Department of Special Education at Teachers College enrolled the largest number of graduate students in the nation during the 1980s.
As a pioneer in special education, Connor served in some of the country’s top educational sectors, including the U.S. Department of Education; the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene; the Council for Exceptional Children, the largest professional organization on behalf of children with special needs; the National Advisory Committee to the United States Department of Education; and the Steering Committee of the White House Conference on the Education of the Handicapped.
Her first love was education and teaching. Her second love, well I guess simultaneous love, was special ed. That’s where her heart was and that’s where she did all of her work,” Mangan said.
Connor spoke on special education topics in locations across the United States and in more than 60 countries. She wrote countless research publications and was a member of the Board of Trustees at Mt. St. Mary College from 1970 until her death.
Aside from receiving numerous prestigious awards, her contributions in education and advocacy have influenced the world. Two of her most notable efforts were made toward the passage of IDEA and the official closing of the Willowbrook State School — an institution for children with intellectual disabilities that abused its residents.