Without the influence of Conrad Toepfer, American middle schools as we know them may not exist. Toepfer, one of the "founding fathers" of the middle school movement and an evangelist for the education of young adolescents, died April 20 at 86 from cancer. His work helped form the intellectual bedrock of the movement to create distinct, separate middle schools.
“They needed more than either advanced elementary school programs or junior editions of the senior high school,” Toepfer said in an interview for “The Legacy of Middle School Leaders: In Their Own Words.”
Known as “Connie” to friends, family, colleagues and thousands of students, Conrad Toepfer III was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1927. In 1933, he emigrated to Buffalo, where his father, Conrad Toepfer II, was the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster.
Like his father, Toepfer was a musician. An accomplished bassist, he joined the union at the Buffalo’s Colored Musicians Club. When other white people would ask him why, he’d say, ‘Because I don’t believe in separation,’ according to a 1994 interview.
His passion for addressing injustice infused the education career that followed. He joined the GSE faculty in 1965 after earning his EdD in curriculum planning from UB in 1962. He was one of seven contributors to the 1982 “This We Believe” position paper about middle school creation. From 1987-88, he was president of the Association for Middle Level Education, which he helped found, launching committees on racial, ethnic and cultural diversity and urban education.
“I don’t think that the association and the movement would have survived without him,” said fellow education researcher Sherrel Bergmann, a former professor at Chicago’s National Louis University. “He was so passionate … that he would do almost anything to get the word out.”