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7th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 7, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

It isn’t often that I hear the name of my old junior high school on the radio, but on Wednesday morning I was greeted by the news of its impending demise.

Despite test scores that, while not stellar, were not even near the bottom of the pack, Chancellor Klein announced that P.S. 79 is being “closed.” Closing is less drastic than one would think. Most of the educators will keep their jobs. What will change is the number of the school or schools that will reside in this venerable old building.

Some schools have had their numbers changed three times. But the children and the way they are taught remains the same.

It has been well over forty years since I last set foot in P.S. 79. John F. Kennedy was president when I studied there for two years, but even then the huge building seemed ancient. Our textbooks were hand-me-downs used year after year for decades, the bindings pulling away from the pages. The building seemed perpetually in the shadows. It was the last place one would think you could obtain a quality education.

But I and most of my classmates did prosper academically. A part of the building housed the elementary school grades, populated by children from the immediate neighborhood. The rest of the building, under the stewardship of the same principal, was a junior high school for boys that drew from a large swath of the west Bronx. This junior high component, sharing the same number as the elementary school, was eliminated years ago in an earlier reform.

Upon graduating from sixth grade at P.S. 86, near to my home, I was given a transit pass and took the Grand Concourse IND subway train two stops south each morning to get to P.S. 79.

My homeroom teacher, Helen Kaufman, was also my math teacher. She was a crackerjack teacher, fully in command of a subject she loved. Her charges came into class knowing their multiplication tables, understanding fractions and decimals, and could even do long division, skills now given short shrift in these days of “fuzzy” math. Mrs. Kaufman soon had us doing calculations in Base 8, Base 12, and the binary system, which, we were told, was the basis of computers, machines we all knew existed but none had ever laid eyes on.

Many of the teachers at “79″ were accomplished not only in their own fields. Mr. Bengis, the French teacher, was a published expert in the fictional life of Sherlock Holmes. My gym teacher, Mr. Wolk, wrote articles for magazines such as Field and Stream.

The teacher’s life in these pre-union days - the city’s first significant teachers’ strike took place while I was a student there - was one of tight budgets and extra jobs. Most male teachers worked at summer camps.

Mr. Rich, the typing teacher, and Mr. Metselaar, a science teacher, owned a company that conducted bus tours for students during the summer. This was a significant business as evidenced by a large advertisement they frequently ran in the Sunday Times magazine section. Mr. Rich, hoping to snag the odd customer among his decidedly working class charges, would frequently put aside typing drills to regale us with tales of his trips.

Mr. Rich knew that Washington, D.C., the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, and the Golden Gate Bridge held little interest to his all male class. But there was one place that really got our juices flowing, which he described in the excruciating detail usually reserved for structures such as the Taj Mahal. That was the Mickey Mantle Motel in Joplin, Missouri. Oh, how we wished our parents had the money to send us on the pilgrimage to this shrine.

Some of the teachers at “79″ were a bit beyond their prime, but in retrospect we were given a fine education there. So I mourn its official passing.

If there is one thing that I would blame for the troubles the school has seen in recent years, it is the loss of the academic rigor and high expectations that once were the norm. There was little concern for our self-esteem, math wasn’t watered down in the hope that we would “like” it, teachers were expected to impart knowledge directly to us, often in the form of what today is derisively called “mere facts,” and recent arrivals from other countries were not segregated into bilingual classes, but were dropped into an all-English environment.

Perhaps it isn’t the number that needs to be changed, but the way children there are taught. The traditional ideas that defined “79″ during my days there weren’t perfect, but were far more effective than the squishy “progressive” pedagogy favored today.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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