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8th April
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, April 8, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

In the discussion about fixing our school system, the one word we never seem to hear anymore is “neighborhood.” We hear about small schools and big schools, charter schools and noncharter schools, themed schools and nonthemed schools, public schools and parochial schools. We hear a lot about choice, but little about community.

Maybe it is time to bring this idea back into the discussion. It has often been said that New York is a great city because it comprises great neighborhoods. The schools are certainly a part of what defines neighborhood success, and during the period that New York City’s public school system was generally considered the finest in the land, this certainly was so.
I grew up under this system in the Bronx of the 1950s and 1960s. In my neighborhood, if you lived west of the Grand Concourse, you were zoned for P.S. 86, my alma mater. Children who lived on the other side of the Concourse, such as my future wife, attended P.S. 46. These lines were inviolate but not arbitrary. The Grand Concourse is a wide street that helped define neighborhood boundaries, and it was convenient that young children would not have to cross such a busy thoroughfare going to and from school.

The local Catholic schools were similarly defined. If you lived in the Our Lady of Refuge parish, you were expected to attend that parish school.

For those of us in the public schools, this system continued right through high school.There were no junior high school or senior high school fairs to offer anything resembling a choice. If you were bright, or lucky, you passed the exam and won admission to an “elite” specialized high school such as Bronx Science or Stuyvesant.

The way our schools were run in this not-allthat-distant past was brought home to me in a recently published book, “Who She Was,” by Samuel G. Freedman. On one level this is Mr. Freedman’s moving and powerful search into his late mother’s soul, a woman cut down by cancer when the future journalist was still a student in college. But the book also paints a vivid picture of the Bronx during the 1930s and 1940s. Especially memorable is the account of his mother’s schooling at Morris High School.

We can say that today’s children are different, that they are poorer and have more severe problems, but this is not really totally true.The East Bronx neighborhood that Mr. Freedman’s mother, Eleanor Hatkin, grew up in may have been largely a Jewish neighborhood, but was a gritty Jewish neighborhood.The more successful Bronx Jewish families lived along the Grand Concourse or Pelham Parkway. Eleanor’s father, Sol Hatkin, bounced from job to job, marginally surviving in the tough times of the Depression. The family was so poor that Eleanor’s mother was often reduced to scavenging the trash bins of grocery stores for food.

In 1938, Eleanor entered Morris High School, the school designated as her local high school.This was the first high school opened in the Bronx, so by this time it was already an old, decrepit building. Bright children like Eleanor had already routinely skipped grades in the local elementary and junior high schools in the area. The three years of junior high were compressed into two in a program then known as Rapid Advance, or RA. This same program existed a quarter century later when I attended junior high school, by that time renamed Special Progress or SP.

These programs have long since been abandoned in the never-ending quest to protect the self-esteem of the lower performing pupils at the expense of the academically advanced.

Three thousand students were crammed into Morris High School’s already ancient building. The Morris High students of 1938 knew who was boss. It was the principal, Elmer E. Bogart. The unquestioned authority of the principal was more effective than the “divide and conquer” strategy that is compounding the chaos in today’s city high school buildings.

The curriculum was traditional, devoid of themes and gimmicks. There was one “school within a school” in the Morris High School Building. This was the Goodwin School, which was the Morris High honors program. Only 5% of the student body, including young Eleanor Hatkin, qualified for this program.

Honors programs were common in New York’s local high schools. The same year that Eleanor arrived at Morris, Mayor La Guardia built on that concept by establishing the Bronx High School of Science.

Did New York’s educational system work for everyone? Of course not. But the neighborhood schools feeding into the zoned local high schools did work far more efficiently for far more students than anything since.
Fifteen years after Eleanor Hatkin attended Morris High, the young son of Jamaican immigrants, Colin Powell, walked the same dingy corridors beginning his personal journey that brought him to City College and its ROTC program, and a distinguished career in the military and highest levels of government service.

Mayor Bloomberg, who, I believe, admires the back-to-basics approach, somehow has been convinced that there were “never any good old days, just old days.” But there was much good in New York schools. To find it we just have to go back to the old neighborhood.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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