Schools & Integration
To the Editor:
I wish to extend to you my sincere compliments on Midge Decter’s article [“The Negro and the New York Schools,” Sept. '64]. It is a humane, understanding, and yet incisive account of our present integration problems. . . .
There are a few minor errors. For example, the Open Enrollment program (Free Choice) does not require that the sending school be overcrowded; Commissioner Allen did not define an integrated school as one with 50 per cent or less Negro population. In addition, the PEA report for 1953, far from finding that many schools had been deliberately zoned to keep whites and Negroes apart, concluded that there was no significant evidence to indicate that ethnic separation was seriously considered in drawing district boundary lines.
I might have wished for some exposition of the social values of integration. The impression might have been given that the sole value of integration stems from its effect on the academic achievement of children. We know, of course, that education today encompasses a broader spectrum of preparation for life in a democracy and that social values may be just as important as academic values.
However, this is a matter of selection and emphasis. Miss Decter’s article is excellent both in its exposition and its analysis. Certainly she poses the problem squarely: how can we educate the children of the urban poor, and particularly of the poor of minority groups?
American democracy has in a sense accepted the egalitarian notions of the 18th century with its idea of the infinite perfectibility of human beings. The schools have been given the task of translating these ideas into reality. Unfortunately the means allocated by society to schools have not always been compatible with the enormity of the job to be done. In addition, there has been the wide gap between the preachments of the society (which it expects the school to teach) and the practices in which it indulges. The schools alone can neither inculcate values which are given only lip service by the greater society nor compensate at bargain basement prices for generations of callous neglect and systematic oppression.
Miss Decter’s article combined rare understanding, analysis, and insight. She has shed much light on one of the most difficult problems of our time and this, I am sure, will be helpful in the solution.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
Midge Decter’s article . . . is a very good summary of a struggle that began not in 1961, nor even in 1954, but in the middle 30′s. For the essence of the matter is . . . whether the school can repair the damage of deprivation, or can operate effectively in the face of low educational aspiration, or can erase the prefix “sub” in a subcultural neighborhood. I say it began in the 30′s because I was then teaching in the old buildings of Benjamin Franklin High School, and saw and participated in the efforts of the school staff to raise the sights of educational expectation of the student and his family.
It was a heroic attempt, and great credit goes to the then principal, Dr. Leonard Covello. But it did not succeed, if success is measured by the number “saved.” The school is not a panacea; and this school was unable to cope with a formidable array of community attitudes and ethnic values.
A sense of this frustration, much more than distaste of the brutish culture of the poor, is what drives teachers from Harlem-type schools, in the North, the Midwest, or in this south-central area where I live. . . .
The school in its present form cannot save the generations of the poor, even though, being a visible target and so subject to pressure, it is the most sharply attacked institution in New York City. Part of the fault is the ideology of the school: not wishing to appear impotent as a social agency, it attempts to be all things to all people, the paramount engine for producing a disciplined generation, democracy, loyalists, magic-workers. No school system can by itself overcome the handicaps which children bring to school.
To the Editor:
I congratulate you on Miss Decter’s article . . . but would like to point out an error in fact. It is not true that Negroes in New Rochelle are confined to a single school. There are large numbers of Negroes in most of the schools in New Rochelle, as I know from having attended school there from kindergarten through the twelfth grade.
The point at issue in the 1961 Lincoln School case concerned the number of Negroes in that school only. As I recall, the Lincoln School was 97 per cent Negro before the case and perhaps 94 per cent Negro afterward. At the same time, the electorate in May of that year defeated by a nine-to-one margin a referendum asking for the construction of a new all-segregated school on the same site to replace the rundown, all-segregated school that is still there. This referendum was defeated while other major improvements and new public schools were approved. The electorate simply was unable to agree on one of several conflicting approaches to a solution of the problem. . . .