AJ. Muste was a minister, radical pacifist, labor organizer, and strike leader, an international agitator against violence, and the most astute political analyst I’ve ever known. He would try to persuade anyone to his views—communists, anarchists, fascists, atheists like me, and beribboned generals.
Some of his Christian supporters recoiled when he said, “I would sup with the devil.” He once quoted W.H. Auden to me: “Prohibit sharply the rehearsed response.” A.J. believed, from extensive experience, that in every person there is a core—a kernel—of innate decency, rationality. You can reach that core, he said, if you don’t stereotype people—though they may have stereotyped themselves.
It is in the spirit of A.J. that I address this series about a public school under the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan to Rudy Giuliani. Before he again speaks of “blowing up” this city’s school system, I hope he will spend some time at P.S. 110, the Florence Nightingale School. Over some 40 years, I’ve reported on schools in this and other cities and have written books on education. In only a few places have I seen children so excitedly involved in learning—in discovering the world inside themselves—as in this elementary school.
As I intend to show, there is no mystery in creating and sustaining schools that work. Long ago, the Ford Foundation conducted a very expensive research project to find the ingredients, the elements, of a successful school. The report ultimately reinvented the wheel.
The report found that if there is a principal with high, determined expectations of the teachers and of every single student, the rest will fall into place. Not right away, but it will happen.
This city has many failing schools, as I’ve pointed out in this column. It also has a failing chancellor. But the answer is not putting education in the control of this
mayor—or any mayor—in City Hall. Nor are vouchers, paid for by public tax money and going to religious schools, the answer.
The answer lies in examining why certain public schools do work. P.S. 110 is in a building that was constructed in 1902. In classes from prekindergarten through the sixth grade, it has 534 students. This is a Title One school, which means that because of the poverty-level status of many of the parents, all children get free breakfast as well as lunch at the school.
In terms of ethnicity, the composition is white (6.5 percent), black (19.1), Hispanic (63.0), Asian and others (11.4). As for gender, it’s 50.4 percent male and 49.6 percent female.
As you’ll see, the students’ reading and math scores are significantly above those at many public schools in the city. But that just begins to tell you why these kids have so eagerly absorbed what the principal calls “the love of learning.”
To begin with, the principal, Mary Ann Fagen, knows who each of the children is. When I was there, she addressed every kid who came along on the stairs by name. And when we were in the office, a child came in to tell her something. The youngster didn’t need an appointment. She just walked in. Just as parents don’t need an appointment to see the principal.
Mary Ann Fagen was appalled to hear that in a middle school in this city, a parent who called to reach the principal was told: “The principal will call you when he wants to speak to you.”
It may seem unlikely that Mary Ann Fagen could possibly know each child by name. But when I wrote about Elliot Shapiro, the principal years ago at P.S. 119 in Harlem, the first thing I noticed was that he too knew each child by name, and that any student, including the most acutely troubled, could come to see him when he or she needed to.
“When they see you in the hallway,” the principal of P.S. 110 told me, “they must know that you know who they are. And I’ve been here so long, I know most of their parents too.” Moreover, she goes to every class every day. “After all,” she said, smiling, “I’m an integral part of this school.” By contrast, some principals hardly ever leave their offices. In her office, kids and teachers continually come and go.
There are computers in every classroom. The kids’ handwriting shames mine. And the workbooks indicate more than children simply regurgitating what they’ve been told. Each individual child comes through.
The education at P.S. 110, as the principal says—and this series will illustrate—is “multisensory.” However, unlike too many schools I’ve observed, there isn’t so much focus on the feelings of children that how well they actually read or understand math or know how to think becomes a secondary goal of the teachers.
It was evident to me that the kids at P.S. 110 feel good about themselves, but, as Mary Ann Fagen makes clear, “You can only feel good about yourself if you’re doing well. They have to show themselves how much they can do, how much they can learn.”
So far as I know, P.S. 110 is the only elementary school in the city that has a Shakespeare club, and each year the students perform one of his plays at the Henry Street Settlement, with a subsequent performance at SUNY Purchase. This year’s production is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
There is also an architecture club, and the sixth graders in that club this year are, as I saw, redesigning the principal’s office.
Would you really want to blow this public school up, Mister Mayor?