Daniel L. Feldman

Schools

In General on July 26, 2012 at 11:19 am

I was fortunate to represent an Assembly district with very good public schools in each of the two Community School Board Districts, 21 and 22, that served it. In those days, prior to the 2003 legislation that ended much of the decentralization of power that followed on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict and the teachers’ strike of 1968,   Community School Boards exercised substantial hiring powers, and therefore substantial control over the quality of the schools within them. My two School Boards were among the best.

My children went to P.S. 195 in District 22, probably the better of the two. We moved when my son was going into fourth grade and my daughter was going into second grade. In our new North Shore Long Island district, with excellent schools paid for with enormous property taxes, my children’s new teachers asked my wife if they had come from private schools, because they were somewhat ahead of their new classmates.

I knew that I needed to do all I could to maintain the quality of my district’s schools, because strong families move to neighborhoods where they know their children will access to good schools, and leave neighborhoods where they learn otherwise. That’s why I spent significant amounts of time visiting the schools to identify their needs, and used my “member item” (pork barrel!) moneys primarily to support pre-kindergarten programs and computer facilities for them. In this regard, Naomi Broadwin, my staff member who had been a former Parents Association president at her children’s school, helped me a great deal.

P.S. 195 probably may have provided the best education among “my” public schools. However, all of them performed well. I spent a significant amount of time in those schools, and was especially impressed by the work of Dan Gitter, principal of P.S. 254 on East 19th and Avenue X, Lillian Dinofsky of P.S. 153 at Homecrest and Avenue T, and Kathleen Cashin of P.S. 193 on Bedford Avenue and Avenue L. [Adrienne Knoll corrected the earlier version of this post; I had mistakenly remembered Dr. Cashin at P.S. 197.] Dr. Cashin is now a member of the New York State Board of Regents.

Even P.S. 195, however, could not match the education I received in the 1950s at P.S. 114 in Queens, where I remember being required to write letters responding to front-page articles to the editor of the New York Times each week; performing in an English-language and somewhat abbreviated but nonetheless fairly authentic version of Don Giovanni; and preparing my exhibit on Argentina including maps, actual cuisine, and form of government, for our school’s international fair. Further, other than the aforementioned schools and perhaps a few others, teachers exercised too little control. In the 1950s, P.S. 114 required all the boys to wear white shirts and ties, and all the girls to wear similarly business-like clothing. In the 1980s, the teachers at most of our public schools dressed far more sloppily.

My wife had unpleasant memories of harsh discipline at her Catholic elementary school in the 1950s, as did other friends of mine who attended such schools. In the 1980s, though, when the public schools, on average, operated at a level of chaos that appalled me, the Catholic schools in my district seemed to give their students the perfect balance of individual expression and order. Monsignor Thomas Noonan, who ran St. Edmunds on Avenue T and Ocean Avenue, to me personified that balance, but St. Brendan’s on Avenue O and East 12th, St. Marks on Avenue Z and Ocean Avenue, and Resurrection on Gerritsen Avenue between Avenue V and Whitney Avenue provided fine examples as well. The financial ills that plagued the Catholic school system generally in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, forced St. Brendan’s to close, in its case partly the result of the replacement of many middle-class students with students from families who needed much more financial support.  Some of the yeshivot, Jewish day schools, impressed me similarly, especially the Shulamith School for Girls near East 14th Street and Avenue M, the Harry Halpern School of East Midwood Jewish Center, and the Prospect Park Yeshiva, which actually was on Avenue R and East 17th Street, despite its name. The Mirrer Yeshiva and the Chaim Berlin school, two prestigious very Orthodox institutions, also served my constituents, but were too conservative for me to assess them fairly.

My commitment extended, therefore, to the religious schools as well. As noted in post #79, I identified a serious financial need there as well, and – at Alan Hevesi’s suggestion, as it happened – introduced legislation that became law and reimbursed those schools for their costs in administering the mandated school immunization program. This created the first new stream of revenue from government they had won in many years, and some of the schools, operating on a very slim margin, told me it saved them from closing.

Often, teachers at the schools would invite me to guest-lecture to their students. Eventually, I learned to talk in the right way to teach younger students, but it wasn’t easy. As an experienced adjunct faculty member in graduate programs, I initially thought I would have no trouble. I soon learned that teaching elementary school poses different challenges. A few days after offering what I thought was a well-received talk on government to a very polite group of third graders, I received a very nice thank-you note for each student in the class. Only one, though, included a phrase that really had the ring of truth. The student wrote, “Thank you very much for coming to our class. What you said was interesting, but boring.”

With some effort, I clarified the presentation style I would subsequently use for third-graders. Then I was asked to talk to a kindergarten class about a forthcoming election. I kept my remarks down to ten minutes, this time, out of respect for what I now understood was a limited attention span, but I took pains to provide what I thought was a very simple, crystal clear distillation of the electoral process. Then I asked for questions, and got one: “What is voting?”

I felt so much more comfortable talking to an auditorium-full of junior high school students. After all, they had reached the age of reason, and should be able to understand me much better. In addition to my substantive remarks, I offered them a personal observation as well. I explained to them that notwithstanding how I looked from their perspective, at my age at that time (35), I truly did not feel significantly older than them. This was a heartfelt effort to enable them to understand our different perspectives on age. They laughed.

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