history lesson

Fifty years ago, teacher oustings that led to New York City’s massive teacher strikes

The New York Post headline after the teacher strike ended. This article is from New York state's archives.

Fifty years ago, 19 letters forever altered the course of New York City’s public schools.

On May 9, 1968, the community school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville sent termination letters to 19 educators, most from J.H.S. 271 setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to bitter teachers strikes and eventually a total reorganization of the nation’s largest school system.

A picture of J.H.S 271 from the New York Times magazine. This article is from the New York State archives.

“I think it’s fair to say this is the spark,” said Nick Juravich, a postdoctoral fellow at the New-York Historical Society who has studied the teachers’ dismissal. “This is when what has been a simmering conflict becomes an actual confrontation.”

At the core of that conflict were themes familiar to New York City schools today — racial tension, battles over who should control the schools, and fights over teachers’ rights — but with much higher stakes.

On the heels of failed integration efforts in the 1960s, communities of color — distrustful of the city’s centralized education bureaucracy and frustrated with schools’ poor performance — had spent several years pushing for local control of their schools. By 1967, they had a broad base of support, including Mayor John Lindsay and editorial boards.

“The present system has been failing our children for too long,” a WABC “radio editorial” said in 1967. “The [decentralization] plan has its risks but it also has one great advantage: It gives the city’s parents a genuine opportunity to do something about their children’s education.”

To test the idea, the city created experimental community school boards in three neighborhoods, including Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But it quickly became clear that the union and local boards had different ideas of what constituted local control.

In May 1968, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board asserted its newfound strength by dismissing the 13 teachers and six administrators, who were allegedly not on board with neighborhood’s decentralization project. Adding to the tension, the majority of the dismissed educators were white. The move caused chaos, as the central Board of Education told the educators to ignore their dismissal notices and return to work.

It also enraged city union leader Albert Shanker, who said the teachers were victims of “vigilante activity” who had been denied due process, according to a New York Times story from the time.

A piece written by a representative of the United Federation of Teachers called the firings “illegal,” the argument for them “a cruel hoax,” and suggests that much of the animosity towards the teachers is being “controlled by a small group of militants.”

The event set the stage for racially charged conflict between the mainly white and Jewish teachers union and the predominantly black and Hispanic Brooklyn neighborhood. For instance, a black teacher went on the radio and recited a student poem with a Jewish slur, an incident the unions publicized, according to a Daily News story from 2017.

Here’s how the Times would later describe what happened next:

By fall, that dispute had escalated into citywide strikes to protect, the union said, the contractual rights of teachers. Adding to the heat, in a year when there were race riots around the nation, was the fact that a largely white teachers’ union and a predominantly white central power structure were pitted against a black and Puerto Rican community. An uneasy truce finally sent teachers back to work in November.

The New York Times published the city’s proposed decentralization plans. This article is from the New York state archives.

Out of the ashes of the conflict, a new state law required the city’s education department to put together a full decentralization plan. A sprawling map printed in the New York Times in December of 1968 shows some of the first depictions of the school system split into 30 school districts.

The new structure, finalized in 1970, would eventually divide the city into 32 districts with control of the elementary and middle schools, while high schools remained under the control of a central system.

Juravich said that the plan did not satisfy many black and Hispanic parents, since the new districts were too large and lacked certain controls over the hiring of teachers. The boards also became hotbeds of corruption — used to “turn many districts into pork barrels and political bases,” as the Times would later describe.  

That structure, of course, did not last forever. In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg convinced the state legislature to grant the mayor control over city schools. While the city is still divided into 32 community school districts, local school boards no longer have much sway over how schools are run.

The Brooklyn middle school, J.H.S. 271, was closed for poor performance in 2008. Today the building houses Eagle Academy for Young Men II, Mott Hall IV, and Uncommon’s Ocean Hill Collegiate Charter School.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Juravich said the new districts were too large, not too small.

breaking

A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:


A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”