To the editors,
I read with interest the article by Arturo in the July-September issue, “Why Prisons Are Built As Schools Are Closed Down.” I was particularly struck by the report that the closing of schools has led to as many as fifty students per class and students sitting on the floor because there are not enough chairs, no ESL programs, and no guidance counselors.
I started kindergarten in September of 1945 at the Blankenburg School at 47th and Wyalusing. I attended Blankenburg through the 2nd grade. I don’t remember much about the school, except that more than forty children in a class were common. At the end of the second grade, my family moved and enrolled me in Lea School at 47th and Locust, which I attended through the 8th grade. At that time the neighborhood was mainly white but not part of the University of Pennsylvania’s expansion area. Lea was supposed to be a good school; I remember classes with more than forty pupils taught by one teacher, who taught art and music along with academic subjects and no teacher’s aid, which meant she – always she until the 8th grade – got no break except for when we were at recess or lunch. There was of course no ESL in those days, and little demand for it; the handful of immigrant children, mainly from Eastern Europe, were integrated into the regular classes and picked up the new language with relative ease, as children will. (My father told me that when he started grade school at 40th and Girard, an area then mainly Yiddish-speaking, in 1912, he spoke no English, but picked it up right away; there were no ESL classes – or rather, all the classes were ESL.) There was a library, which we visited once a week, and a guidance counselor for students in the 8th grade seeking advice on high schools. (Most Lea graduates attended West Philadelphia High across the street; a few, including myself, went to Central or Girls High, exam school located across town that required long subway and bus rides.)
My sister started kindergarten at Lea School in 1957, part of the baby-boom generation. She informs me that for the first years her classes always had at least forty children and sometimes as many as forty-eight, with children often sharing a seat at a desk, with one teacher who also never got a break.
I repeat: Lea School was then considered a good school, and by today’s standards would probably be regarded as excellent. There were no metal detectors, no guards, and no reason for them; the most serious “crimes” were childhood pranks (My favorite was planting “bombs” which I made in my chemistry set on the trolley tracks on Spruce Street, which made a loud bang when the trolley passed over them.); all the graduates went on to high school, and many later went to college, mainly Penn or Temple. My brother still attends reunions of the people who lived around 47th and Sansom Street in the 1950s – what I call West Philly white people reunions – and he informs me that most of those from his day worked in trades and professions, and some became rich.
If these tales have any point beyond the ramblings of an old man, it is this: classroom conditions, including class size, teacher qualifications, library, gym and other facilities – computers did not exist then – have little to do with how much children learn. The main thing is, do the children feel there will be a place for them in the world they will enter when they finish school. The people I went to school with did, and though I cannot be sure of this so I think did most of those of all races and classes who attended grade schools in Philadelphia in those years.
If I may point to two other cases I have heard about: after the Civil War, when the New England schoolmarms came to the south and opened schools for the newly freed slaves, conditions (and pedagogic methods) were about as bad as can be imagined for the students of all ages packed together. Similarly, in the freedom schools run by the Zimbabwe African National Union (when Zimbabwe was still known as Rhodesia and Robert Mugabe was still a liberation fighter), there were no classrooms (because of the danger of bombing) and the blackboards consisted of the sand, where teachers wrote letters and numbers. Yet in both of those situations students learned – because they saw a purpose in it.
I guess my point is that, while I agree on the whole with your analysis of the reasons behind the cutbacks in education, I think it is a mistake to place much stress on “saving” the schools as they are; a new world is needed, and the struggle around the schools has to incorporate and embody that vision.