Public Schools as Community Centers

Public Schools as Community CentersIt’s the mid 1950’s. Howie Evans, a 15 year-old up-and-coming basketball and track star, is shooting hoops in the night center at Public School #99 in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, which like most elementary school gymnasiums in New York City, was kept open five nights a week from 3-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m.

Howie’s friends rush into the gym. Their mostly Puerto Rican gang, of which Howie is a member, is having a rumble with a much feared Black gang called the “Slicksters.” The head of the night center,Vincent Tibbs, a powerfully built African American teacher who was a friend to many young people in the neighborhood, overheard what was going on and walked slowly over to the door of the gym. When Howie tried to rush out, Mr. Tibbs stood in front of the door and said “I’m not letting you leave here. You have a future. You’re not going to die in the street.”

Howie, who told me this story during an oral history interview I did with him, screamed and cried. But Mr. Tibbs, who had the strength and appearance of a weightlifter, wouldn’t move. Howie ended up missing the rumble. It is well he did because two young men died that night, not something that often happened in a time before guns were common weapons on the streets of New York. And Mr. Tibbs was right, Howie did have a great future. He went on to become a teacher, a young center director, a college basketball coach (which is how I met him) and the sports writer for the Amsterdam News, a position he holds to this day.

But the story is not just about Howie, it’s about the incredible after school and night centers that were a fixture of every single public school in New York City until they were closed down during the NYC fiscal crisis of the 1970’s. These centers (I attended one religiously in Brooklyn) had basketball and Nok-hockey, arts and crafts and music programs, and held tournaments and dances.

Some of them, like the P.S. 99 Center, held talent shows which spawned some of New York City’s great doo-wop and Latin music acts. But all of them had teachers like Mr. Tibbs who provided supervision, skill instruction, mentoring, and sometimes life saving advice to two generations of young men and women who attended the city’s public schools, a good many of whom lived in tough working class neighborhoods like Morrisania.

Now let’s segue to Chicago, where young people are killing one another at an alarming rate. The schools in that city are in upheaval; many have been closed, some are faced with closing, teachers and students are being told that the fate of the schools depends on how well students score on standardized tests; some of which have been installed at the expense of arts and music and sports programs in the schools. Those in charge of education, locally and nationally, think these strategies will improve educational achievement.

But what happens in these schools after regular school hours finish? Do they offer safe zones for young people in Chicago’s working class and poor neighborhoods? Do they have arts and sports programs that will attract young people off the streets? Do they have teacher mentors like Mr. Tibbs who will take a personal interest in tough young men and women and place their own bodies between them and the prospect of death through gang violence?

If the answer is no, that these schools are largely empty once classes end, and they do little to attract young people in, maybe it’s time to start rethinking current school programs. Wouldn’t it be better to have a moratorium on all policies- like school closings- which destabilize neighborhoods- and invest in turning schools into round the clock community centers the way they were in NYC when Howie Evans was growing up?

And if the problem is money, how about taking the money currently spent on testing and assessment, and using it to create after school programs where caring adults offer activities that build on young people’s talents and creativity?

But to do this, we have to rethink the roles school play in neighborhoods like the Bronx’s Morrisania and Chicago’s Humbolt Park, and view them, not primarily as places to train and discipline a future labor force, but as places which strengthen communities and nurture young people into becoming community minded citizens. And to do that, we have to also treat teachers differently, respecting those who have made teaching a lifetime profession and who are committed to nurturing and mentoring young people even in the most challenging circumstances.

mark naisonIf we don’t do that kind of reconfiguration of our thinking, and ultimately, our policies, we are likely to be mourning a lot more young people killed by their peers, and not just in Chicago.

Mark Naison

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