I grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn shortly after World War II, in a working class neighborhood that was predominantly Jewish and Italian, with a handful of Black and Irish residents . Our local public school was PS 91, on the corner of Albany and East New York avenues, a formidable five story brick building that was taller than any of the surrounding houses and apartment buildings. Right next to it was a huge schoolyard that took up half the rest of the block that had the equivalent of two diamonds that could be used for softball or punchball, along with some basketball hoops.
PS 91 was my home for 6 years, from 1951 to 1957, and while it would be foolish to say all the teaching was inspired ( there was a lot of memorization and writing on the blackboard) and all the kids got along wonderfully ( I had more than my share of fights), my overall experience there was positive because there were so many out of classroom activities to supplement the classroom teaching.
There was a tremendous amount of physical activity. There was a free play time before school when kids were lining up for class and a recess right after lunchtime where we also played games. Those were in addition to physical education which we had in the school gym. We also had the chance to participate and attend school plays, which broke the monotony of school assemblies. I remember writing a play about the English conquest of New York City from the Dutch which was performed before the entire school. We also had regular film showings in class, and regular school trips, sometimes to a show at a place like Radio City Music Hal, more often to a museum. We also had annual science fairs at which students could display innovative projects, along with art shows. If you look at the sum total of these activities, students had an opportunity to showcase their talents in many other ways than performing well on classroom assignments or citywide tests, plus the sheer range of this activities build camaraderie in individual classes and in the
school as a whole
Finally, the school featured an amazing free after school program, from 3-5 and a night center 7-9, open five days a week, were students could play basketball, nok hockey, jump rope, do arts and crafts projects or practice musical instruments.
This culture and exercise rich environment helped created a tremendous sense of optimism in the young people who went to the school, most of whom had non-college educated parents, a few of whom were genuinely poor. Not everyone was academically gifted, or adapted well to classroom instruction, but almost everyone had a talent that was recognized within the school community, and given an outlet or a means of expression.
And I wonder. Are there schools like this today. Or has the testing pushed out the art, the music, the science, the trips, the recess and the play.
If so, a precious spark has left public education, and it makes me sad to think that young people growing up in working class families now don't have the opportunities I had 60 years ago.