In February I visited Henry St school. This was the school where Peter Stassi, a fellow exchange teacher worked, a school with problems that would have broken many schools in Britain – though we, too, have since experienced a steep learning curve.
The fact that one of his students had never heard of either England or Britain, was the least of Peter Stassi’s problems. Muggings were common and security staff patrolled the corridors.
Whilst being shown around, I left my guide’s side barely a moment to investigate a notice board. Almost immediately I was pounced upon by a firm but courteous guard who asked me who I was and what I was doing there.
What impressed me most however was their ‘Special Needs’ provision. Then, in Britain, most schools had just one special needs class in each Year Group, where, irrespective of the cause, all ‘slow’ learners were placed together – the dyslexic sitting next to the ‘naughty’, the autistic sitting next to the screaming off-the-wall extrovert.
At Henry Street, special needs were diagnosed, grouped and taught according to their specific needs – the ‘naughty’ special needs enjoying a tough looking ‘bouncer’ at the back of the class to reinforce authority.
The staff at Henry St were friendly but divided into cliques. Many were Jewish, some gay and all of them surviving by good humour and wit.
To this day I can remember Paul Cohen, a born raconteur, able to transform the sad, the gross, and discipline flashpoints into pure comedy gold. Most of discipline problems involved the penis in one way or another. When a boy demanded to go to the toilet in the middle of a lesson, Paul Cohen recklessly refused. An instant later the boy pulled out a knife. As Paul said, at that point I was willing to unbutton his trousers for him.
Another student expressed his ‘anger issues’ in sexual assault.
A strategy, enthusiastically advocated by one teacher was to create the right ambience. His particularly violent class was soothed by soft music and dim lighting. Paul Cohen tried it. Halfway through the lesson he heard a soft groaning from the back of the class as a boy called Wayne was wanked off by another. The lesson continued after Paul told Wayne to pull up his trousers and the other boy to wash his hands.
It’s interesting how two schools, sharing sharing similar problems, can be a universe apart.
The most impressive school I visited was Sousa Junior High School in the Bronx. This had been a sink school until one man, Dr Hill Wilson Brindle, took over as Principal.
Some men have power; you feel it in the handshake that emits a small electric shock. (I’m sure you could buy a gizmo that did that, advertised between the Charles Atlas advert and the glasses that allowed you to see behind you, near the back of most comics) This man didn’t need a gizmo; you sensed static before your hand made contact. He exuded authority and this was the way he ran his school.
When the bell sounded, students followed a one way system in single file, in silence, and keeping their feet on a painted yellow line. Teachers stood in corridors with folded arms like prison guards, but without the guns. In the dining hall students ate in two shifts, each lasting twenty minutes. A buzzer told them when they could talk and when they couldn’t.
In short it flew against the grain of every progressive idea, except the one and most obvious. This was one of the toughest areas in the entire country, tougher than Henry St. but, in Dr Brindle’s words, you don’t teach anything until you have control. He brought the ethos of the US army into the school and it worked. Grades soared, along with pride and aspiration. Parents wanted their children to come to this particular school, and students on graduating aspired with confidence to more prestigious high schools further away. I’ve never forgotten Sousa High School, nor Dr Hill Wilson Brindle.