Before publishing Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt, who died this past summer, spent 27 years in the city’s often beleaguered—and beleaguering—public schools. “I taught what they call ‘Creative Writing,’” he once said, “though you and I know how hard it is to teach anyone anything.” But he did it, by all accounts very well. “The first day in class, Frank would ask a kid, ‘What did you have for dinner last night?,’ ” remembers Tom Allon, who knew McCourt first as a student at Stuyvesant High School and then again later when he briefly taught there, too. “And the kid would say, ‘I don’t know, spaghetti.’ And he would ask, ‘Who made the spaghetti?’ and ‘What did it taste like?’ And he would help them realize that the small details were important parts of the experience and of writing.”
Allon went on to edit The West Side Spirit, for which McCourt wrote a column for a time. In recent years, Allon says, McCourt would lend his celebrity to events honoring teachers and schools, usually lamenting, “Why do they always name schools after politicians and movie stars? Why don’t they name a school after a teacher?”
Spurred on by the efforts of Allon and a committee of West Side neighbors and politicians, Mayor Bloomberg is expected to soon announce the creation of the Frank McCourt High School of Writing Journalism and Literature, an application-only high school to open next fall on West 84th Street. It’s one of four small schools that will ultimately take the place of the mammoth Louis D. Brandeis High School, as part of an effort to break up big institutions. The three others, which started in Brandeis this year, are the Global Learning Collaborative, a joint venture with the Asia Society; the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers; and Innovation Diploma Plus, a “transfer school” for students who have failed elsewhere. But the McCourt school, which will be academically demanding, is the one many neighbors have been wishing for. “We’d been trying to find another Beacon School,” says City Council member Gale Brewer, referring to an oversubscribed selective high school.
Brandeis was recently renovated, but the school still has been graduating just fewer than one-third of its 2,100 students in four years, making it an obvious target to break up into smaller academies. That city policy aside, though, the intention for the school is to honor McCourt’s commitment to teaching. Not long before he died of cancer in July, McCourt himself was told that the school would likely happen. Allon recalls: “I said, ‘It’s looking very good, Frank, and there’s a lot of good will about it.’ He said, ‘What an honor. What a great thing that would be.’ ”