Once a man who prided himself on producing honor students, Fein has spent his recent years as principal struggling to get even half of P.S. 7's pupils reading at grade level. He will retire having pushed the number to 44.6 percent, with a twelve-point rise in the past year. He boasts about the result the way he boasts about having seen the first preview of A Chorus Line. But like many Jewish educators of his generation, he searches now for words that can express the sea change without sounding either chauvinistic or callous.
"In the Jewish home, books were part of your life," he says. "We were the People of the Book. If you went to cheder, you read. The whole idea of discourse on one sentence of Talmud. It allowed Jewish kids, even if the home was poor, to have an emphasis on literature.
"When these children go home . . ." He pauses. "I don't want this to sound like an attack, but we were running a storytelling program to help teach parents how to tell stories to children. We got 6 parents out of 800. We ran a Saturday reading program, got maybe 30 parents. If you ran these programs in Scarsdale or Great Neck, what would the turnout be?"
When the Jews, Irish, and Italians left P.S. 7's neighborhood, beginning in the seventies, they stranded educators like Milton Fein as the legates of a distant empire. P.S. 7 now serves immigrant families from the Dominican Republic as well as Ecuador, Colombia, and Bangladesh. For parents working in garment factories and bodegas, beauty parlors and car services, Fein knows that financial survival necessarily comes before the PTA.
"I don't want to look at things negatively," Fein says. "You have to go back to the well. You can't give up. I'm glad we've been able to turn the school around. I wish we'd done it sooner. But nobody gave us a workbook to tell us how."
Now, in myriad ways, Fein encounters his own diminished status. In his early years at P.S. 7, his neighbors in Riverdale sent their kids to public school and slapped his back with gratitude in synagogue and the supermarket. The last handful of Jewish students in P.S. 7, immigrants from Russia, left recently for a religious day school. Principals in New York have worked without a new contract for three years, and Chancellor Rudy Crew is pressing to end their lifetime tenure. Even social events reinforce what Fein sees as a message of disrespect.
"You're at someone else's house for dinner with a few other couples, and invariably the conversation turns to schools, and everybody of course is an expert because every doctor or dentist or lawyer went to school," Fein says. "The standard remark from everyone I meet is 'You're a principal in the Bronx? That must be a tough job. It must be tough to keep those kids in line. I see them on the subway.' I find myself becoming defensive. I start defending the children, the families, explaining the test scores. Eventually you say to yourself, 'I don't want to be in this group again. This isn't how I want to spend a Saturday night.' "
The cure for Saturday night was Monday morning, when Fein returned to P.S. 7. He ran the school as part pedagogue, part Catskills tummler. In one of his first moves as principal, he tore out the elaborate system of signal lights his predecessor had installed to summon secretaries. Fein preferred to shout through his perpetually open door. "I couldn't work those lights anyway," he says. "I tried a few times and the wrong person came in. It was like the Marx Brothers." Caustic humor, rich in Yiddishisms, pervades his conversation. Strolling the halls one recent morning, he disparaged one absent teacher as a "schlepper" and hollered into the office shared by three Jewish guidance counselors, "It's like the Irgun here." When a staff member complained about her summer-school assignment, he shot back, "We're not a maître d' in a hotel here. This isn't room service."
Navigating the corridors of foundations and other benefactors, though, Fein can be nimble and deft. P.S. 7 won a grant from the New York Foundation of the Arts to pay for the music teacher responsible for the "Gifts of Music" assembly. On the rear wall of the auditorium sprawls a mural of the Hudson River, painted last summer by students taking part in the Metropolitan Museum's "Doing Art Together" program. Funds from the Reader's Digest Foundation paid for restoring and restocking the school library. P.S. 7 was one of just eighteen schools citywide to receive a long-term arts grant from the Center for Arts Education, an organization funded by the Annenberg Foundation. Without these private funds, whose acquisition reflected both Fein's ardor for culture and his political savvy, P.S. 7 would have been virtually bereft of arts education.
In the late eighties, Fein heard from several of his teachers about Lucy Calkins, the reading guru at Teachers College. Intrigued, he studied with her on school holidays. Ultimately, after decades of conventional instruction in reading at P.S. 7, he threw out the basal readers, replaced them with children's literature, and deemphasized phonics in favor of the controversial whole-language approach. The Calkins method, at least in Fein's hands, included journal-writing, "Authors Day" celebrations, and a system of "reading buddies."
Fein paired himself with Ashley Lucas, a third-grader with the lowest reading score of any participating child. For 40 minutes a day, three days a week, they met: the gray-haired Jew and the child of Dominican immigrants, reading books about the Holland Tunnel and a boy named Lentil who loved music but always sang off-key. This year, Ashley scored in the top quarter on the citywide reading exam. Whenever she passed Fein in the hall, she blew him a kiss and said, "Amor." But in early June, after she heard of his impending retirement, she ran to him and pleaded, "Why don't you wait one more year?"
Both the history and the mythology of New York's public schools would be inconceivable without the decisive presence of Jewish educators. Barely one generation after the newly consolidated city created a unified school system in 1898, multitudes of Jewish women began entering the teaching profession. They made up 26 percent of new teachers in 1920, 44 percent in 1930, and 56 percent in 1940, Ruth Jacknow Markowitz writes in her book My Daughter, the Teacher: Jewish Teachers in the New York City Schools. During the Great Depression, Jewish men actually outpaced women in seeking jobs in the high schools. The municipal colleges that produced many teachers -- Brooklyn, City, Hunter -- were nearly 80 percent Jewish in the thirties.
What created this phenomenon was a combination of idealism and pragmatism. Teaching secular subjects did arise naturally from the Jewish tradition of religious study. The profession also conferred status: " 'My son, the doctor' and 'my daughter, the teacher,' " as Markowitz writes, "were among the most cherished phrases of Jewish immigrant parents."
More practical motives came into play as well. Until the fifties, elite law firms, hospitals, and college faculties routinely enforced anti-Jewish quotas. The telephone company and Con Edison, reliable routes into the middle class, appeared to Jews as Irish Catholic preserves. But as the historian Hasia Diner, of New York University, points out, Jews started pouring into the school system just after reformers had wrested control of it from the Tammany Hall machine. The civil-service system promised Jews freedom from discrimination in hiring and promotion. Despite some animus toward prospective teachers with Yiddish accents and radical politics, the accrediting agency, the Board of Examiners, largely honored its vow to reward merit. During the Depression years, with work of any kind elusive, high-school teachers earned the respectable salary of $4,000, and their elementary-school counterparts about $3,000.