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The Long Goodbye

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"The Jewish narrative in New York," Professor Diner puts it, "might be called being in the right place at the right time."

Indeed, Jewish teachers personified New York schools during the thirties, forties, and fifties, the decades that form the Belle Epoque of public education. The romantic view, though, omits a few vital factors. During these years, the city was not absorbing huge waves of foreigners, because of stringent federal immigration laws. Once the Depression ended, both the military and booming local industries provided plentiful, well-paying jobs for students not bound for college or even a high-school diploma. The mid-century school system, unlike its present-day incarnation, did not labor under the pressure to prepare every child for higher education or risk losing him to drug dealing or the minimum-wage sub-economy. Whether Jewish educators deserve credit for the Golden Age or not -- whether, in fact, it was public education itself or just the postwar economic expansion that created the era's unparalleled upward mobility -- they became inextricably bound up with the legend of public-school greatness. And that fueled both Jewish pride and Jewish arrogance.

The legend was rocked in the late sixties. After decades of black and Puerto Rican migration into New York, and a growing ghettoization of the city, minority parents began assailing the public system for maleducating their children. By 1966, 45 percent of nonwhite sixth-graders in New York fell below state standards for minimum competency, and of 860 principals only four were black. Attempts to voluntarily integrate schools failed in the face of widespread white opposition. Minority activists and their allies in the Ford Foundation and the Lindsay administration then demanded that ghetto parents rather than the centralized white bureaucracy control their neighborhood schools. In the volatile middle between the black poor and the Wasp elite lay the Jewish educators, publicly accused of committing "mental genocide."

The controversy exploded in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, one of three school districts trying out community control. In May 1968, the black district administrator fired fourteen white teachers and five white principals. The United Federation of Teachers struck twice that spring and a third time the next fall, bringing public education in New York to a halt and raising tensions between blacks and Jews to a level the city would not reach again until the Crown Heights riot. The anti-Semitic fervor peaked when a black leader, Leslie Campbell, went on WBAI to read a poem by a Brownsville pupil: "Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head / You pale-faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead."

On the Jewish side of the barricades, Albert Shanker's abrasive, bullhorn-in-hand leadership of the UFT shattered his reputation as a civil-rights crusader. More subtly, it reopened rifts among Jewish teachers, pitting the union's liberal mainstream against its radical dissidents, many of them men who had entered teaching for draft deferments during the Vietnam War and sided with ghetto parents against the system. Most important, the turmoil in Ocean Hill-Brownsville persuaded the State Legislature to create 32 community school districts whose elected boards would hold the power to hire and fire. In theory, those bodies were supposed to be every bit as democratic as the school boards that run virtually all the suburban systems; in practice, fewer than 10 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots. As a result, the unions representing teachers and supervisors stepped into the power vacuum and dominated the process. Many of the Jews whose forebears had flocked to the school system as a refuge from political corruption now set about mastering these neighborhood versions of Tammany Hall. Such was precisely the journey made by Milton Fein.

Atop Milton Fein's desk in P.S. 7 rests history in the form of two yellowing documents sharing a plastic frame. One sheet is the official pupil record for Joseph Fein, Milton's father, who entered P.S. 7 as an 8-year-old third-grader in 1917. The other record is Fein's, commencing in 1945 with his third-grade year at the same school.

Even then, as a 10-year-old with a devilish knack for mimicking his teachers, young Milton understood himself to be the heir of parental ambitions. His mother, Helen, was a professional painter and a hobby pianist, the fount of Milton's passion for the fine arts. His father, forced by the Depression to work in the family wool-processing plant, invested in Milton his deferred dreams of a newspaper career. All around Milton there lived teachers, Jewish teachers -- a great-uncle and a great-aunt, a neighbor across the street, a friend's father, two sisters who lived in the same apartment building as the Feins. "Oh, teachers were the highest," Fein recalls in hushed tones. "These were very important people."

None proved more important to him than a Scottish spinster named Elizabeth Clarke. She oversaw an experimental class for gifted pupils, keeping the group intact from third through fifth grade. From her, Fein learned how to search source materials in a library, how to use the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, how to divine history from literature and the performing arts. "I used what she taught me," Fein says, "into college."

Fein's uncle, a photographer named Harold Bloom, then turned the boy's talents to the pursuit of social justice. He transfixed Milton with denunciations of lynch mobs, union-busters, and sundry fascists, much as years later he would put Milton's young son to bed not with fairy tales but with orations against capital punishment. Where Uncle Harold left off, a left-wing sleep-away camp in Mount Vernon picked up, teaching Milton anthems of Labor Zionism and the Spanish Civil War.

"My uncle, the camp, the whole gestalt made me aware of the goodness in all people," Fein says. "And it stayed with me. One of the reasons I think I'm an educator is that I believed all children are capable of development and that we truly owe it as educators to give it to them."

Still, Fein took an indirect path to the classroom. He majored in history at Michigan State and interviewed for a human-resources job with Dow Chemical before entering the Army. Assigned to lead a course in military justice, he discovered he loved teaching. And when he found out that teaching in an urban school could get him discharged a year early, he loved it even more. In September 1958, 23 years old and freshly commissioned as a first lieutenant, he took a job in social studies at J.H.S. 141 in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

For the next decade, Fein rose through the ranks, becoming an assistant principal before he was 30. He wed a home-economics teacher, Faye Schenker, whom he had met in the teachers' lounge. Every Christmas brought Scotch, wine, even fine gloves from appreciative parents. In heavily Jewish, thoroughly affluent Riverdale, Fein barely noticed the tremors of decentralization shaking Harlem and Brownsville and the Lower East Side.

Until, that is, the citywide strike erupted in September 1968. As a member of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the union of principals and assistant principals, Fein went out in solidarity with the UFT, leading the picket line at J.H.S. 141. The strikers marched around the clock, while an opposing coalition of white liberals, sympathetic to community control, sought to reopen the school. At another point, the striking educators besieged a private home where a dissident teacher was holding classes. Big labor and the civil-rights movement, partners when segregation was a southern issue, bitterly parted ways during the New York school wars. And for Fein, as for many of his Jewish peers, the walkout terminally severed the Old Left from the New.

"The message was picked up over and over again that Jewish principals are stealing from our children," Fein recalls. "I'd hear it from parents in coded language. 'You're just here to get the money. You're just here for the pension.' Obviously, no one wants to be called a bigot. I know that in my heart I just didn't have those feelings. But my lines were pretty clear. These people wanted to throw me out of my job and throw out everyone who looked like me. They wanted to take over the school system. I was convinced that decentralization would bring politics down to the lowest level. The only surprise to me is how low it could go."

Despite his misgivings, Fein managed to finesse the new system and won the principal's job at P.S. 7 in 1971. The school still resembled that of his own childhood. As late as 1976, surveying a Conestoga wagon packed with students for a Bicentennial parade, Fein saw the familiar mix of white ethnics and middle-class blacks. In 1980, though, he first sent parents a memo in Spanish as well as English. About nine years later, more than half of P.S. 7's pupils fell below grade level on the citywide reading exams. The slide would continue for years, bottoming out in 1996 at 26 percent, putting P.S. 7 in the bottom fifth citywide. During the years P.S. 7 and public schools like it were deteriorating, Fein enrolled his only child, a son named Skylar, in the Horace Mann private school.


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