Tales Out of School

Carl McCall called him crazy. Bob Herbert of the New York Times called him naïve and possibly anti-Semitic. In the Post, Jack Newfield accused him of grandstanding – looking for attention, not looking after the kids.

The de-privatization of Irving Hamer’s life began when Board of Education president William C. Thompson stepped down in the spring to run for comptroller. Hamer calls himself a deeply private man, but since then, Manhattan’s representative to the Board of Education has been the subject of steady scrutiny, most of it unflattering. A Harlem-bred, Harvard-minted educator and entrepreneur, Hamer drew first fire in April, when he switched his vote at the last minute and put Mayor Giuliani’s appointee, Ninfa Segarra, in the board president’s seat.

Recently, the papers reported that the city had canceled plans to buy materials produced by a Web-based test-preparation service called TestU because Hamer, who has spearheaded the Board of Education’s Internet initiatives, was, until November, vice-chairman of the company. After nearly fourteen months, the city has still not completed its investigation into Hamer’s role in that deal. And then came the report that Hamer is considering an appointment to the faculty of Teachers College at Columbia University, news of which inspired more catcalls because of the school’s longstanding role as a tender of teachers to the city’s public schools.

But it was his vote for Segarra – historically his nemesis (she favors the mayor’s agenda of privatization, he does not; she would vote to dissolve the board, he would not) that pegged him in his critics’ minds as a political pawn – if not turncoat. Within days of his vote, Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields (who appointed him in June 1998) had called on him to resign; Hamer demurred. The Daily News wondered whether the vote was payback for help Segarra had given Hamer when his 18-year-old son, Tor, was arrested after a January 24 fight in a subway car. On the op-ed page of the Times, columnist Bob Herbert quoted Hamer saying that one of the reasons he’d switched his vote was that he wanted “some measure of diversity in the leadership of the system.” Segarra is Hispanic; the candidate Hamer had previously supported was teachers’ union head Sandra Lerner, who is Jewish. “If he deep-sixed his own principles even in part because of Dr. Lerner’s ethnic background,” Herbert wrote, “it is time he considered excusing himself from his seat on the board.”

Hamer, noting that he and Segarra are the only board members whose kids actually attend public schools, says he still doesn’t get all the fuss about the vote. He says he asked for $200 million out of the city’s budget surplus for his pet projects, including improvements for low-performing schools, beefing up bilingual education, and universal Internet access in every school. Segarra’s closeness to the mayor, he argued, improved his chances of seeing any of that money: “I took a tiny window of opportunity to get something done on behalf of the children.”

Hamer testily denounces Herbert’s thinly veiled charge of anti-Semitism. (“Anti-apartheid? Yes. Anti-Semitic? No.”) But Segarra’s defense of the vote is rich in racial overtones. Claiming she shares “a special bond” with Hamer, Segarra says, “We’re both of color, and the children in the city school system look like us and talk like us.” Her call to the police for information on the night of Tor Hamer’s arrest, she adds, “was a mom helping a dad, that’s all it was.”

Fields concedes there’s nothing to do about Hamer before his term expires next June, though she’s made it clear that she won’t reappoint him. Even so, she credits Hamer with some important contributions, especially in technology.

Irving Speare Hamer Jr. grew up on 149th Street in Harlem, his mother the daughter of a preacher and his father a 1924 college graduate with a degree in mathematics. His father’s degree didn’t open doors to a lucrative career; instead, he labored as a porter, a redcap at what was then Idlewild airport, and a truck driver. “Poverty broke up the family,” Hamer says. (At 60, his father finally landed a job as an analyst in the credit department of Diner’s Club.)

Hamer attended public schools and then Ottawa University in Kansas, followed by Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in educational administration and a doctorate in learning environments and social policy. In the late sixties, Hamer was a co-founder of the Street Academy group of storefront, community-based alternative schools modeled on the Freedom Schools of the Deep South, where he’d spent some time. It offered classes to dropouts, addicts, and other public-school students in trouble.

In 1986, Hamer became the state’s deputy commissioner of Education for comprehensive school-improvement planning in New York City. One of his initiatives, recalls Adelaide Sanford, a vice-chancellor of the state Board of Regents, was the creation of “Principal Centers,” where, “for the first time, school principals had an opportunity to come together and collaborate.” While working for the state Education Department, Hamer also co-wrote a controversial handbook describing purported differences in learning styles between white and black students. Before his appointment to the city Board of Education, Hamer was executive vice-president of Simon & Schuster’s secondary-education group, where, according to Sanford, he helped introduce diversity into social-studies books.

Hamer’s goals for the city’s public schools are to integrate technology into instruction, improve and expand bilingual education and English-as-a-second-language programs, and deal aggressively with low-performing schools. His eyes visibly brighten when he talks about the tech initiative and the twenty private corporations bidding to be partners in the deal. He left TestU he says, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest with the initiative.

“We had nothing to offer New York City when he was with us,” protests Yaron Eitan, chairman of TestU. “The Board of Ed doesn’t pay him much; the guy can’t work? What do they want – all millionaires on the board?”

“He’s very protective and very private, and he never shows hurt,” says his sister, Bob (née Barbara). One of Hamer’s best friends, Frederick Dunn, who runs the education department at a public employees’ union, spoke about their work together in the seventies assisting “dropouts, push-outs, fall-outs, and shame-outs.”

“He struck me as a Renaissance man because of his varied interests,” says Hugh Butts, a psychoanalyst who has known Hamer for more than 25 years.

“He’s erudite, a learned man,” adds Wallace Mathai-Davis, COO and CFO of OffitBank. Mathai-Davis says that no matter where Hamer’s life has taken him, he’s never disconnected from the core of the African-American community: “As an adult, Irving lived in Harlem long before it was fashionable.”

There’s nothing frivolous about Hamer, a big man whose interactions with other people tend to be thoughtful and slightly formal: He listens and waits a beat or two before answering a question. His delivery, whether to community groups, young people, or intellectuals, is un-selfconscious, but he has little use for small talk.

“I love bebop, jazz, and a good Cab,” Hamer says, by which he means Cabernet Sauvignon. The Harlem apartment he shares with Tor is filled with rebellion art from the fifties, paintings by French and Italian artists, a Romare Bearden collage. African and African-American sculptures stand guard on antique furniture. The third member of the family, a Bouvier des Flanders named Equus, looks like a huge walking gray shag rug.

“What he’s doing is totally cool,” Tor, who attends a public high school on the Upper East Side, says of his father. “My dad is wrong only when he doesn’t have enough information. I can name the four times he’s been wrong.”

Unlike Fields, parents’ groups and others think the worst thing Hamer could do is step down. “I think he’s taking a beating he doesn’t deserve,” says Sy Fliegal, president of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association.

In Nigeria last summer, Hamer recalls, he visited an old university created by British colonialists. “It was heartbreaking,” he said. “There were business students who’d never touched a computer. Geology students without tools to go out into the field.”

Then he described a visit he’d made that morning to a school in Manhattan. Students were sitting at desks in a hallway. The science lab had been turned into a classroom. Hamer doesn’t understand the outrage over his vote and the absence of sustained outrage at the bad-to-mediocre education children are receiving in fourteen districts. The majority of the children in these schools are African-American and Latino.

Still, he believes the system of which he is a product can be saved. “We know so much, but we do so little,” Hamer says. “We can make this bad boy work.”

Tales Out of School