Why was Jamaica High School closed down?


Jamaica High SchoolThe Jamaica High School building last year and, at right, in 1981.CREDITILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY; PHOTOGRAPHS BY VIC DELUCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX; JACKSON KRULE (TOP-LEFT)

Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States. For most of its history, it occupied a majestic Georgian Revival building on Gothic Drive, designed in the nineteen-twenties by William H. Gompert, who had begun his career at McKim, Mead & White. With east and west wings, granite columns, and an elaborate bell tower, the building looked like a state capitol that had been dropped into the middle of a residential neighborhood; it sat on the crest of a hill so imposing that planners would have been guilty of pretense had it housed anything other than a public institution.

One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony. Accompanying the festivities was the traditional graduation boilerplate—about life transitions and rising to new challenges—but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students. After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last.

The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty per cent. Accordingly, the department had begun to “co-locate” four newly created “small schools” in the old building. Advocates argue that small schools can best resolve many of the ills associated with urban education, but the reorganization produced a logistical problem. The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself, both figuratively and literally, pushed out.

Underscoring the indignities that attended the school’s last days was a difficult irony: for much of its time, Jamaica was a gemstone of the city’s public-education system. In 1981, the schools chancellor, Frank Macchiarola, decided to take on the additional role of an interim high-school principal, in order to better appreciate the daily demands of school administration. He chose Jamaica, and was roundly criticized for picking such an easy school to lead. Four years later, the U.S. Department of Education named it one of the most outstanding public secondary schools in the nation. Alumni include Stephen Jay Gould, Attorney General John Mitchell, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Walter O’Malley, Paul Bowles, and three winners of the Pulitzer Prize: Gunther Schuller, Art Buchwald, and Alan Dugan. Bob Beamon, who set a world record for the long jump in the 1968 Olympics, graduated with the class of ’65. The school’s closure felt less like the shuttering of a perennial emblem of stagnation than like the erasure of a once great institution that had somehow ceased to be so.

Jamaica had become an institution of the type that has vexed city policymakers and educators: one charged with serving a majority-minority student body, most of whose members qualified as poor, and whose record was defined by chronic underachievement and academic failure. Even so, word of the school’s closure angered students and their families, the community, and alumni. I was among them—I graduated with the class of ’87—and for me, as for many former students, the school was a figment of recollection, frozen in its academic glory. George Vecsey, the former Times sports columnist and a member of the class of ’56, accused Joel Klein, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s schools chancellor, of “cooking the books,” to make schools slated for closure appear worse than they were, and compared the Department of Education’s closure policies to the nihilism of Pol Pot. Vecsey later apologized for having slighted the suffering of Cambodia, but he held to his contention that Klein ruled by dictatorial fiat. He wrote, in a blog, “The city destroyed a piece of history because of its own failure.”

There are two broadly competing narratives about school closure. The one commonly told by teachers, students, and many parents at underperforming schools centers on a lack of financial and material resources, which insures that the schools will be unable to meet even minimum standards. Strongly connected to this version is a belief that closure functions as a kind of veiled union-busting: shutting a school allows reformers to sidestep contracts and remove long-term teachers.

Reformers view closure as a necessary corrective to what they see as bloated bureaucracies, inept teachers, and unaccountable unions. They argue that urban schools are often too large to give students the attention they need. In 2000, the Gates Foundation began funding education reform, with an emphasis on reducing school size. Nine years later, in an annual newsletter, the foundation reported that its efforts had not met with significant success, particularly with schools “that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum.” The foundation also said that it “had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.” The reform movement nationwide increasingly saw closure and the creation of new institutions—as opposed to funding and reorganizing existing schools—as the way forward.

During the nineteen-forties, in a series of landmark tests conducted around the country, the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark demonstrated that black children associated virtue and intelligence with whiteness, and had correspondingly internalized racist stereotypes of inferiority. Robert Carter, an attorney with the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, heard of the Clarks’ work and brought it to the attention of Thurgood Marshall, who was then the legal fund’s director-counsel. Marshall made the Clarks’ findings central to the argument for school desegregation in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. The decision made Kenneth Clark famous (while largely overlooking his wife’s role in structuring the experiment). Clark, who had grown up in Harlem and was a professor at the City College of New York, then turned his attention to the city government, which, he charged, had fostered segregation in the schools.

Arthur Levitt, then the president of the New York City Board of Education, responded that the schools merely reflected residential patterns: children who attended overwhelmingly black schools lived in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. A Commission on Integration was set up to examine the issue, with Clark as one of the commissioners, and Levitt as co-chair, and it issued recommendations, which were never quite translated into policy. (Clark resigned, but continued to push for integration throughout his career.) In 1959, the Board of Education experimented by sending four hundred students from overcrowded black schools in Brooklyn to under-attended white schools in the Ridgewood and Glendale sections of Queens. The move was met with rancorous opposition and a brief boycott that anticipated the riotous response to busing in the seventies.

In 1949, John Ward, an African-American student whose family had migrated to New York from Virginia after the Second World War, enrolled at the school. Ward’s father was a bus mechanic, and his mother worked as a domestic; between them, they earned enough to buy a home in Jamaica. Ward recalls the area as a place where Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, African-Americans, and Jews lived in peaceful proximity. His house was not far from the grocery store that Mario Cuomo’s parents owned, and Ward, who played baseball as a boy, remembers the future governor from games in the neighborhood sandlots. The area had not yet entirely shaken its rural roots. “There were still people farming there,” Ward told me. “I remember seeing people butcher hogs on Linden Boulevard in the forties and fifties.”

Ward wanted to be a teacher, but Woodrow Wilson, the high school that most blacks in the area attended, was a vocational trade school. So he applied to Jamaica, which had acquired a reputation as one of the city’s strongest academic high schools. Ward initially found the rigor daunting. “My first semester, I failed about three major classes,” he told me. “My father said, ‘If you’re not going to work at school, you’ll have to get a job.’ ” Ward studied hard and spent an extra semester earning enough academic credits to apply to college. He played baseball well enough to be selected for the All-City team in 1954, his senior year. “I don’t really recall there being much racial tension,” he said of the school. “The blacks mostly hung out with other black students, but, being an athlete, I interacted with a lot more of the white students.” For a few years in the fifties, Jamaica’s integrated athletics teams, with their winning records, were a point of pride for the school. In 1954, Ward was elected the school’s first black class president.

He was accepted at Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore, but his family couldn’t afford the tuition, so he played D-League baseball for a few years, then applied to the New York City police academy, and, in 1960, became one of the first black members of the motorcycle corps. Of the more than three hundred graduates in Ward’s police-academy class, fewer than two dozen were African-American. In 1974, he was promoted to a plainclothes unit working out of the 114th Precinct. “Out of sixteen guys, I was the black on the street-crimes unit,” he told me. His career on the force was, at least demographically, a replay of his experiences at Jamaica, and Ward later credited the school with giving him not only an excellent education but also the skills that allowed him to navigate primarily white environments. “Jamaica being integrated in the fifties was something unusual,” he told me. “But it was also a place where I felt I belonged.”

South Jamaica’s black population continued to grow in the fifties and sixties, though not all of it was as economically stable as Ward’s family. In 1947, when the Olympian Bob Beamon was still a baby, his mother died, and he was eventually sent to live with a guardian in a rough part of the neighborhood. After a troubled childhood and a brush with juvenile court, which resulted in his being sent to a remedial, “600” school, Beamon became convinced that if he could get into Jamaica he could turn his life around. Four decades later, in a memoir, “The Man Who Could Fly,” he wrote of the school in nearly ecclesiastical terms:

Mr. Louis Schuker, the principal at Jamaica High, had a long talk with me and Coach Ellis. He said the odds of a 600 school student making it in a regular school environment were next to zero. His admonition to me was reminiscent of the one given by the judge who had sentenced me to the 600 school.

“Beamon, any trouble out of you and you are out of here,” Mr. Schuker said. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered firmly and clearly. I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere but Jamaica High. This was where I wanted to be. This was where I belonged.

It’s easy to wax idealist about the happy spaces of one’s childhood, but in Beamon’s case the assessment can’t be so easily dismissed. He traced his desire to compete in the Olympics to a visit that the track-and-field star Wilma Rudolph, a triple gold medalist in the 1960 Games, paid to Jamaica during his sophomore year. The school was a place where someone like him, who grew up poor in a crime-plagued neighborhood, stood a chance of encountering someone like Rudolph.

Jamaica High School

Read the entire article via from:

Notes from a graduate of Jamaica High:

I attended Jamaica High School, graduating from it in 1963. Those were probably the last peak years of the school. It had issues of racial non-integration. Despite the author’s statement, in the years I attended it was anything but racially homogeneous. Kids ran with kids like themselves, more or less divided down the lines of ethnicity and race.

There was little active hostility between the groups and a surprising amount of cross-pollination and dating. The school was far from perfect, but there existed a cadre of talented and dedicated teachers who made themselves available to those who wanted to learn, or who needed help.

Was it a model for the future? There were standardized tests — Regents exams — but these were based on what we learned in school, not on some bureaucrats notion of what we should “know.” Most of us came out better than we went in. And that’s saying a lot, especially these days.

On a lighter note, it was the only high school of which I’ve ever heard to cancel the senior prom (1963) due to lack of interest.



About the Author

See on Scoop.itIn and About the News

Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and since 2013, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.


A Citizen’s Open Letter, Richard Paschall

Dear Leader,

There are a number of problems in the world I would like to call to your attention in case you have not yet had time to notice them.  First, there is this whole thing about poverty.  The world is full of wealth and wealthy people and yet there are those without food, shelter and medicine.  Worse yet, successful corporations and wealthy businessmen get additional tax breaks that in no way benefit the poor.  Isn’t the government for all the people?  How about a little protection for the “little people?”  There seems to be no reason for people to starve.  Wouldn’t a “more perfect union” seek to help more than the top one percent?

Credit: CC0 Public Domain from pixabay

Photo Credit: CC0 Public Domain from pixabay

We seem to struggle with the issue of providing health care to the populace.  I know you have tried to get medical insurance to everyone, but the costs are still rather high.  Other top-tier countries do not force their citizens to choose between food and health care.  Costs are controlled to a greater extent.  Also, prescription drug costs at the retail level are affordable elsewhere.  Here many people must choose if they can afford life saving medicine or pay other bills.  Does that seem right? The same prescriptions that are reasonably priced in other countries are sometime astronomical in price here.  Can you even this out?  That would seem to “promote the general welfare.”

In a nation built on immigration, as most countries were actually, we seem to have a total lack of understanding of immigration issues.  Some politicians, barely removed from their immigrant roots, block meaningful immigration reform.  Can you speak to them about that?  Maybe they do not realize that their roots are actually somewhere else, not  here.  In fact, it seems that the native population is really rather small.  We need to “establish justice.”

If children are our future and education is the most valuable component of that, can we do something to promote higher education?  Many countries provide free education as they realize the value of it.  Surely we will fall behind in the world if we do not have an educated population.  At present, the cost discourages participation or throws many students into debt for decades after graduation.  Would this not be one of the best ways to “secure the Blessings of our Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  If our posterity is to be driven into ignorance and/or severe debt, then they are not blessed at all.

There seems to be a lot of mistrust of government, police departments and authority in general.  Can you speak to various leaders about justice and equality?  I fear we have taken steps backwards in the relationships between men and women, people of color, people of various religious backgrounds and people of different sexual orientations.  Worse yet is the use of so-called religious freedoms to justify hate.  Surely you can do something to get the dialogue back on track.  People are people.  There must be a better way to “insure domestic tranquility.”

I know you must “provide for the common defence,” but we seem to be going about it the wrong way.  Can you explain to the citizens that the second amendment was not actually handed down by god?  Since we are not living in the 1780’s and there really is no reason for all citizens to bear arms in case the states need to raise a well-regulated militia to defend themselves, we should be able to add in some sort of control.  After all, the Red Coats are not coming.  Background checks will not infringe upon my rights, I promise you.

Finally, I think programs and policies need better explanations.  Can you do a better job of that?  President Theodore Roosevelt believed that he had a “bully pulpit” and that he should use it, and use it he did.  He was not shy about going out to the people to explain himself and his policies.  Why not try to do more of that?  On the other hand, that will only mean opponents will spin the truth out of control and get more air time.  Maybe you should forget this last part.

Public Citizen Richard


Working backwards from Gen X, I must be Gen W. My parents were Gen V. With the turning of the earth, we Baby Boomers are now {trumpets and drumroll} the “Older Generation.” When did that happen?

I’m not entirely sure how it became our job to “understand” younger generations. I am of the opinion it is their job to understand us. They might learn a few things.

My 6th Grade class.

Gen X, my son’s group, are now in their forties. No longer young, they are an odd bunch. Many grew up convinced they had a date with destiny, that their birthright was The Good Life. Some realized achieving the good life would require work and education, but a big percentage didn’t get that message. Or, on hearing it, felt it had been incorrectly delivered. It was clearly meant for someone else.

I did my best to be a role model for the work ethic. I strove to be good at my job.

As a group, many people of my own and previous generations were obsessive about doing good work. Whatever we did, we did it wholeheartedly. As a generation, boomers believed in education. Were sure work would redeem us. We expected to be grunts before getting promoted.


Thus you can imagine with how much trepidation heard my son say “I don’t want to waste my life working all the time like you, my father, and Garry.” If he had been the only one from whom I heard these or similar words, it would not have been so alarming.

Say what? I realized — finally and rather late — that there’d been a serious, generational disconnect.


The “success will come because I want it” thing did not work out well for Gen X or Y.

My granddaughter’s Gen Y group seems focused on personal happiness. They are entitled to a stress-free life. Anyone who forces them to do stuff which they don’t enjoy is a bully. An abuser. What nonsense.

Clueless or not, reality will bite them in the ass. Ultimately, Generations X and Y won’t have parents or grandparents to run to for comfort and a quick loan. Unless they re-evaluate their direction, life is going to prove a huge disappointment. We want the best for them … but they have to make it happen. It isn’t free. Everything has a price tag. Pay up front or later, but pay you will.

On the positive side, if you do something you love, it doesn’t feel like work. Maybe that’s the most important part of the missed message.


This is round three on this prompt. At least. Maybe four. This post is also a rerun because my school days are a million years past and I don’t have anything more to say on the subject. However, I like this post and don’t mind rerunning it. Hope you don’t mind, either.

I have to point out — again — that by the time one is collecting social security, the issue of school memories is moot. It really doesn’t much matter what happened in school. What matters — maybe — is what happened during the rest of ones life.

But stories are stories and this one’s not bad. It was a long time ago … more than sixty years. I might as well write it down because I’ll probably have forgotten it soon enough.

My 6th Grade class.

In sixth grade. Still wondering what I’m doing there. Probably so were most of the other kids.

I’ve arrived. School has begun, if you could really call it school. I’m the youngest kid in the class, only four, but somehow, here I am anyhow. I’m certainly the smallest. All the others kids are way bigger than me. I don’t know it yet, but I will always be either the shortest or next to the shortest kid in every class for the next six years. After that, they stop measuring.

P.S. 35 is tiny but to me it looks gigantic. Monstrous. Many years later, I will come back here and see this school as the miniature it is, but not yet. Even the stairs are half the height of normal stairs. I don’t know about stairs. Kindergarten is on the ground floor. Always. They don’t want us little kids getting run over by bigger ones. Or lost in the hallways.

The windows go all the way to the ceiling. Very tall. To open or close them, Miss O’Rourke uses a long hook on a pole. I wonder why they don’t have normal windows like at home. Our windows open by turning a crank. Anyone can open them. Even me.PS350001

Teacher is pretty old. She’s got frizzy grey hair and glasses. She dresses funny. She talks loud and slow. Does she think I’m stupid? Everyone in my family talks loud, but no one talks slow.

Now it’s nap time. We are supposed to put our blankets on the floor and go to sleep, but I don’t nap. I haven’t taken a nap ever or at least none I can remember. Anyway, I don’t have a blanket. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. I also don’t have a shoe box for my crayons. All the other kids have them. I wish I had one because I feel weird being the only one without a blanket and no shoe box.

Worse, I don’t have crayons. I wish I had some because the ones in the big box in the classroom for everyone to use are broken, the colors no one likes. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring crayons either. She’s busy. I just got a new sister who cries all the time and mommy didn’t have time to come to school and find out all this stuff all the other kids mothers know.

So I sit in a chair and wait, being very quiet, while every one is napping. I don’t think they are really asleep, but everyone goes and lays down on the floor on a blanket and pretends. It gives Mrs. O’Rourke time to write stuff in her book.

It’s a long day and I have almost a mile to walk home. My mother doesn’t drive and anyway, she doesn’t worry about me. She knows I’ll find my way. It’s just that the walk home is all uphill. I’m tired. Why do I have to do this? I could have stayed home and played with my own toys.

By the time I know the answer, I will be 19 and graduating from college. Even after I know the answer, I don’t understand the question. I read so much on my own — that’s where I really learn everything.  School will forever be where I sit around doing everything slowly so other kids can catch up with me.

Except for math. And French. But who needs that stuff anyhow? I’m going to be a writer. Unless the ballerina thing works out.


Childhood is a challenge.

Many of us struggled, had serious problems at home and lived with daily bullying at school. With the attention these issues get in the press today, things have not changed much. Bullying is as much — or more — of a problem as it was when I was a kid. Teachers ignore it. Parents dismiss it. Kids won’t talk about their problems because they (rightly) believe it might make everything worse.

These days, it’s all about awareness, as if somehow, knowing that there is a problem is the same as solving it. Awareness is not a cure. Publicity does not change what happens at home or in the schoolyard.

elementary school

I was a precocious child with limited social skills. Inept at sports, lost in math. Among outcasts, I was an outcast. I was bored in class, terrified in the schoolyard. In third grade, I hid in the cloak room in the hopes no one would miss me. I found a stack of books and read them in the semi-dark by the light of one dim bulb.

My teacher was furious. I had finished the readers for my grade and through sixth. I would have read more but they found my hiding place and made me come out. The principal called my mother to complain I had read the readers. My mother pointed out I might benefit from a more challenging curriculum. She reasoned if I could read all the readers in an hour, the work was too easy. The principal and teachers missed the point. Entirely.

They wanted my mother to punish me for reading too much. She didn’t stop laughing for days. She thought it was hilarious and retold the story at every family gathering. I didn’t think it was nearly as funny, because that teacher hated me from that day forward. It made third grade a special kind of Hell.

I started high school at thirteen. Blessed by a few teachers who made learning exciting and fun, the rest of the lot thought reading the textbook in a monotone was the way to go. I chipped a tooth one morning when I fell asleep and hit my head on the desk.

I was off the charts in English and history while falling further behind in math and hard science. I was in my thirties — reading Horatio Hornblower before I realized trigonometry had a purpose. It was used to calculate trajectories and navigation! A revelation! Pity I didn’t know that when I was supposed to be learning it …

I survived school and had a life. It’s a bit late to wonder what might have been …


I found this cartoon yesterday on Facebook. Yes, Facebook and let’s not hear anything more about it, please.

It sums up exactly how I feel the fools “up there” in the thrones of power are destroying education in this country. It’s only funny if you think it’s okay that we have a whole generation of kids coming through a system that does not allow them to learn.

our education system

They are passing tests. If they learn, it is in spite of the system, not because of it.

 Fool Me Once


Education in the U.S. is a disaster these days. Teachers aren’t permitted to teach. Worse, students don’t get the chance to really learn. The curriculum is all memorization and standardized tests leaving no opportunity to explore ideas and concepts, to even discover there is more to education than passing exams.

I was lucky. I had teachers who helped me learn to learn. To love reading, to make up stories. To write them. To create non-fiction which was complete, accurate, and unbiased and to know what that means. To find humor in physics. To love history, religion, archaeology, philosophy and the mysteries of our world.

They encouraged curiosity, imagination and creative thinking.

library tower 63

Mrs. Schiff, 4th grade teacher at P.S. 35, who suggested I write “diaries” of historical people and learn to put myself into their worlds. Thank you. You made me feel special and talented and those lessons have traveled far and wide.

Dr. Silver, who taught English Literature and Linguistics at Jamaica High school. He forced me to parse sentences and respect punctuation and grammar while making me laugh. His doctorate in Linguistics helped him make our language intriguing, like a giant mystery to unravel. I’m still unraveling it.

College was the most fun I ever had and the best work I ever did.


Mr. Wekerle, head of Hofstra University’s Philosophy department. He believed in me. He taught phenomenology, History of Religion, Philosophy of Religion, but more importantly, saw through my bullshit. The first — and only professor to give me a grade of D-/A+ … D- for content, A+ for style. He didn’t let me get away with anything. He made me fill in all those leaps of logic even though I whined vociferously that “everyone knows that stuff.” Wekerle said “No, they don’t. You know. Now tell them.”

And I did. From that grew a 40 year career.

Dr. Feiffer — my high school physics teacher — taught me even I, the least mathematically inclined student ever — could be fascinated by science. I never got it together with numbers, but I learned to love science. I still do. The logic of it, the truth of it, the importance of it have stayed with me an entire lifetime. I got what I needed from dedicated teachers who worked for crappy salaries to teach dunderheads and wise-asses like me to think, write, research and love learning.

The gifts they gave me were priceless.

Daily Prompt: WE CAN BE TAUGHT — Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?

Just a month ago, this one came around. The title is slightly altered,but it’s the same subject in almost the same words. Mind you, it’s a pleasant subject, but so recently written, I can’t see any reason to write it again. Hey, if you’re going to recycle the prompts as often as once per month, I’ll recycle my response. If it’s good for the goose, it must be perfectly okay for the gander, right? But wait … I’M the goose. Oops. Bad analogy.