Why was Jamaica High School closed down?
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.
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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
Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2013, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.