The struggle for community control of New York’s Lower East Side schools was a Jewish struggle in 1903 and is a Black and Puerto Rican struggle in 1973, according to Luis Fuentes, Superintendent of Community School District One.
Speaking at the Human Resources Administration recently, Fuentes defended himself against critics who fault him for ethnic hiring practices and bilingual programs for children of immigrants. Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League have accused Fuentes of discriminating against Jews and whites in the hiring of teachers and principals–The United Federation of Teachers, headed by Albert Shanker, has consistently opposed his efforts in bilingual education for fear that an expansion of bilingual classes would cost present teachers and those awaiting assignment, their jobs. Shanker recommends instead that present teachers learn Spanish.
Recalling the efforts of Julia Richman, the first Jewish district superintendent on the Lower East Side, Fuentes said, “In a school system that was overwhelmingly non-Jewish in its professional staff, she appointed Jewish principals, Jewish assistant principals, and Jewish teachers. Jewish teachers in 1909 were almost exactly the same percentage of the teaching staff as Black teachers are today, very few, but in one of Julia Richman’s Lower East Side schools she recruited a staff that was 40 percent Jewish.”
“Her first administrative actions were to serve kosher food in the schools and start a bilingual program for non-English speaking immigrant children. She argued that the school had a special obligation to understand the child in terms of his background and to make, sure it met him on grounds that reflected his needs.”
FUENTES DENIES ANTI-SEMITIC CHARGES
In an interview after his talk at the Human Resources Administration, Fuentes asserted that of the 14 principals hired this year, 2 of the 5 whites were Jewish, six were. Puerto Rican and 3 Black. Fuentes told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a telephone interview that an editorial appearing in the-Jewish Press which accused him of a purge against Jewish teachers is completely unfounded as no teachers have been dismissed in his district. Several Jewish organizations have repeatedly called for the ouster of Fuentes from his post on the grounds that he has made anti-Semitic statements in public and private.
Fuentes said the pupil enrollment In his district is 72 percent Puerto Rican, 18 percent Black, 8 percent Chinese and 2 percent white. The staff of 1000 teachers, he said, is about 90 percent white, 8 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Black.
Fuentes commented that the professional unions and Board of Education combat efforts to change the system in order to “protect their salaries and suburban life-styles while the schools in our neighborhoods become Junkie production lines.”
We want what Irish-Americans in this city wanted and got in the middle of the 19th century,” said Fuentes, “what Jewish-Americans wanted and got in the turn of the century, what Italian Americans wanted and got in the 1930’s and 1940’s–making public institutions accountable to our needs.”
A number of authorities on the Lower East Side, together with several source books on the neighborhood’s Jewish community at the turn of the century dispute Fuentes’ interpretation of that era’s history.
Dr. Selma Berrol, assistant dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Baruch College of the City University, whose 1967 dissertation, “Immigrants at School: New York City, 1898-1914” is considered authoritative and was cited in the bibliography of material used by Fuentes, offered the chief rebuttal.
Dr. Berrol asserted that Julia Richman became Superintendent of the Lower East Side schools through her friendship with banker Felix Warburg, then a member of the Board of Education and not as a result of community agitation. A member of the uptown German-Jewish gentry, Richman wanted to “Americanize” the children of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, according to Dr. Berrol.
Dr. David Rudavsky, a professor of Hebrew culture at NYU, said there was no effort to “displace” Gentile teachers in favor of Jewish teachers, although there was some willingness to bring in Jewish teachers “who might be more sympathetic” to the children, provided they were qualified.
The many children who spoke Yiddish only were confronted with teachers who were forbidden to speak “anything but English,” says Dr. Berrol, while the kosher food which was served in the schools was funded by a private charity and was discontinued with no outcry from the community.
Fuentes, in reply, maintained yesterday, however, that “there is no question that the substance of my interpretation was completely accurate.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.