Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School," Michael Johanek and John Puckett

"Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School: Education As If Citizenship Mattered"dissects American society's move away from the public commons and towards the individualistic principles and private sphere championed in the conservative canon, through the experience of one man at one New York City high school.

The authors Michael Johanek and John Puckett recap their effort with the closing question: "How does Covello's theory and practice of community school speak meaningfully to the problem of American's hastening retreat from the public sphere?"

"Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School" is a tough academic slog covering the first days of the community school movement, as envisioned by the education theorist John Dewey, and the way it dovetailed with the early 20th Century reform movement in the United States.

It discusses, in adequate detail, certain preliminary thrusts at integrating a school's efforts into the goals of the surrounding community, and their varying degrees of success.

But mostly, and as the title suggests, the book returns to Leonard Covello, an Italian immigrant convinced of education's value to any newcomer's development, and his efforts at applying community school principles in the well-defined terminus of East Harlem, New York City.

The book demonstrates the verity of Emerson's platitude that, "An institution is the shadow of one man," by tracing Covello's efforts at opening a school for the underserved area, teaching Italian to the children of immigrants from Italy, and grooming enough students to generate at least one formidable star -- Vito Marcantonio.

Marcantonio gave Covello the nickname by which two generations of high school boys would come to know him - "Pop."

More importantly, he helped his old mentor construct a new public high school on the banks of the East River, secured countless employees from the Depression-era Works Projects Administration to staff it, and stood guard when the experiment came in for conservative attacks.

The meat of the book covers the very specific work Covello and his team did implicating Franklin into the troubled neighborhood's affairs.

These included a sociological mapping of immigrant focal points, exhaustive surveys of area businesses, clean-up campaigns, storefront community centers, communal gardens, parades, dances, and conferences on racial tolerance crucial in a neighborhood where Italians, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, and slivers of other groups cohabitated uneasily.

The book makes clear that putting these ideas in play turned out to be a lot harder in practice than they were to write about in theory.

There is admiration for Covello and his dream, but no whitewashing of his shortcomings nor the fact that the Franklin experiment was largely over even before he retired in 1956.

There is fair analysis of the political winds buffeting attempts at improving East Harlem through the direction of a scholastic hub.

As the progressive '30s gave way to the World War, the ensuing conservative era, and Marcantonio's unseating in Congress, the very idea of "community school" carried the unpopular baggage of socialism and Covello's wings were clipped accordingly.

Finally, the authors draw conclusions about how the failure speaks to education in America today and suggest the circumstances of Covello's time prevailed over principles which were not only sound, but of enduring value.

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