So vast has become the public school
system of New York City that it surpasses the military
establishments of great European states. With the opening of its
classrooms last Monday, a host of children assembled that was nearly
twice the size of the standing army of Austria-Hungary. They were
marshaled by as many teachers as there are officers in command of
all Great Britain's troops. And the money to be spent for these boys
and girls in the present school year will almost equal the annual
cost of the Italian navy.
Yet to understand best on what
tremendous lines the free education of the youth of New York is
conducted a person should visit one of the city's great schools.
Some of them contain more pupils than the big universities. One
should go from classroom to classroom, listen, even though for only
a moment, to the recitation or lecture, and all the time watch the
little faces for a clue of what is in their minds. In this way,
also, you will come to understand how great is the problem which the
pubic school is endeavoring to solve. You will see, side by side the
children of the poor, the well-to-do, the ignorant, the enlightened,
the criminal and the law-abiding classes. All are learning out of
the same books. All are to be American citizens.
A sociologist who was writing a book on
"New York in 1956" was asked if he had ever visited the public
schools of the metropolis. "Oh, no," he answered, "I know all about
them. I have spent my time at the Barge Office studying types of
immigrants, at the Tombs investigating into the nationality of the
prisoners and the character of their crimes, and at the police
courts to learn all that I could of their home life. And, I tell
you, it's my opinion that this city fifty years from now will be
another Paris at the time of the French revolution."
At last the writer was persuaded to
visit a school. Even though he might not find anything for his book,
yet it would interest him, he was told. It was so different, all his
friends said, from the little red schoolhouse in New England where
he had obtained the foundations of the education of which he so
often boasted. In company with a New York acquaintance, himself a
graduate of a public school of this city, he boarded a rickety
horsecar in Stanton street. He went down into the heart of that
great modern Babel known as the East Side. And as the car bowled
along the author pointed at street arabs fighting over the results
of a crap game; at policemen hounding the pushcart peddlers, "for a
few pennies of blackmail," he said; at pale, emaciated women pawing
over old garbage cans for food, and at the windows of houses where
men, women and children, all crowded together, were toiling in the
stifling atmosphere of a sweatshop. "And what is to come out of
this," he concluded, "but misery, desperation, crime and anarchy?"
A HUGE BUILDING.
When the car had almost reached the East
River the two men left it and walked toward a huge, five storied,
big windowed building which occupied a whole block in Houston
street. It was Public School No. 188, which the New Yorker explained
was the largest public school in the world. In the great play yard
in the central court the children were romping about so noisily that
the two men had to cease talking. They could not hear each other.
Then, of a sudden a gong sounded, and the hubbub was hushed. The
boys on one side of the yard, the girls on the other, fell into
lines, each representing a class and slowly and noiselessly, save
for the shuffling of feet, they marched away to their classrooms.
"You won't believe it, perhaps, but that little army you have just
seen contained five thousand children, or as many as attend all the
schools in the entire State of Nevada. Under this roof there are a
quarter of a thousand more pupils than in all Columbia University.
Indeed, there are seats enough for the students of Yale, Brown,
Amherst, and Bowdoin combined."
Following the boys upstairs, the two men met Mr. Mandel, the
principal, whose face brightened as soon as he was asked if they
might visit the classrooms. "I guess you won't have time to go into
all of them," he said, as he led the way. "You see there are
ninety-six altogether." Turning through a door the visitors found
themselves confronted by forty lads poring over a history lesson.
In the teacher's chair a boy had been left in charge. "A small-sized
republic," remarked the principal. "You see how well they can govern
themselves. They have elected this president to administer affairs
in the interim."
"They do maintain good decorum to be sure," said the writer,
"although there must be some tough rowdies among them. They
doubtless go to school because they have to, and so when they get
through the slums will swallow them up again. I suppose there is
hardly one of them who has in view any definite vocation."
"I'd be glad to take a census of the class to find out," said Mr.
Mandel, and, turning to the teacher, who had just returned, he
asked him to call the roll. Of the thirty-nine present, only one was
undecided as to his life work. Eleven wanted to take up various
business careers. Nine intended to be lawyers, six civil engineers,
three dentists, three doctors, two teachers, and one each for the
various callings of mechanic, engraver, designer of clothes, and
electrical engineer. Of the thirty-nine, the majority were Jewish.
On inquiry the teacher found that the reason why six had chosen
civil engineering was because they had watched the construction of
the Williamsburg Bridge. The engineers who directed the work, who
"bossed the dagoes," as one Irish boy put it, had made many of the
youth of the neighborhood ambitious to rise to a like position of
wisdom and authority. The average age of the boys of this class was
fourteen. They will be graduated next February.
Across the hall the visitors found a class hard at work at English
composition. It was made up of pupils who contrasted strongly with
those they had just left. They were four or five years younger and
showed more clearly the influence of their home life. Their faces
were dirtier, their hair more snarled, and their clothes more
"We haven't had as much opportunity to bring out what is best in
these little fellows," Mr. Mandel explained.
The subject of the essays was, "My Vacation." And when they were
handed in they showed that nearly all of the class had spent the
summer in East Side streets. One spoke of an "outing" in Central
Park, and another had gone "camping" in the Bronx. A third devoted
his whole composition to a baseball game. It, to him, was the most
important happening in the last two months. The teacher read it
aloud as follows.
"During vacation our team and another
team arranged a game of baseball. It was to be played at 6th Street
dock for $2. The game started, and it was the ending of the fifth
inning. The score was in favor of the other side, 7 to 0 when the
pitcher went to pieces, and we hit him for ten runs and won out by
10 to 7."
A hand was waving wildly in the rear of the room, and as soon as its
possessor was recognized by the teacher a voice resounded shrilly,
"I tell youse about dat game. I wuz on
the side dat lost. Each side put up a dollar. We wuz beat cuz dey
bribed our pitcher."
The writer of the composition hotly denounced this as a falsehood,
and words would have led to blows had not the teacher interposed.
Meanwhile the sociologist nodded his head thoughtfully and to his
friend muttered, "No wonder our politics and commercial methods are
corrupt. Ah, ha, I'll put this in my book."
On the way down the corridor the author
remarked that the little schoolhouse where he we, when a boy still
accommodated all the children of the neighborhood. "My home town is
not overrun with immigrants," he added, with emphasis.
"Conditions there are certainly
different from those in New York," said his companion. "The first
schoolhouse here cost $13,000. This one we ate in cost $1,000,000.
At present the city has 565, valued at as much as the whole of
Jersey City - almost $100,000,000."
"There is certainly a chance for these
foreigners in New York to learn, if they want to," said the author.
"Then you haven't read the daily papers
closely, I'm afraid," responded the New Yorker. "Even with 565
buildings there are enough; half-time pupils to constitute a city as
big as Springfield, Mass. There are 75,000 children at present that
can attend only half a day."
"I don't know what New York spends for
public schools," interrupted the sociologist, "but I suppose in a
pupil it is much less than Boston's appropriation. I used to live in
Boston, you know."
"Then I see you have never compared the
two cities," was the reply. "Boston, with 91,401 pupils, expends
$39.75 on each of them. On the other hand, every one of New York's
555,342 school children costs its taxpayers $41.40. The bill for
running our schools last year amounted to more than the total annual
revenues of the kingdom of Greece, or what the American navy cost
this government in the year 1890. To be exact, the appropriation was
$23,358,188. Why, my dear sir, with that amount of money you could
pay all the expenses of Boston, Buffalo and Seattle. And, mind you,
that doesn't include the cost of new school buildings. Last year
this item came to $9,000,000, or almost as much as the total
government of St. Louis costs a year."
NOT EMPTY BOASTS.
"How you like to boast!" said the
sociologist. "All New Yorkers, I believe, have the brag habit."
"Coming from a Bostonian," was the
reply, "the criticism, of course, carries particular weight, but I
do not regard these comparisons as boasts. They are mere facts, mere
"I would like to introduce you to all
the teachers of No. 188," said Mr. Mandel, turning into another
hallway, "but there won't be time, I fear. There are 115 teachers,
all told." Here the principal stooped down to pick up a book, pencil
and pad which some careless pupil had dropped. It caught the
attention of the New York visitor and, with a twinkle of the eye, he
"That's right. be economical. The city
needs every pencil. Its school children last year used up only two
million of them, and books, too. Last year's bill for textbooks, the
biggest item of all in its educational ledger, amounted to $717,000.
"There were enough textbooks given to
New York children last year to half fill the largest library in the
Bibliothèque nationale of Paris, which
contains 2,600,000 volumes."
"But , of
course, New York doesn't spend as much money for schools as London,"
said the writer.
"No city in the world spends as much as New York for education. Even
London takes second rank," was the response. "With 2,000,000 more
inhabitants London appropriates several million dollars less a year
for schools than we do. In 1900 that city spent for 500,000 pupils
$16,988,000, or a little more than two-thirds New York's
appropriation for an enrollment of 555,000."
Mr. Mandel brought the conversation to a
close by leading the visitors into another classroom. "This is the
foreign class of boys," he explained. "Here we take them almost out
of the steamships. When we have sifted this class thoroughly, we
will leave not one who can speak the English language."
As it happened, the teacher had just
asked all those who could speak English to stand up. Only two rose
to their feet. One, a bright-eyed, black-haired lad of fourteen,
said he had just arrived from Jerusalem; but that he had studied
English there in an institution called the Zionist Normal
Polytechnic Kindergarten College. He said he could also speak
German, Hebrew, Spanish, and Arabic.
"I'm willing to bet that your
Massachusetts school never enrolled such a linguist," whispered the
New Yorker to his companion. The second pupil said he had picked up
enough English to understand most Americans, because of having lived
two months in London. He was a Jew[ish] boy also, and was born in
Russia. 'Nothing the matter with him, either," said the
sociologist's friend so loud that the boy himself heard and bowed
his head modestly.
The two lads were told that they would
be assigned to other classes, and then the lesson proceeded. The
teacher was endeavoring to make her pupils understand the words
"open" and "shut." She would go to the door and, swinging it back,
say, "I open the door." Closing it she would say, "I shut the door."
Then, retreating to her chair, she would point to some pupil and
give the command, "You, open the door." This done, she would address
another boy with, "You, shut the door."
After the class had apparently caught
the meaning of the new words, the teacher put it to another test.
Nodding to a little Hungarian and closing the door at the same time,
she asked, "Now what do I do?" In his reply the lad showed that he
had already imbibed a little English from his East Side playmates,
for he shouted at the top of his voice, "You shut up. You shut up."
THE CARPENTER SHOP.
So interested had the Massachusetts man
become in spite of himself in this phase of the school's work that,
on learning that there was another foreign class on the girls' side
of the building, he asked to see it also. Mr. Mandel accordingly
turned the visitors over to his assistant, Mr. Radik, as guide, who,
as he led the way, chanced to say:
"I suppose you have inspected our carpenter shop. We are quite proud
"No, we haven't seen that," replied the author. "Who works in it,
Mr. Radik was so taken back by this utterance that he grasped the
first door knob he came to as if for support. Then he explained that
the carpenter shop was a regular classroom, where all the students
had instruction the last two years of their course. Opening the
door, he disclosed to view a score of boys each at a bench and at
work making tabourets. "The finished product will adorn many an East
Side parlor," said Mr. Radik. "Some of them show an unusually high
degree of skill. Each student works from an original design. There
is no opportunity for one to copy from another."
"I wish I had this training in school,"
remarked the New Yorker as he turned to go. "My wife is always
asking me to do repairs around the house, but I can't even drive a
nail without mashing my thumb."
The foreign class of girls was hard at work learning such words as
"head," "hand," and "foot" meant when the visitors arrived. After
this drill the teacher took a crayon and, holding it up, said
slowly, "I have a piece of chalk." Pupil after pupil took the chalk
and repeated the same words.
HER PIECE OF HEAD.
"Now," said the teacher, "I am going back to our old lesson," and
patting the head of a little girl she asked her what part of the
body it was. With a serious, almost sad look, the child faced the
class and tapping her curly locks she said, "Dis ist my piece of
head." But her But her classmates never showed the slightest trace
of a smile. Even if any of them noticed the mistake, the language
was all too foreign and too strange to contain any humor.
All of the thirty-three girls were
Hebrews. Twenty were born in Russia, seven in Hungary, and six in
Austria. Half had arrived in New York in the last six months and had
fled from Russia to escape the torch and the saber. Several of the
girls were thirteen or fourteen years old, and, according to their
teachers, they were proficient in arithmetic and Russian literature.
"But do they appreciate the opportunities of this country?" asked
the author. "Ask that little one whom you call Rosie how she regards
America." In Yiddish the teacher asked the question, and Rosie's
answer, translated, was:
"I love sweet America. They are
kind to me here, so many kind people, like the teacher and the two
"Put that in your book, too," said the
New Yorker, as he nudged his companion.
An hour later the two men were seated in
an uptown hotel.
"You'll go to the theatre with me this
evening, I know," said the New York man. "A comic opera for
relaxation. After your school work of today it will do you good."
"Thanks, thanks," replied the author,
"but I fear I won't have time. I've got to rewrite my book."