Now that the new school year has started, Brooklyn Connections is in full swing again. To prepare for the scores of middle and high school students we work with, over the summer I went through some of the most interesting lessons I taught last year--including one that was particularly exciting to a group of middle schoolers in Bedford-Stuyvesant. After a lesson using primary sources including a rendering of their school, students from Middle School 57 became engrossed in the history of the building. Thankfully, I had come prepared, and together, we were able to uncover something of the school's history. After the lesson, I delved deeper, and here is what I found:
Rendering of JHS 57, 1954
Junior High School 57, located on Stuyvesant Avenue and Lafayette Street, was opened in 1954 and became the Board of Education's solution for an overcrowded Bedford-Stuyvesant school district.
Desk Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn, City of New York, 1921
Before JHS 57 was built, on the opposite side of the block on the corner of Reid Avenue and Van Buren Street, stood Public School 57, opened in 1885. As buildings do, after years of use and neglect, the school fell into disrepair.
Postcard of Public School 57, 1900. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection
In 1949, parents urged the Board of Education to replace the dilapidated, overcrowded school with another elementary school. (Parents and teachers called for PS 26 located on Quincy Street and Ralph Avenue to be replaced as well, but that is a story for another post.) The Parent Teacher Association (PTA) worked with local agencies to start a petition and letter writing campaign to Borough President Cashmore for a new school building. He responded with claims that provisions to replace the ailing elementary school went back as far as 1928.
Brooklyn Eagle, November 26, 1950
After several years, the cries for a new school were heard. The original plan was to tear down PS 57 and replace it with a new junior high school, JHS 57 on the same site. However, deconstruction of PS 57 took too long and JHS 57 was erected on the opposite side of the block on Lafayette and Stuyvesant Avenues.
Construction for the $2,681,960, 1,687-person capacity junior high school began in 1952 and it opened in the late fall of 1954. Building JHS 57 was part of a massive school construction boom with over $300,000,000 spent on New York City school consturction in the early 1950s.
Current location of MS 57 (formerly JHS 57)
Desks but no chairs Brooklyn Eagle, 1954
PS 57 was finally torn down in September 1954, but before deconstruction began, a group of 20 teen-age delinquents broke into the school and did a little demolition of their own. The Eagle reported that the vandals "smashed almost every window in the three-story building, wrecked all electrical fixtures, and removed desks and chairs."
September 22, 1954 after the vandal attack
Today, Public School 26 is located across from the former site of PS 57, on Reid Avenue (or Malcolm X Boulevard) and Lafayette Street, behind Middle School 57. An apartment building now stands on the site of the former P.S. 57.
Now that we have the confusing geography of the school down, let's embark on the story of Junior High School 57's tumultuous tenure.
There have been numerous unflattering news reports as well as a book written titled, Welcome to MS 57: Four Years of Teaching and Learning in Bedford-Stuyvesant. In it, author Bob Moore describes his struggles as a new teacher at the junior high school in the early 1970s. He reported students brought knives, regularly set off fire alarms and noted the racial divide between Caucasian and African-American students. Prior to Moore's book, in 1967, PBS aired a documentary in partnership with New York University and the National Education Television about the school. The Way It Is pointed out the problems with "ghetto education" according to the World Journal Tribune. NYU student teachers attempted to rehabilitate the school with the support of two grants of over $450,000, which paid for more school staff, consultants, and curriculum revision. After only a year, NYU abandoned the project, blaming 57's unsupportive administration.
In 1972, the Daily News reported the school was grossly overcrowded with over 2,300 students enrolled (remember it was a building intended to hold 1,687 people). The school proposed a possible annex at the Sumner Avenue Armory, at 357 Sumner Avenue. But before a final agreement was made, the plan was scrapped because the armory had serious building violations.
Armory early 1900s. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection
Inside the armory, 1913. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection
During the spring of 1973, newspapers had a field day over accusations made by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) against the then Principal Sheldon Roach. The UFT claimed Roach attempted to pit Latino and African-American students against each other and "indoctrinated the school with black separatist philosophies." They also highlighted the poor conditions of the school, lack of discipline, and the high teacher turnover.
For decades, the school had been failing its students and teachers. The Department of Education even went as far as to shut it down more than once. During the 1989-1996 school years, JHS 57 was one of the poorest performing schools in New York State. In June 1996 the school was closed, restructured and reopened the following September, enrolling only eighth graders. It fared no better under this reorganization; it still had a low attendance record and students continued to perform poorly. The school closed again in June 1997, reopened in September that same year as a smaller school for 420 students and was renamed Middle School 57, The Ron Brown Academy for Technology, Economics and Theatre Arts.
In 2006, the school was listed on the School Under Registration Review (SURR) because it was one of the lowest performing schools in the State and was in danger of closing yet again. Finally after three years of being on SURR, it was removed from the list in 2009. MS 57 has certainly improved over the years due to dedicated administrators and teaching staff. Today, the school serves grades 6 through 8 and the students are engaged in numerous extracurricular activities such as rapping and recording, capoeria, spoken word, dance, basketball, drama, visual arts, knitting and extra academic classes for math and ELA (English Language Arts). They have also been a partner of Brooklyn Connections for the past two years.
Projects completed by students at MS 57. USS Monitor (top), Brooklyn Bridge (bottom)
MS 57 now shares the building with MS 385 Business, Finance & Entrepreneurship (also a past Brooklyn Connections partner) and the Academy of Global Finance High School.