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Borough Park's P.S. 131, a trove of school history

Jun 19, 2014 9:34 AM | 0 comments

Last fall the Brooklyn Connections staff was approached by two enthusiastic educators from P.S. 131 who had recently discovered fascinating artifacts at their Borough Park school. They hoped to use the artifacts to inform a school history research project with a select group of 5th grade students in collaboration with Brooklyn Connections. Given our love of school history (see To Number a School, We Don't Need No Education, Brooklyn Schools: A Look at Ephemera and MoreWelcome to M.S. 57), it should come as no surprise to our faithful readers that we jumped at the opportunity. 

Hidden in the dark depths of a high and rarely seen shelf in an old art supply closet were a hundred or so Teacher's Record of Attendance and Progress of Pupils booklets from the 1910s - 1940s. Wrapped carefully in brown paper and tied with string, they had been left untouched since they were stowed there years ago. One could spend days poring over the information found in these booklets, all of it notated in beautiful handwritten script.

F.L.Thomas Teacher's Record of Attendance and Progress of Pupils, 1921.

Of particular interest to me was what we found inside the booklets: vital contact information for students (you can learn so much about Borough Park at the time from the names alone!), grading systems, punctuality protocols and how these all changed over time. What I haven't included here, though equally fascinating, is the Board of Education's (as it was previously referred to) instructions for using the booklets, which ranged from one page in 1921 to more than a dozen pages in 1947.

Marjorie W. Nichols Teacher's Record of Attendance and Progress of Pupils, 1947-8.

Also found at P.S. 131 were two treasured copies of the same photo album from the early 20th century; we couldn't pinpoint a date until we stumbled across a very subtle hint in this class photo -- Thursday, October 21, 1909 is written on the board.

P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.  

It's difficult to make sense of the class makeup at the time. Inspection of the albums show both mixed and single-sex classes ranging from kindergarten to high school students.


P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.  

Someone with an eye for design might appreciate the architectural details. I couldn't help but see hints of teachers' stern instruction, as students sit with hands nicely folded behind their backs or studiously engaged with a book at the front.

P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.

We were swept up in studying and marveling at these documents and photos, but our 5th grade students wanted to know more about the history of their school's building, so we moved on.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 1, 1909.

P.S. 131 was built between 1900 and 1901 by preeminent Superintendant of School Buildings C.B.J. Snyder. During his tenure (1891-1921), Synder was responsible for building over 400 New York City schools with innovative architecture allowing for cross breezes and natural light in classrooms, rooftop playgrounds and virtually fireproof structures (Epoch Times, September 5, 2012). And yet, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, overcrowding remained a constant problem. Despite Synder's advancements in making education more comfortable and accessible to New York City students, the Eagle offered this criticism: 

"The typical big elementary school now has forty-eight class rooms, with auditoriums, gymnasia and facilities for instruction in special subjects, like cooking, sewing and shop work ... But forty-eight room buildings will not reduce overcrowing quickly enough ... Is the sacrifice of outward impressiveness - even magnificence in many cases - too great a price to pay for haste in reaching the ideal of this administration to [sic] a seat for every child? It is high time that this problem of the quickest practical construction be given careful attention. In education looks are not everything."

Brooklyn Daily EagleJune 5, 1922.

I suppose it should come as no surprise then that the Board of Education published a call for proposals for the temporary construction of an annex to P.S. 131 a mere 7 years after its initial completion. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 10, 1908.

 P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.    

Temporary the annex was not. A generation later, in 1935, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle describes in great detail parents' complaints and concerns over the safety of the now dilapidated structure: 


"The annex is practically falling apart; the outer and inner wood is rotting away. There is no adequate heating facilities and children have informed me that the rooms do not warm until noon time. Ventilation is poor and the windows have heavy wire netting on the outside to protect the glass. This netting is locked and can only be opened by the use of a key, which the teachers in the individual classroom do not possess. In the event of a fire this means of escape is blocked ... it is unsanitary; the plaster is falling from the walls and ceilings and there is a distinctly unhealthy odor throughout the entire building. There is no lavatory in the annex and children are forced to cross the open court to the main building to reach one ... the water trough where the children are supposed to drink is exactly what the word implies, a place for animals to drink. The bottom of it is filthy and looks as though it had not been cleaned in months."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 2, 1935.

A surprise inspection of the annex by Mayor LaGuardia confirmed parents' allegations and resulted in an official promise to replace the dangerous building ...

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 5, 1935.

... but a failure to follow through. Parents spent much of 1935-36 lobbying to protest delays in the destruction and rebuilding of a new annex.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5, 1935.

It took a full two years for the Board of Estimate to act on Mayor LaGuardia's promise and even then only after ongoing threats by parents to pull their children from the school.


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 10, 1937.

Finally, a confirmation from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in August, 1938 that the construction of the new annex was complete, adding 1,042 seats to the school:


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 28, 1938.

And here a plaque marking the addition found just inside the current structure:

Holt, Kaitlin. "Addition to P.S. 131 Plaque," January 8, 2014.

It's hard to look at P.S. 131 in 2014 and imagine the structure that used to exist behind C.B.J. Synder's original building. Today's 5th graders are working on an exhibition and accompanying tour they plan to offer fellow classmates on this and many other historical aspects of their school. With any luck I'll be invited to attend a tour myself and report back on their success. Stay tuned!

"P.S. 131 Annex, Brooklyn, NY." Map. Google Maps, June 9, 2014.