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The Mermen of Brownsville

Jan 8, 2015 10:30 AM | 0 comments

The Brooklyn Collection has rotating exhibits all year round showcasing gems from the Collection (including an annual exhibit of student work). Currently, we're exhibiting items relating to "The Education of Kings: A History of Brooklyn Schools!" It will be up in the collection until February 13th, so please stop by and check out the yearbooks, photos, and other rare and unique Collection items we have on display. 

In honor of our current exhibition, the Brooklyn Connections team has set out to detail the history of three Brooklyn Schools over the next three weeks. With that, I give you the first installment:

The Mermen of Brownsville 

In the fall of 2014, I worked with a group of 7th graders at Brownsville's PS 284 to explore the history of their school. The students already had a sense of their school's legacy; they have a large banner hanging outside that says, "PS/IS 284 - Over 100 Years of Excellence!" The building itself is imposing in a regal sort of way, as were many of the public schools built around the turn of the century. The schools were supposed to look as though they housed some serious knowledge acquisition. Having worked with some fantastic students, teachers, and librarians at PS 284, I can attest that there is still a ton of awesome learning going on. 

PS 66. 193-?. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

PS 66. 1908. Print. NYC Board of Education Collection. 

PS 284, originally called PS 66, started as a small wooden framed structure controlled by the town of New Lots, before Brooklyn annexed the area in 1886. By 1906, the Brownsville section of Brooklyn was rapidly expanding with an influx of Jewish immigrants from Manhattan's Lower East Side and the tiny wooden school house was no longer making the grade. The new tenements springing up were teeming with potential young learners, which led, in 1906, to PS 66's grand makeover. In the below image you can see the H shaped PS 66 (orange, signifying it being made of brick vs the surrounding wooden yellow buildings) between Osborn and Watkins and PS 125 (the subject of next week's entry) at the corner of Rockaway and Blake, a mere block away.

Desk Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn. New York: E. Belcher Hyde, Inc. 1921. Print. 

In early 1913, the school changed again, though this time in name alone.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 2 Jan 1913. 

The Board of Superintendents were considering names to substitute numbers for all public schools in NYC, specifically "Names of men - patriots, scientists, literary men and educators" as well as "names of streets and localities." The hope was that the names of those "who contributed to the welfare and progress of mankind" would inspire the students. Thus, PS 66 became PS 66 - the General Lew Wallace School.

Who is that, you ask?

General Lew(is) Wallace is this guy:

General Lewis Wallace. Library of Congress, Washington DC. 

Union soldier, governor of New Mexico, and author of Ben-Hur. My students were excited to learn that he was a man of many talents and, after we did some research on his myriad of accomplishments, gave their stamp approval to the union of PS 66 and Mr. Wallace.  A new structure and a new name did not mark the end of PS 66's evolution. The actual learning was the next thing to get a revamp. 

Even though we were building new schools and, as of 1903, had a city-wide curriculum (the consolidation of the five boroughs into today's New York City happened in 1898), we were still in the one-room schoolhouse mindset. We didn't have different periods or different teachers throughout the day, which amounted to lots of sitting and (presumably) lots of learning. In 1917, PS 66 would be part of the movement to change the way American children were educated. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 14 Dec. 1917. 

The Gary Plan was a product of the Progressive Era and the further industrialization of the United States. Created in Gary, Indiana, hence the name, the plan was also referred to as the "work-study-play" plan or the "platoon system." The 1907 educational philosophy called for new vocational facilities like carpenter shops and kitchens alongside playgrounds and pools to incorporate both vocational training and structured breaks. By moving the students around from work in a carpenter shop to study in math class to play on a playground, the school also used all of its classrooms on the constant, better utilizing space and shrinking class sizes.

This plan was tested in industrial centers across the country and, though it was thought to be a success in Gary, it received mixed reviews in other locations. When it came to NYC in 1914 it was not well received at all, as many parents did not approve of a) bringing the business world into their children's education and b) allowing their children playtime while in school. Playtime? Frivolous! What's more, it required incredibly expensive renovations. Regardless of the criticism, PS 66 was chosen for the experiment, which led the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to quip that it was chosen "because it was in Brownsville and seemingly no other reason." And the plan didn't come alone. When the plan came to Lew Wallace in 1917 it brought with it a carpenter shop, a printing office, a sewing room, a kitchen, a pool, a library, and a playground (that was actually just a closed off side street... but it was outside!)

PS 66 Swimming Pool. 1918. Print. NYC Board of Education Collection. 

Mrs. Kennedy, the principal of the school, was not entirely pleased. For one, the students were not put on the actual Gary Plan, in all its glory. They did not move around in "platoons," staying together throughout the day. The duplicate plan that they were adopting created irregular schedules starting some students at 8:30am and others at 10:30am. She stated that she "did not believe in the duplicate plan for the small children. They need to concentrate, instead of having so much movement. They are too young to have so many teachers... The duplicate plan, while it has certain advantages, has several disadvantages. One is that all day long children are in the playground outside or inside of the building. Being at play they are naturally noisy, and they disturb those in the classrooms on the first floor certainly." Again, the frivolity!

Mrs. Kennedy did enjoy the new facilities, but wasn't sure they were worth the cost. She also said that the library was a waste of classroom space, for all of her pupils were taught to use the catalog at the Brooklyn Public Library. PS 66 sits in between both the Stone Avenue Branch and the Brownsville Branch of BPL. It's interesting to think back to a time when people were fighting to keep libraries OUT of schools, as opposed to today's battles when we're begging to get them back INTO schools (and staffed). History, huh? 

Personally, I can't imagine what it would have been like for the young children of Brownsville to, for the first time, walk into their new pool facility. What a change from the public bathhouses and public pools they were used to! A clean and probably insanely chlorinated pool just for them! I will admit, the pool looks a tad bit terrifying in these old photos, but it's a pool none the less!

PS 66 Swimming Pool. 1918. NYC Board of Education Collection. 

In the end, the Progressive Era did drastically alter the way we educate our students: recess, class periods, diversity of instruction, etc. and we essentially use an abridged Gary Plan today. It might be fair to say that the Progressive Era changed the way we educated our students, as vocational education, art, and music are being defunded and stripped from so many of our schools. Needless to say, the carpentry shop and sewing room are long gone. However, the students at Lew Wallace made good use of the facilities when they were there (and they make great use of the ones they still have today). 

Even before the completion of the new facilities, the students at Lew Wallace were making a name for themselves. As of 1917, there were approx. 2,500 students (no, that's not a typo, it was a massive school), from kindergarten to 8th grade. The students were almost exclusively Jewish, from the surrounding tenements, but the teaching staff were comprised of many different races*: "Welsh, English, Jewish, German, New Orleans French, Swedish, Danish, and West Indian negro."

*They're referring to the early twentieth century version of race, what we'd call ethnicity today. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 18 May 1917.

The students were frequently lauded in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for their athletic prowess. That pool really came in handy, as all throughout the 1920s and 1930s the students of Lew Wallace were cited as champions in swimming as well as basketball. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 5 Dec. 1926.

The mid-1940s brought huge changes to Brownsville and much of that change was centered in the area around PS 66. The Brownsville Houses were imagined and constructed, using both PS 66 and PS 125 as anchors (both schools can be seen in the below image). The creation of the Brownsville houses, coupled with a massive migration of African-Americans from the South and a movement of whites out of east Brooklyn neighborhoods began to change the demographics of the school and the surrounding neighborhood in pretty drastic ways. 

Face-Lifting for Brownsville. 1945. New York City Housing Authority. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

Brownsville Houses Take Shape. 1947. New York City Housing Authority. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

By the 1950s, many of Brownsville's schools needed a serious update. There were plans to build an entirely new school that would have been PS 84, but those plans were scuttled by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. (I know, right? That guy was EVERYWHERE.) The majority of the money for the new building was appropriated for the creation of recreational facilities and, instead, PS 66 was to become solely an elementary school (it had evolved into a junior high by this time) and 'updated' at a cost of $750,000 (though the school was still coal heated until 1998). Its junior high students would attend other schools. But money troubles were just the beginning. Discussed in detail in next week's entry, the racial tensions and teacher strikes of the 1960s and 1970s were felt at the recently re-titled PS 284 (we renumbered our schools in the early 60s). The neighborhood had transitioned to a majority black and Puerto Rican population, while many of the teachers and administrators were holdovers from the neighborhood's early years. 

New York Times. 27 June 1967.

In 1967, there was an exodus, as issues of community control erupted in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood. In May of that year there had been a massive boycott of the school, many parents and community organizations favoring a staff that reflected the racial makeup of the students. During that boycott, only 164 students of the school's total 904 showed up for class. There are some great books on the decentralization experiment/crisis/movement - you can check them out at the library. (Come visit!) Despite the strikes, the learning continued.  

Today, PS 284 serves K - 8th grade students and shares it's building with another school (as is the way with many NYC schools), Leadership Prep Academy, a charter school. The pool is still in use in collaboration with an organization called Swim For Life that teachers urban children how to swim in an effort to prevent child drowning. And because swimming is the best.

PS/IS 284. eChalk. 5 Jan. 2015. Web. 

The school has outstanding programs and staff and it is working diligently to provide a safe enviornment where the community's students can succeed. I was incredibly happy to have the chance to visit their classrooms and am excited to report that our Brooklyn Connections students enjoyed delving deeper into the history under their desks. 

Next week: The Mystery of PS 125