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Windows to the Past

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BREAKING NEW GROUND. A post-war building boom took hold after a 1943 survey found 207 New York school buildings were not entirely fireproof and nearly 150 dated from the 1880s. (June 18, 1956)

You can't pick up a newspaper these days without reading about how public schools are under attack. It's no wonder educators find themselves yearning for days gone by. Even some of today's most modern reform strategies--like multiage classrooms, cooperative learning, and school-based services--seem to hark back to a simpler time. A time when teachers doted over small classes of well-behaved students in sparkling, well-maintained schools. When cable television and computer games didn't vie for children's attention. When principals ran their schools unfettered by lawsuits, budget crises, or the demands of protesting parent groups.

Such sentimental recollections of a bygone era (if it ever truly existed) led Education Week to the Milbank Memorial Library at Teachers College, Columbia University. The library--which serves as the permanent archival repository for the New York City board of education--houses some 40,000 photographs of the city's public schools dating back to the 1890s. Most of the photos document the mundane: school buildings, facilities in need of repair, groundbreakings, and other special events. But the classroom scenes provide a revealing glimpse of how schools once were.


SMALL FISH IN A BIG POND. The New York public school system was created when Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island merged in 1898. Public School 7 in Staten Island was a quaint exception in a system made up mostly of large urban buildings. The system closed its last one-room schoolhouse in the 1940s. (April 4, 1934)

Granted, the New York public school system--which has long been the largest district in the country--is anything but typical. But being such an exceptional district has meant that New York City schools long ago had to face problems that many other districts have only begun to grapple with in recent years. Over the years, it has managed a huge system of facilities repeatedly strained by population growth unimaginable even to today's burgeoning sunbelt schools. It has created extensive vocational-education programs to teach a wide range of workplace skills to both students and parents. And it has long endeavored to offer educational opportunities to immigrant children and students with physical and learning disabilities.

A few caveats: The awkward technology of the day often required a great of deal patience on the part of the photographer and his subjects. What's more, many of the photos were taken as publicity shots. So what was captured on film was often not a candid scene but a carefully crafted image that the photographer and school system chose to portray. Finally, the pictures have survived many years but often without much detail other than the date and the location of the shoot. In fact, many of the photos pose more questions than answers.


CATHEDRALS OF LEARNING. Designers outfitted Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn with stained glass windows and a pipe organ. (Nov. 15, 1919)

At the very least, the historic photos provide a window to the past of one school district and the changes it has undergone over the past century. At most, the images will leave one wondering whether hindsight really is 20-20.

It certainly gives one pause to consider what future generations will think when they look back on photos and videotapes of the schools of today. Will the practices now in vogue seem as harebrained as toughening up sickly children in year-round outdoor classrooms? Will anything seem as adventurous as sending 100 students on a six-month sailing expedition across the Atlantic? Or will schools look much the same, with only the style of clothes, hairdos, and perhaps computers to betray the date of the photograph?

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