Dedication To education

Dedication To education
September 26, 2016 Detroit Jewish News
Mumford High School yearbook

Mumford High School yearbook (photo by Jewish Historical Society of Michigan)

Shari S. Cohen | Detroit Jewish News

Detroit’s 1967 civil disorder continues to impact the city almost 50 years later. One institution deeply affected was the public school system. While the rioting wasn’t the only reason some residents moved to the suburbs, records indicate it exacerbated out-migration from Detroit, changing the demographics of many neighborhoods and schools.

In addition, the loss of many middle-class residents and businesses dramatically reduced tax revenues, which meant less money for city services and public education.

Mumford High School

Mumford High School (photo by Jewish Historical Society of Michigan)

During the 1950s and ’60s, the city’s Jewish population was concentrated in Northwest Detroit where Jewish students were a majority in schools such as Hampton and Vernor, both K-9, and Mumford High School. But even before 1967, that was changing as Jewish families increasingly left the city for Oak Park, Southfield and other suburbs.

“Suddenly, some of my Jewish friends said their families needed bigger houses so they were moving to the suburbs. When I went to a friend’s seder, instead of reciting ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘Next year in Southfield,’” recalls W. Jackson Wertz, 68, an African American who attended Mumford High School during the mid-’60s.

His reaction to the Jewish suburban migration was “not good, although I expected them to do it.” Wertz cites the historic pattern: “Gentiles move out. Jews move in and then they move out and the Negroes move in.” However, the changing neighborhood didn’t affect him too much because his friends commuted to Mumford even after their families moved to the suburbs.

Now retired and living in Florida, Wertz he plans to attend his 50-year Mumford reunion this November.

Jackson Wertz

Jackson Wertz

In 1965, African Americans made up about 25 percent of Mumford’s student population. By 1968, they represented about 70 percent of all students. (Almost all white students at Mumford were Jewish.)

Mumford’s June 1968 commencement included both a minister and rabbi, who each gave an invocation and a benediction. The late Bertrand Sandweiss was the school principal and Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Norman Drachler, appointed in 1966, was also Jewish. (See sidebar on Drachler.)

Parent organizations had been trying for some years to keep Mumford integrated, according to Miriam Kalichman, a Mumford graduate, and Kathleen Straus, whose son Peter graduated in 1968. Kalichman, 65, a retired pediatrician who lives in Chicago, remembers that her ultra-liberal parents insisted she attend Mumford rather than Cass Technical High School’s science and arts program, to which she had been invited.

Straus, 92, a Detroit resident and longtime elected member of the Michigan Board of Education, served on the executive committee of the Mumford Parents Club during the 1960s. She and her husband were co-chairs with an African American couple.

Kathleen Straus

Kathleen Straus

“We wanted to keep Mumford integrated so an honors program was started at Mumford,” she says.

But too many forces were working against integration. A federal court order to desegregate DPS was implemented peacefully, she said, but whites continued to leave the city. “They thought the schools would decline. They didn’t want their children to be a minority,” Straus recalls.

Despite the anxieties of some parents, most Jewish students who attended DPS during the 1960s experienced few or no problems due to their race or religion, and many had close relationships with black students. Straus recalls that her son was a member of a club with mostly black membership at Mumford.

“After the riot, there was fear in the city,” recalls Marcy Feldman of Huntington Woods. “Parents made their children afraid to be in DPS. They were afraid that black people were going to be antagonistic.” She attended several DPS schools — Winterhalter, Pasteur, Hampton and then Mumford. During her years in Detroit, she said three-quarters of the students were Jewish although she always had black friends.

At Mumford, Jewish students were usually more affluent than most black students and some came from the very well-to-do neighborhoods of Sherwood Forest and Palmer Woods. Economic disparities led to resentment and animosity from some black students, according to a 1968 Mumford alumnus, who prefers not to be identified.

The broader atmosphere of social change during the 1960s also affected the school system. Kalichman remembers student protests and walkouts at Mumford but points out they were not racially motivated and included some students from all backgrounds. However, they contributed to an atmosphere some parents considered “rough.”

During this period, Mumford was so crowded that students attended school in two shifts. Overcrowding was alleviated when some students formerly from the Mumford district were sent to Henry Ford High School, a new school on the city’s far northwest side. This boosted Ford’s Jewish population considerably. Henry Ford’s small black student body was bolstered by a number of students who took several buses to Ford, seeking a better education than was available at inner city schools.

Jewish DPS Teachers

Jewish teachers and administrators had been a strong presence in DPS for decades, although no statistics were kept.

“Teachers were offered a higher salary in DPS, and there were more schools so it was easier to find a job,” says Ruthe Goldstein, 79, of West Bloomfield, who taught in Detroit from the late 1950s until 2002. Many stayed after 1967, but began to notice that the school district became poorer — both in terms of district resources and the economic background of many students, whose parents could no longer count on high-paying manufacturing jobs. Both situations contributed over time to declining academic performance of DPS, according to school system employees and others.

Goldstein taught initially at Dubois, an all-white school with a few Jewish families. However, after three years, she was transferred to McCullough, which was 90 percent black with a few Jewish students. She got along fine with everyone, but started to see a major change around 1965.

“There were changes in economic status,” Goldstein says. “Parents were working and not coming to parent-teacher conferences. Houses were starting to be neglected.”

Frances Greenebaum

Frances Greenebaum

Frances Greenebaum of Bloomfield Hills, graduated from Mumford and taught history and humanities there from 1962 until 1973, except for a brief sabbatical. As the school’s population changed, she said some teachers transferred to other schools or “quickly moved to Oak Park.” Greenebaum has maintained ties with a few former students.

Edna Freier of Beverly Hills taught in the ESL (English as a Second Language) department at Northern High School for five years, beginning when she was 21. “I rarely had any problems. Most of the faculty was much older and mostly white and the kids were happy to see someone young. The kids were very economically disadvantaged. Most had very little they could call their own,” she says. During the 1960s, she was transferred to Ford, which had an almost all-white, more economically stable student population.

Eugene Kowalsky, 80, of Southfield began teaching science at Boynton School in Southwest Detroit in 1963 and then moved to Keidan School at Collingwood and Broadstreet.

“I had an excellent relationship with students and got a federal grant to take five parents, about 30 students and three teachers to Tamarack,” he says. “We had three days of science, math, art, physical education and a flag raising every morning.”

In 1969, he was promoted to staff coordinator at Williams Elementary, assigned to encourage black teachers to consider administrative positions.

By 1975, he was an assistant principal at Burns School, where there were other Jewish staff members and, in 1985, he moved to Harding Elementary-Middle School as assistant principal.

Eugene Kowalsky

Eugene Kowalsky

“I had a good relationship with students at all times,” he says, but remembers several unsettling instances. One evening he was teaching driver’s education at Cody High School when four gang members from the Herman Gardens public housing project, armed with a gun and a knife, came in because they wanted to take over the class.

Kowalsky spoke to them calmly and they eventually left.

Kowalsky also recalls incidents when supplies were delivered and logged in at his various schools, but disappeared before reaching the classroom. He retired in 1991, and enjoys “bumping into alumni who are teachers, an engineer and an assistant bank branch manager.”

Joan Frederick, 73, of Farmington was one of the few African American teachers at Burns while Kowalsky was assistant principal. The student body and staff were predominantly white in 1970, when she started teaching, without any racial problems. Frederick met and became lifelong friends with a Jewish teacher, Sharon Vanhees, who lives in Florida.

“Burns started out as a really good school and some teachers brought their own children there. We scored well on tests,” Frederick recalls. However, as the school system underwent changes, she felt that Burns started to decline. Abandoned houses started to appear in the neighborhood and teachers’ cars were being stolen. She retired in 2003.

She and her husband lived near the school initially. When the neighborhood became mostly back, she said that “it didn’t really bother me.” However, Frederick and her husband eventually left their starter home for nicer neighborhoods and larger homes farther north and west in Detroit. They moved to Farmington in 1987, when her husband became dissatisfied with city services.

Joan Frederick

Joan Frederick

Declining DPS Resources

By the mid-1960s, DPS had failed to secure passage of several school millages and a 1966 millage campaign was turned over to the Chamber of Commerce to administer. Kathleen Straus was hired to work on the “Keep Improving Detroit Schools” campaign, which won, as did several millages during the 1970s. However, Detroit’s eroding tax base was reducing millage revenues.

The school system’s lack of resources became more evident during the 1970s. Ellen Offen, 68, of Ann Arbor taught at Cooper Elementary from 1970 to 1975.

“Schools were legally obligated to provide free supplies, which previously the students had to purchase,” Offen says. “It was in a neighborhood that was having challenges. There was no playground or playground equipment, and there were 37 to 40 students in the first and second grades. The teachers all got along.”

She does recall a parent stating that he was a member of the Black Panthers and distrusted white people although no problems resulted from that.

Adam Harris, who attended Cass Technical High School from 1988 through 1992, was one of a handful of Jewish students at the time. He said that only about 5 percent of the student body was white, but that everyone got along.

“The white students didn’t want to be an isolated band,” he said, so they actively sought friendships with the black students. Virtually all of the white students attended college preparatory classes, which were separate from the vocational/technical program that was “100 percent African American and Hispanic,” he recalls.

Prior to Cass, Harris attended Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills and his fellow Hillel graduates went on to high schools mostly in West Bloomfield and Bloomfield Hills. He said that people expected he would encounter gangs, crack and violence at Cass, but that was not the case. In fact, Harris claims, there were more drugs at suburban schools.

He said that Cass prepared him well for U-M, where he “hit the ground running.”

Today, Harris is a lawyer with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Teachers Face Bias

During the late 1990s, some Jewish DPS teachers began experiencing unpleasant and sometimes discriminatory treatment. Goldstein had a racially mixed group of students, but some parents were starting to make an issue of the teachers’ race.

“A parent told a white teacher she was biased and that’s why her son was failing. They threatened to sue,” Goldstein says. “One white teacher had such a difficult group of students and parents that an African American teacher traded classes with her.”

Jewish teachers were being excluded from some assemblies and Goldstein’s principal told teachers they couldn’t wear Jewish stars because the star was a Chicago gang symbol. Jewish teachers sent a letter to their union representative and the principal was chastised, Goldstein recounts. (Goldstein and another Jewish teacher immediately bought and wore chains with large Jewish stars.)

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) and Jewish Community Relations Council were brought in to mediate. Sharona Shapiro, then AJC Michigan Area director, says school meetings were begun with prayers mentioning Jesus and Jewish teachers were feeling left out. Teacher Education Days were sometimes held on Jewish holidays.

Monthly meetings were held with a group of Jewish teachers, principals and the district superintendent as they “tried to weed out some personal issues from anti-Semitism.”

“The schools were focusing on black nationalism,” Shapiro says. “The teachers were trying to do good, but didn’t have a support system.”

Today, she says, “the system is broken and needs everyone’s help. Young teachers are getting re-engaged.”

Marnina Falk and Jeremy Singer are two of those young Jewish teachers. Falk, 26, is in her third year of teaching Spanish in a unique Foreign Language and Immersion Studies program at the Academy of the Americas.

“It’s an opportunity to teach language in an environment I love,” she says. “A lot of good things are happening in Detroit, and I wanted to be part of the rejuvenation.”

Falk says the language immersion school has a predominantly African American student body and is the only school like this in Michigan. She says she enjoys the “super diverse staff in a school where different perspectives are encouraged.” Falk was raised in Huntington Woods, where she currently lives.

Jeremey Singer, a New York native, taught at Cody High School for two years through the Teach for America program.

“It was challenging, and I learned a lot,” he says. “The teachers I met loved the students so much and would do anything to help them, but concentrations of poverty and violence are complicating factors. The schools are struggling under massive debt and are under-staffed and under-resourced. People in leadership positions come and go.”

Most students are African American and some were familiar with Judaism through Holocaust studies in middle school. Some didn’t think of Jewish people as white–not an uncommon belief among African Americans, he says. He now teaches history at Denby High School and bought a house near Detroit’s West Village.

The Jewish presence in DPS includes several active alumni foundations created by former Jewish DPS students. They provide volunteers and raise funds for equipment and building improvements. The Pasteur Alumni Foundation has an integrated group of 250 members with an active cadre of volunteers who tutor at the school and help out on Career Day and Earth Day. Last year, they spent $18,000 for educational programs at Pasteur.

“I wanted to heal what happened in the 1960s,” says Marcy Feldman, Pasteur Alumni Foundation co-founder. “There was a hole in my heart for the black kids. I always had black friends, but had lost track of them.”

She found Deborah Manning, an African American friend from Pasteur in 1996, and they began the alumni foundation soon after that. Manning had transferred to Pasteur from an all-black school in Ferndale and says she experienced “culture shock” because she was used to a black environment. But she found that everyone was nice to one other.

She describes it as a wonderful experience, although the curriculum was entirely different and harder. Manning became the first black president of the Hampton student council.

When Feldman toured Pasteur during the mid-1990s, she was “upset that nothing had changed. Everything looked old and sad. I was upset that the schools don’t provide what we had,” Feldman says.

The Pasteur Alumni Foundation is trying to change that with field trips, extra books and even new curtains for the auditorium. Jewish involvement continues at Pasteur, at Bagley Elementary and elsewhere within DPS with former DPS students and teachers helping today’s students get the education they deserve.

Dr. Norman Drachler

Dr. Norman Drachler

First Jewish DPS Superintendent Promoted School Integration

Dr. Norman Drachler, the first and only Jewish superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS), assumed the post in 1966 — a time of controversy and conflict locally as the school system coped with court-ordered busing.

Drachler worked to integrate the staff and student body of DPS and appointed Arthur Johnson as the first African American assistant superintendent of the schools. In 1950, only 5 percent of DPS teachers were African American, but that number increased to 40 percent by 1970. Drachler also sought a moratorium on the purchase of textbooks that lacked positive images of minorities.

After a 35-year DPS career, he started the Institute for Educational Leadership to train urban school administrators. Drachler died in 2000 and his role in changing the Detroit Public Schools was recognized in obituaries in the New York Times and the Detroit Jewish News.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *