United Bronx Parents and the Struggle for Educational Equality in the 1960s

Laura Kaplan
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

One of the most successful and far-reaching grassroots movements for educational reform began in the mid-1960s in one of the poorest urban communities in the United States, the South Bronx. United Bronx Parents, Inc., also known as Padres Unidos del Bronx, under the leadership of its dynamic and radical founder, Evelina López Antonetty, organized and trained hundreds and possibly thousands of poor and working-class Puerto Rican and other minority parents to demand bilingual education, improved educational conditions and accountability from their local public schools.

United Bronx Parents became the most important organization representing Puerto Rican parents’ interests in the South Bronx from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. Using a Freirian approach to adult education, they designed a program to teach members of the community to read and understand their world so they could act upon it and transform it. Through their organizing and direct actions, they accrued such a degree of grassroots power that New York City public school districts and administrators willingly acceded to their demands to make schools more responsive to the needs of the minority students they served. Despite the broad impact of their work and influence that reached far beyond the confines of the South Bronx, the story of United Bronx Parents (UBP) has received minimal attention from scholars. Yet, an exploration of their efforts and organizing model in the educational sphere offers important lessons for educational organizers and activists today working in poor urban minority communities to achieve social justice. The breadth and depth of the reforms that one small, dedicated organization brought about in the New York City schools makes us rethink our scholarly understanding of how best to bring about progressive change in the public school system. In this paper, I will show how this community organization, dedicated to educational reform, responded to the failure of the New York City public schools in the 1960s and beyond.

Crisis for Puerto Ricans in New York City Schools

The abysmal state of education in inner-city minority neighborhoods in New York City served as the backdrop and context for the founding of United Bronx Parents. In the 1960s, Puerto Rican students comprised 20 percent of New York City’s school population and their dropout rate was between 80 and 85 percent (Vélez, 2008).   In June 1969, only 3 percent of Puerto Rican students (or 1,600) received academic diplomas from city high schools, although they constituted 25 percent of the one million pupils in the New York City public school system (Antonetty, 1971).   In District 7 in the South Bronx, of 30,000 students, 65 percent or 20,000 were Puerto Rican, the highest proportion of Puerto Rican children in any school district in the city. Comparative measures of their performance painted a bleak picture. In October 1969, 74 percent of students in New York State scored above the minimum proficiency rate in reading. In New York City, only 52 percent reached the same standard and in District 7 in the South Bronx, only 27 percent reached that same minimum standard. Furthermore, 57 percent of Puerto Rican students were still dropping out within the first two years of high school, as compared to 29 percent of white students (Antonetty, 1971).

In the critical area of English language proficiency, New York City Board of Education data indicated that in 1964 there were almost 89,000 or 8.4 percent of the total student population in the C through F grade scale for rating pupils’ ability to speak English. The vast majority of these students were Puerto Rican (Schepers, 1978).   A 1967 standardized reading test for fifth graders showed that in schools with predominantly Puerto Rican and Black students, fewer than 25 percent were reading at grade level. When United Bronx Parents investigated further, they found that the fifth graders with the lowest reading scores attended the most overcrowded schools with the most inexperienced teachers (UBP, Would you like to know…???, n.d.).

While some described the school system’s reception of its Puerto Rican students as one of benign neglect, others described it in much harsher terms, as one “that has historically been involved in the aggressive destruction of our young people” (Caballero, 2000, p. 204). Many analysts as well as educational observers and historians have denied the existence of “northern” forms of racism and prejudice endemic to the school structure and fabric of teacher-pupil relations (Santiago, 1986). But the raw data as well as anecdotal evidence depict a different picture. They suggest that race, social class and other social structural factors shaped the school system’s reception to the increased presence of Puerto Rican students (Santiago, 1986).

Because of racial discrimination, the upward mobility through education that benefited earlier white immigrant groups, such as Irish and Jews, was not available to Puerto Rican New Yorkers. Additionally, the language factor distinguished the educational experience of the Puerto Ricans. The experience of Jorge Rámos, who arrived to New York City from Puerto Rico in the 1940’s at age 10, was not untypical. When he could not answer questions put to him in English by a teacher, he was placed in “the class for retards.” As he recognized that he was in a class with children with mental disabilities, which he did not possess, and indignant at his mislabeling, he dropped out of school for good soon after (Personal communication, Nimia Rámos, October 19, 2013).

Hernán Lafontaine, the founding principal of P.S. 25, the first public Spanish-English bilingual elementary school in New York City, recounted his own experience in Junior High School 171M in East Harlem in the 1940s:

As part of the standard curriculum, one of our Group Guidance classes in the ninth grade was dedicated to planning for high school. During this session our teacher, the guidance counselor, was quite direct in telling us there was no point in any of us applying for the special admission high schools: – Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Technical and Bronx H.S. of Science – because no student from our Patrick Henry J.H.S. 171 M (between 103rd and 104th Streets and 5th and Madison Avenues) had ever passed the admission exam. He wanted to save us the disappointment! He strongly recommended that we apply for several vocational schools including H.S. of Aviation Trades because it was nearby on 96th Street.

None of us questioned his advice and simply accepted it as wise counsel from an experienced educator protecting our best interests. The rest of the story is so amazing to me that I often think that no movie script would be written with such a trite yet hard to believe story line. The characters: Edward O’Grady (Irish), Gerald Patt (Jewish), George Maginley (AfroAmerican), Salvatore Fallone (Italian) and yours truly Hernán LaFontaine (Puerto Rican). The story line: A week later as we’re all hanging out talking about our plans, Eddie starts to joke about how we should take the exam for Stuyvesant in spite of the guidance counselor’s advice. Eddie figures it would be one hilarious joke if even one of us passed and we could go back to the guidance counselor and notify him that he couldn’t use that line anymore about no one from Patrick Henry ever passing the exam. The punch line: all five of us pass the exam and are accepted to Stuyvesant H.S.! The evidence: four of the five of us are in the Indicator 1950, the Stuyvesant H.S. senior yearbook for that year. The only one who didn’t make it was Eddie himself, not because of the academics but because his family was so poor (even poorer than the rest of us poor kids) that he had to leave school before the end of the first year to go to work and help support the family. The epilogue: We did go back to the guidance counselor to tell him about our great accomplishment and waited to note his embarrassed repentance. Never happened! He literally ignored us for the rest of the term. We continued to think of the incident as a great joke pulled on our teacher. It wasn’t until years later that I finally admitted to myself that it wasn’t funny at all and that his motives were truly unprofessional. He was equally prejudiced against all of us students from that “lowly ghetto public school” (Personal communication, Hernán Lafontaine, July 28, 2015).

The situation for Puerto Rican students in New York City schools had not improved much by the 1970s when Ricardo Oquendo, future New York State Regent arrived. When he came to school from Puerto Rico, there was no bilingual education for him:

They just put me back a year. I had to repeat kindergarten, even though I had completed first grade in Utuado, Puerto Rico. I was almost seven in kindergarten (Personal communication, Ricardo Oquendo, May 3, 2012).

Later, on the verge of being kicked out of high school, a serendipitous meeting changed his fate:

While hanging out in front of James Monroe High School, I met a college recruiter from Oberlin College, Natalia Delgado, whom I offered to escort to the college office. Mr. Phyler, the college advisor, said that I was not going to go to college, so that embarrassed me in front of the college-bound kids and Ms. Delgado. So I decided to stay for her orientation to show them. The rest is history (Personal communication, Ricardo Oquendo, May 3, 2012).

Others encountered a more direct racism in the New York City school system. Howard Jordan, Puerto Rican lawyer, graduate of Yale Law School and professor at Hostos Community College, recalls an encounter with a counselor at Benjamin Franklin High School:

When I told him that I wanted to become a lawyer to help the Puerto Rican community, he replied, ‘What have Puerto Ricans ever done?’ (Jordan, November 1, 2013).

The Young Lords, a nationalist Puerto Rican group dedicated to social justice modeled after the Black Panthers, was founded by children of Puerto Rican rural migrants in the summer of 1969. Iris Morales, leader of the Young Lords, graduate of NYU law school, filmmaker, and current director of Manhattan Neighborhood Network El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center, recalls that her high school counselor told her that she “was not college material” (Morales, September 23, 2015).

Evelina López Antonetty and the Birth of United Bronx Parents

The experiences of Rámos, Lafontaine, Oquendo, Jordan and Morales were emblematic of the systemic racism facing Puerto Ricans in New York City schools. Evelina López Antonetty, the founder of the grassroots organization United Bronx Parents, recalled an incident she had as a newly-arrived student from Puerto Rico at P.S 103 in East Harlem in the 1930s: “I remember trying to read aloud in class. A student laughed at my efforts” (Lee, n.d., p. 5). Her experience in the school system helped her sympathize with the plight of newcomers: “The Hispanics from Central America, the Haitians, the blacks from the south and the Puerto Ricans all have problems with language and social customs. They experience rejection like I did…They feel like outsiders! That’s why I began the fight for bilingual education and tolerance. My own memories are still quite vivid” (Lee, n.d., p. 5). These interactions with the New York City public schools at a young age set the stage for her future advocacy for bilingual education and making the schools more responsive to the Puerto Rican and Black students that attended them.

Many years later Evelina López Antonetty had another involvement with the educational system, this time as a parent in the South Bronx when her two youngest children, Anita and Donald, attended P. S. 5 in the early 1960s. There she encountered confused and angry parents whose children were not learning to read, doing poorly on tests in English, and subsequently placed in classes for the “mentally retarded.” Antonetty was elected PTA president of P.S. 5, but soon realized that schools had basic structural problems and change within this framework was impossible; “I began to see the schools as an island. After 3 o’clock, the school officials closed the doors and left the community. They made no input into the community. Yet there were no teachers in the school from the community” (Lee, n.d., p. 9).

The Black and Puerto Rican liberation movements of the 1960s provided the backdrop for Antonetty’s community organizing at UBP. As a Puerto Rican nationalist fiercely committed to ending the colonization of Puerto Ricans, both on the island and on the mainland, Antonetty understood the systematic dysfunction of the public schools in the South Bronx and New York City as an institutionalized form of class and race oppression. She realized that radical measures were necessary to change the stagnant “sick” bureaucratic structure at the Board of Education that relegated Black and Puerto Rican children in New York City to an inferior education (Rogers, 1968). Founded by Antonetty in 1965, United Bronx Parents organized the primarily Puerto Rican parents of the South Bronx to engage in direct actions against the educational system and to demand bilingual education in the schools. Parents and community leaders identified English-only instruction as a main cause of the schools’ failure to educate their Spanish-speaking children properly. They galvanized around what they considered the most urgent educational need of the moment: bilingual education.

Organizing Challenge

Educational organizing in the Puerto Rican community in the 1960s and 1970s presented a unique set of difficulties. Puerto Rican parents at that time were absolutely terrified of going to visit a principal. Many did not speak English well, but more than the language barrier, a huge cultural gap also existed. In Puerto Rico, parents held teachers and especially principals in very high esteem. The teachers and principals were deemed to be the “experts” in the educational realm and parents regularly deferred to their superior expertise and experience in educational decisions. Kathy Goldman, who did parent training at United Bronx Parents as well as serving as coordinator of UBP’s Summer Meals Program in the late 1960s and early 1970s noted, “In Puerto Rico they had such respect for principals, which translated into awe here. It was such a different story from what they had known” (Personal communication, Kathy Goldman, February 6, 2015). Carmen Dinos, who as Director of the Puerto Rico Commonwealth’s Office of Migrants in New York City also worked with Puerto Rican community organizations and parents to improve the conditions of schools, remarked, “One of the worst fights was to get parents to come to the school. In Puerto Rico the idea was the teacher was the second mother and if the child didn’t behave, the teacher could beat the hell out of them” (Personal communication, Carmen Dinos, May 21, 2012). With community parents possessing this mindset at the outset, United Bronx Parents organizers had vast cultural distances to overcome in order to tackle the institutional racism, discrimination and inequalities they faced in New York City.

Antonetty’s educational objectives for community schools included creating bilingual classes, hiring more Hispanic personnel, and forming more open and humane school environments that emphasized critical thinking. In order to accomplish these goals, she realized that she needed to organize parents so as to foment constant bottom-up pressure for change (Schepers, 1978). Julio Pabón, who worked with Evelina from the 1960s until her death in 1984, noted, “From the Evelina that I knew back then in the ’60s, her main thing, United Bronx Parents, was uniting parents around the issue of education. It was like she knew that education was the salvation for poor people, and this community was very down and out” (Personal communication, Julio Pabón, November 17, 2014).

Parent Training

Beginning in 1967, United Bronx Parents began offering training classes so that parents could evaluate their schools and ultimately advocate on behalf of their children, especially in the area of student suspensions. UBP intended to inform parents of their rights in order to create an articulate and unafraid critical mass of parents to demand improvements in education. The UBP staff began to create training materials in English and Spanish that encouraged the hands-on learning through role-playing approach that they favored. They also gave parents copies of Board of Education regulations so that they could familiarize themselves with school policies on matters such as suspensions and the handling of disruptive children (Schepers, 1978; UBP, History of United Bronx Parents, n.d.). They hoped eventually to expand their base outside of the South Bronx to create a citywide parental network for applying pressure on the schools.

UBP’s training explicitly emphasized changing the locus of blame from the parents to the educational power structure in the city. While these parents (mainly mothers) had heard for years from school staff that bad Puerto Rican parents produced failing Puerto Rican children, the UBP training showed how inequitable distribution of resources, discrimination by teachers and lack of accountability or interest by the Board of Education bureaucracy led to inequitable outcomes for their children (UBP, 1967). The trainings also equipped parents with facts and statistics to back their critiques of the school system, as well as to learn of their legal rights. The parents discovered, for example, that thanks to Education Law 310, Decision 6849 of the New York State Education Commissioner, they had the right to review and obtain copies of their children’s school files. They also had the right to question anything inside the files they considered incorrect and could “sue the teacher and the school system for slander and libel.” UBP stated, “We at the United Bronx Parents will help you obtain a free lawyer” (UBP, Parents have the right to see their child’s record, n.d). One UBP pamphlet described how a parent found the following unsigned note in her child’s file: “A real sickie –absent, truant, stubborn & very dull. Is verbal only about irrelevant facts. Can barely read (which was a huge accomplishment to get this far). Have fun” (UBP, What’s in your child’s folder? n.d.). Undoubtedly there was a need to attack the unchallenged class and cultural biases of school personnel at every level of the system.

One of UBP’s training activities was entitled “a treasure hunt for parents who blame themselves.” This “treasure hunt” took them to a middle-class Bronx neighborhood and then back to their own community. The parents took a checklist with them on which they had to compare the public libraries, dime stores, banks, restaurants and furniture stores in both communities. They were then asked penetrating compare-and-contrast questions, for example: Did libraries in both neighborhoods offer evening and weekend hours? Which dime store sold educational materials, toys, flashcards? In which neighborhood could parents find the New York Times? Where could they find family restaurants without bars that offered affordable and decent meals? Were there four or five room apartments for rent, and if so, how much was the rent? Did bank branches even exist in the poor neighborhoods? (UBP, 1967).

The questions got to the heart of the class inequality of the neighborhoods, in spite of the fact that they were often divided by a mere couple of blocks (UBP, 1967). The treasure hunt represented an attempt to quantify the consequences of poverty, and how the daily experiences that children in poverty confronted could affect their learning (Back, 2011). The parent training programs borrowed from the language and ideology of global freedom movements. Like the adult education programs that Paolo Freire led in Brazil, parents at UBP training sessions learned to read the word so they could read the world (Freire, 2006). The treasure hunt activity was designed to “re-educat[e] parents who have been turned against their own” (UBP, 1967).   Although these grassroots organizers never mentioned Freire in their hands-on publications, they no doubt were informed by his theory. Kathy Goldman affirms this assessment: “Was it Freirian philosophy? In our conversations we would discuss it, although we certainly didn’t beat people over the head with it” (Personal communication, Kathy Goldman, February 6, 2015).

In conjunction with the parents who attended their training programs, the UBP Training Department produced detailed flyers and materials giving step-by-step instructions on how to confront their children’s school principal on a variety of matters. These strongly worded, direct documents were necessary to counter the regular lack of respect that principals displayed toward poor, minority parents. School officials regularly refused to present Spanish-speaking parents with information they requested and were entitled to. Parents needed to evaluate schools and in particular, their efficacy in teaching reading. To this end, UBP encouraged parents to interview principals about their schools’ reading programs and to demand test results in writing. One flyer read:

If your principal tells you that it is normal for half the children to read below grade level, tell him he is being ridiculous. Private and suburban schools would be ashamed if they only had half the children reading at level. In most middle class schools outside New York City all of the children are reading on or above grade norm. Your children will have to compete with those children for jobs! (UBP, All the children should read, n.d.)

If school administrators were uncooperative, UBP recommended to parents that they “immediately organize to have (principals) removed for incompetence” (Rogers, 1968).

In addition to judging a school’s effectiveness, UBP encouraged parents to evaluate principals and other administrators as well. One of the chief criteria for assessing an administrator was the degree to which he would cooperate willingly and transparently with parents. After years of organizing, there were districts, principally District 7 in the South Bronx, which welcomed UBP’s cooperation, advice and assistance (Schepers, 1978; Personal communication, David Levy, November 10, 2014). Speaking of Antonetty, David Levy, former Deputy Superintendent for District 7, spoke admiringly: “She was a pretty remarkable woman…She was a firebrand. She fought against the status quo and the establishment. A very positive, very effective leader of the community” (Personal communication, David Levy, November 10, 2014). Levy’s praise of Antonetty reflects the level of respect and clout she commanded within District 7. District 7 worked with UBP to implement their goals, including the establishment of the first fully Spanish-English bilingual elementary school in New York City in 1968, P.S. 25.

Conclusion

Through a Freirian-based program of adult education and training, Evelina López Antonetty and United Bronx Parents helped overcome the circumstances of poverty as well as the internalized oppression and feelings of inferiority experienced by Puerto Rican and other minority women and men in one of the United States’ poorest neighborhoods. They learned to become enlightened, fearless fighters for the educational rights of their children, and in so doing, laid the groundwork for their children to have futures with more possibilities, at the same time as they liberated themselves. The experience of United Bronx Parents indicates that a grassroots group of determined people can demand accountability even for the poorest and most disenfranchised citizens.

United Bronx Parents’ attack on the structural dysfunction of the education system had lasting impact not only in the South Bronx but in all New York City schools. Indeed, United Bronx Parents’ influence extended nationwide as demand for its Parent Evaluation Handbook grew. It gave full articulation to the War on Poverty’s mantra “maximum feasible participation” of the poor by empowering poor minority mothers in the South Bronx to take control of their own lives by demystifying the institutions that served them. In this era of top-down educational reforms, unequal school funding and hyper-segregation of schools, more than ever the need exists to learn from and emulate United Bronx Parents’ model of grassroots organizing and education of parents if we are to bring a modicum of democracy to the educational system.

References

Antonetty, E. (1971, March 25). Educational needs of the Puerto Rican child in New York City with special emphasis on District 7. Box 4, Folder 4, UBPR.

Back, A. (2011). Parent power: Evelina López Antonetty, the United Bronx Parents, and the war on poverty. In A. Orleck & L.G. Hazirjian (Eds.). The war on poverty: A new grassroots history, 1964-1980. (pp. 184-208). Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Caballero, D. (2000). The Puerto Rican/Latino Education Roundtable: Seeking unity in vision and organizing for educational change. In S. Nieto (Ed.), Puerto Rican students in U.S. schools. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 203-221.

Freire, P. (2006). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Jordan, H. (2013, November 1). The Jordan journal. [Radio Broadcast]. New York, NY: WBAI.

Lee, E.E. (n.d.). Dr. Evelina Antonetty. Box 2, Folder 6, UBPR.

Morales, I. (2015, September 23). Panel: The Young Lords Party and the Modern Latino Community. New York University: Center for Latin American Studies (http://clacs.as.nyu.edu/object/clacs.events.special.092315#sthash.3oWaCqM1.dpuf).

Rogers, D. (1968). 110 Livingston Street: Politics and bureaucracy in the New York City schools. New York: Random House.

Santiago, I. S. (1986, November). Aspira v. Board of Education, Revisited. American Journal of Education. 95(1), 149-199.

Schepers, E. (1978). Case study: Chapter 4. United Bronx Parents. Box 2, Folder 14, UBPR.

United Bronx Parents. (n.d.) All the children should read. Vertical files b, Organizations f, UBPR.

United Bronx Parents. (n.d.). History of United Bronx Parents. Box 2, Folder 14, UBPR.

United Bronx Parents. (1967). Parent leadership training program. Materials Kit 4, Box 4, Folder 4, UBPR.

United Bronx Parents. (n.d.). Parents have the right to see their child’s record, Vertical Files b, Organizations f, UBPR.

United Bronx Parents. (n.d.). What’s in your child’s folder? Box 4, Folder 3, UBPR.

United Bronx Parents (n.d.). Would you like to know how your schools compare with the rest of the schools in the Bronx???? UBP Files, United Federation of Teachers Records, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University, New York.

Vélez, W. (2008). The educational experiences of Puerto Ricans in the United States. In Rodríguez, H., Sáenz, R. & Menjívar, C. (Eds.). Latina/os in the United States: Changing the face of América. New York: Springer Science and Business Media, LLC.

*Note: All United Bronx Parents documents have been obtained from the United Bronx Parents Records located at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, City University of New York, New York, New York unless otherwise specified. I herein use the abbreviation “UBPR” to refer to this collection.