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Public School 109, Brooklyn, New York


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Public School No.109 (Straus Junior High School), Brooklyn, New York
Dumont Avenue, south side, from Sackman to Powell Streets, looking east from Sackman Street

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Flatbush Avenue

Public School No. 109,
Brooklyn, New York

Lower East Side

The Loew's Pitkin,
Brooklyn, New York

Tenement of the
Lower East Side
Education and Personal Development

What was the experience like for a Jewish child, especially one who was but a young immigrant, who attended a New York City public school in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

In the early nineteenth century, most of the poor immigrant children who lived in New York City did not attend public school, and most of those who did attend were from the middle class.

Over the last twenty of so years of the nineteenth century, the number of students attending public school swelled, as the number of young immigrants from southern and eastern Europe increased dramatically. In 1874,  the state of New York passed a law that required all children must attend school. Despite the lack of adequate school facilities, the school nevertheless became the institution that was said would help assimilate and make more American the throngs of immigrant children that arrived at our shores. Not only would the public school teach the "3 R's," i.e. reading, writing and arithmetic, but it would also indoctrinate the immigrant children into the American way of life, e.g. democracy, nationalism and civic responsibility.

With the building of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges in 1883 and 1903 respectively, as  various subway lines were built connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn, more families chose to move from Manhattan to outlying areas such as Brooklyn, perhaps to seek lower rent or to perhaps simply to move away from the overcrowded conditions  that existed on the Lower East Side. As the growing population in Brooklyn required more living quarters, more and more tenements were built, often stretching for blocks and blocks, as it had in a similar way on the Lower East Side. Conditions would eventually deteriorate in Brooklyn too, and living conditions became poor for many. Within a five-year period, between 1899 and 1904, the population of Brownsville increased from ten thousand to sixty thousand!

With this increased population, more schools needed to be built to educate the young. Many immigrant families who moved to Brooklyn chose to live in neighborhoods where they could feel more comfortable, most often with people of the same ethnicity or background. Such was the case with Jewish families, and many such communities were formed throughout Brooklyn. Many of the schools in these areas excelled academically and were held in high esteem.

Despite being in the throes of the Great Depression, a quality education was offered to the children who attended the New York City public schools.  They not only stressed academic excellence, but spoke eloquently of the need for their graduates to maintain high standards throughout their lives, to be of good character, to have a sense of civic responsibility, to participate in a great democracy, and to think straight in the most difficult of times.  Two such schools were Straus Junior High School ( P.S. 109) and Thomas Jefferson High School, both  located in the predominantly Jewish East New York section of Brooklyn.  Below is a positive message written by the principal of  P.S. 109 to the Graduating Class of 1933, followed by a similar message to the Thomas Jefferson Class of 1936, written by that school's principal.  Remember again that this was written during the time of the Great Depression.

On April 14, 1916, P.S. 109 in Brooklyn, New York was renamed the Isidor Straus school, and the girls' department bore the name of Isidor's wife Ida. Both perished aboard the Titanic nearly four years to the day of its sinking. Isidor Straus had been a co-owner or the famed department store R. H. Macy & Co. This dedication was the result of a change in policy by the Board of Education to bestow distinguish names upon the New York City schools, who up to that point had been distinguished purely by number, e.g. P.S. 109 (Public School 109.)

From Joseph F. Wingebach, Principal of P.S. 109, Brooklyn, New York:

In these rather troublesome times it is essential for us to think straight. Unemployment in our midst has created problems of need and want which our own school's social service and our teachers' school relief fund have helped to meet. To what extent this work has been carried on during the past three years you have learned from reports that have been circulated through school bulletins.

Discontent with existing conditions, careless and frequently unjust criticism of public officials, classes and institutions; indecision, confusion--these reflect a state of public mind that needs straightening out. We must learn to think straight.
Merely to complain about unsatisfactory conditions is entirely ineffective to correct existing civic shortcomings. As citizens we must share in the responsibilities that citizenship imposes if we are to hope to enjoy the blessings of good government in a decent democracy.

The thinking youth of the land is even now awakening to the need for greater alertness and a more careful preparation for the duties of citizenship. It has begun to study in a practical way local needs, proposed reforms in government control, better and more equitable representation, true economy versus false economy, and other problems such as the selections of leaders and leadership in government.

Before long you, too, will be required to exercise the franchise in a democracy pledged to "liberty and justice for all." You can prevent this quotation from becoming a hollow phrase by beginning now to take a genuine interest in your local, city and state government and in national affairs. Be numbered among the youth of America pledged to seek no selfish personal gain but to establish and maintain good clean government in their midst.

Finally--do not relinquish a hold on the ideals of the framers of The Constitution. Stand behind Lincoln's Gettysburg speech. Imbibe its reverent spirit. Prove yourself worthy to take an active part in speeding up the realization of Woodrow Wilson's dream of a "World made Safe for Democracy."

God speed the Class of February, 1933!"

Sincerely yours,

From Principal Elias Lieberman, Thomas Jefferson High School, Brooklyn, New York, 1936:

Dear Graduates:
     It was recently my privilege to appear before the Scout Masters of a large district in Queens to address them on the subject of personality development. These fine men give a great deal of their time to the building up of high-grade boys, high-grade in manliness and in all the traits which we group under the general term, "good character."

     My talk stressed three outstanding essentials for personality building:
                                              1.  Good Health
                                              2.  Good Speech
                                              3.  Good Manners

     You will be quick to see that these requirements are fundamental, that upon them there can be built later on that imposing structure of qualities which we should like to see in ourselves and which others so much admire. Let me in a word indicate in what respects you can help yourselves.

     Learn repose as well as activity; learn to relax as well as to put forth your mightiest efforts. It is my fervent wish that through successful methods used now you may avert becoming a victim either of heart trouble or of "nerves" at any time in your life.

     Good speech marks the gentleman and the lady. It is the outer sign of an inner culture. The language of the street is unfortunately bad and can through its vulgarities as well as its inaccuracies only degrade you. Make as your models of speech the finest men and women whom you happen to know.

     Critics of the present age rightly condemn our manners and our crudities of behavior.  Courtesy, as the name indicates, springs from the heart. It goes from one human being to another like healing balm and makes the recipient happier through the kindliness and consideration shown to him. In both men and women I especially admire graciousness.

     May life treat you generously and may you look back, as we teachers shall do, to some very happy days spent together at Thomas Jefferson.

     Your Friend and Principal,
Elias Lieberman

Read more messages to other Senior classes that were written by Dr. Elias Lieberman by clicking here.  Dr. Lieberman was not just a principal but a poet as well.  He is best known for penning the poem "I Am an American."


Photos courtesy of  the New York Public Library/Humanities and Social Sciences Library / Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.


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