Elaine Schwartz, former director of an innovative school, dies at the age of 92

Elaine Schwartz, who co-founded the Center School, a Manhattan public high school, in 1982 as a way to introduce bold innovations into the classroom and remained its principal for four decades — long enough to see many of those innovations become commonplace in schools nationwide — died Monday at her home not far from the school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She was 92.

Her daughter Andrea Franks said the cause of death was heart failure. Mrs. Schwartz had retired only a year ago.

The Center Schoolon West 84th Street at Columbus Avenue, began as a unique institution in New York City’s public education system. Long before the charter school movement, it rejected a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, opting instead for individualized instruction, small classes, and student-led learning.

It came into being at a critical time for the city. White flight had decimated the school population, and the school system was creaking under the weight of outdated ideas about how children grow and learn. New ideas were needed, and the Center School delivered.

Ms. Schwartz founded the school with Howard Berger and Audrey Feuerstein, but over time she became synonymous with it. She eschewed an office and instead stationed herself at a small desk in the corner of a classroom. She wandered the halls, talking to students and teachers, and her presence became the glue that held the small community together.

“She was a very steady hand at the wheel,” Marley Randazzo, a 2007 Center graduate, said in an interview. “It was very much Mrs. Schwartz’s school.”

As an instructor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education in the late 1970s, Ms. Schwartz had learned firsthand some of the new ideas emerging about high school pedagogy, including the general recognition that grades five through eight were crucial were, but were often overlooked by mainstream public schools. .

She designed the Center School as both a remedy for such neglect and a way to test innovative ideas. Unlike many high schools, Center starts fifth grade, not sixth. The curriculum runs on a trimester system and most classes include students from all four years.

Many of her once radical ideas are now the norm in education, such as giving students narrative reports instead of simple grades, and allowing them to participate in parent-teacher conferences instead of sitting outside in anticipation.

“Elaine put the student at the table,” Michael Veve, a longtime teacher at the school, said in an interview. “She said very honestly that the student sits at the table because the student is the most important person at the table.”

One of her greatest innovations, and one that still marks the school as unique, is the emphasis on theatrical arts: every student must participate in two school-wide productions per year. Mrs. Schwartz’s interest was not so much in the aesthetics of performance as in the ability of theater to help young teens become comfortable with their bodies.

“The confidence they gain is really amazing,” she told the website DNAInfo in 2013. “Children who have never danced, dance. Children who have never sung, sing.”

Elaine Judith Goldberg was born April 5, 1932 in Orange, NJ, the daughter of Louis and Rose (Herschkowitz) Goldberg. Her father was a judge, her mother a teacher.

She graduated from the University of Illinois in 1954 with a degree in theater and married Irvin Schwartz that same year. He and their daughter survive her, as do another daughter, Julie Madison; their son, Ben Barnz; and seven grandchildren.

The Schwartzes settled in New York shortly after their marriage. Ms. Schwartz worked as a counselor and teacher in the 1960s; she also worked for Women Strike for Peace, an anti-war group, and advised young men trying to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.

After a stint at Mitchell-Lama, a state program that built middle-class housing in New York City and elsewhere, she turned to education, eventually joining Fordham University as an instructor in the Graduate School of Education.

When she announced plans to open the Center School, she faced public skepticism about her plans for a small, alternative high school in the middle of Manhattan. Later, when it was successful, she faced community outrage over its small size—with a maximum of 300 students—and long waiting lists.

“There should be a million Center Schools,” she told The New York Times. “All we do is offer alternatives.”

The school moved from West 70th Street to West 84th Street in 2009, a move Ms. Schwartz resisted despite the promise of more space. She preferred the cramped, chaotic environment on West 70th Street, she said, because it promoted chance encounters.

Last June, when she retired at age 91, she said she realized it was “time to go” — but even then she didn’t want to leave the school community she had built.

“They were her family,” said her daughter, Mrs. Franks. “Her other family.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

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

Back to top button