Transcript of the episode “Norman Fruchter on the pioneering alternative high school he and colleagues built in Newark in the 1970s (Encore)”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi, I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Today we have an encore of our July 31st 2019 interview with Norm Fruchter on the pioneering alternative high school he and colleagues built in Newark in the 1970s. Very sadly, Norm died on January 4th of this year. He was a lifelong advocate and organizer on behalf of students, parents, and teachers, and democratic schooling. He’ll be very greatly missed.

Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools, where we discuss strategies for creating inclusive and [00:01:00] equitable schools and youth programs that help students to develop both commitment and capacity to build ethical institutions. 

Amy H-L: Our guest today is Norm Fruchter. Norm is Senior Consultant for Research and Policy at NYU’s Metro Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. He was a senior scholar at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a founder and director of NYU’s Institute for Education and Social Policy, and the Aaron Diamond Foundation’s educational grantmaker. Norm directed an alternative high school in Newark for students who had left school without graduating, and served 10 years on Community School Board 15 in Brooklyn. He was a member of the NYC Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy as an appointee of Mayor de Blasio. His latest book is Urban Schools Public Will. He also published two novels and co-directed award-winning documentaries in the sixties and seventies. He was a civil rights and [00:02:00] anti-war activist and founder of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Welcome, Norm. 

Norm F: Thank you. 

Amy H-L: You’ve long been a thought leader and activist on issues of school equity. You mentioned the other day to Jon that you’d like to talk about your experience in the seventies as director of a high school for students who previously had left school without graduating. Would you tell us a bit about the school and why you’ve been thinking about it 40 years later? 

Norm F: Sure. The roots of the school are in the Students for Democratic Society Organizing Project in Newark in the 1960s. It was a very mixed group with predominantly white organizers and a whole cohort of local Black neighborhood activists and leaders. After the ’67 Newark uprising, it became increasingly difficult for whites to try to organize in Newark, so the cohort of organizers who’d been there at this point for almost a decade, moved into the immigrant [00:03:00] basin of Newark, which was called the Ironbound because it was surrounded by railroad tracks, and began to do youth organizing in the Ironbound. It was again, a very diverse group of youth, and after two neighborhood youth centers and a number of years, we had a cohort of 18 to 23 year olds, most of whom had dropped out of the local high school in the East Ward of Newark. But all of them wanted to get a high school degree and, with differing amounts of enthusiasm, the education that went with that. But they didn’t want to go back to their neighborhood high school or any Newark high school. And these were the years, this is the early seventies, when alternative high schools were cropping up all around the country. And I think there had been a TV program about them. 

And so these young people wanted to know if we could help them start an alternative high school. And we investigated and [00:04:00] found that the requirements of the Education Department in the state of New Jersey for an independent, nonprofit-run, free high school were very minimal. You had to teach American history and you had to teach physical education and that was it. So we started Independence High School in the East Ward of Newark, New Jersey, I think, in the fall of 1971. We had about 35 students to begin with, most of them younger than 20, some of them not, most of them working class whites with a small mix of black students and a few Puerto Rican students. The Puerto Rican population, and, subsequently, the Mexican population in Newark was just beginning to grow. We had money from an initial grant to buy a building in the East Ward of Newark, and we equipped it with rudimentary classrooms and began to teach a [00:05:00] fairly pared down curriculum of English, math, social studies, and a bunch of electives. 

The school blossomed very quickly. We were never sure how people heard about us, but by the time we were in the second semester of the first year, we had about 50 students and an increasing number of Black students. Again, Newark was still majority Black at that point. And by the time the second year started, we were up to about 80 students. 

We had had a number of contacts with — oh, by then there was, in, I think, ’71, there was a Black mayor of Newark elected — and we were very close to a number of people in his administration, including the chief of police, who had been a sergeant in the areas of Newark that we organized. And he called us up one day, us as the sort of trio of directors that I was part of, which got smaller and [00:06:00] smaller as we went on. But originally there were three of us who were both teaching and directing the school. And the police captain said to us that — this was under the Nixon administration — there was a Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in the Department of Justice, and one of its focuses was youth violence, youth incarceration, and it would fund programs that would reduce that. And the police captain said to us, I think that your alternative high school might be eligible for grants as something that reduces youth incarceration. And what you would’ve to do is you would have to have at least half of your population with previous arrest records, and we would track, through social security numbers, we would track all your enrollees and see whether they were subsequently arrested and what your recidivism rate was. And if you could keep it somewhere below 15%, we would think of you as an [00:07:00] effective alternative. 

So our way of governing the school at this point was with an all-school meeting. This was our second or third year. We were about 80 students, and they all could fit in one of our big assembly rooms. So we called an all-school meeting and explained the opportunity and then they asked how many people had previous arrest records. And almost every hand in the room went up. So we were off and running. 

Jon M: Question on that, I mean, you mentioned the Newark uprising, which of course the immediate inciting incident, in fact, obviously involved the police, and then Kenneth Gibson was elected as the first Black mayor. The police force, I believe, was still overwhelmingly white and there were still huge tensions. So I’m just curious that obviously the chief of police at that point was sympathetic. Did you end up with [00:08:00] issues with the police force, sort of at the levels underneath him or in general, was it a more or less collaborative relationship? 

Norm F: The police captain was obviously Black, and I think there was a commitment from the very beginning to change the nature of the racial composition of the police force as quickly as possible. I’m not sure how quickly that happened, but certainly in terms of the way that the police department dealt with the school, there was no tension at all. The police captain must have put out the word that, you know, I mean, they didn’t give us the break in terms of not arresting our kids if they were apprehended in the pursuit of whatever might be arrestable grounds. But actually we kept our recidivism rate, really our re-arrest rate, under 6% for all the years that we were operating under an LEAA grant. So his [00:09:00] instinct was a good one. 

Jon M: Right. Do you have a sense of what most of the students went on to do after they graduated from the school? 

Norm F: We hoped to send a certain percentage of students to college, and we did. We got all our students that we could to take the SATs. There were some surprises, but there were also some horrible results. We didn’t prepare for it very well. And we paid, or our students paid, the price for that, but we convinced a certain percentage of students of the graduating class. I’d say the graduating classes were very small, right, they were 10, 12 at the most, and we would persuade half or more to apply to college. And they all got to college, but many of them started out and didn’t continue, which was a great regret for us. The people who went away to college all came back home. The people who went to local [00:10:00] colleges, I think it was still a huge culture shock for them, and they were for the most part, uncomfortable and didn’t persist. For some students it was the academic challenge that was too much. But for most students, I think it was the cultural challenge that was the breaker rather than the academic challenge. 

Amy H-L: Could you expand on that a little? What was it at the schools that was so challenging for them? 

Norm F: Well, with the possible exception of Essex County College, where I think that most of our students would have fit in, the four year colleges that they tried to go to, most of the students came from better high schools and had more consistent academic preparation than ours did. But mostly it was the range of references, the vocabularies. None of our kids had been away from home at all until they went to college. None of our kids had been basically out of Newark [00:11:00] until they went to college. And family ties were very strong, and it was just too much. So everybody who didn’t go to college, everybody went to work.

There was, I should say this just as parenthesis, this is a very heavy drug culture, and there was a lot of heroin among our student body. We policed that, that’s the wrong word to use, we fought against that the best we could, and we had a number of ways of trying to deal with it. But we lost a certain number of students to overdoses. And what we noticed, and this was from running the youth centers as well as the school, was that when our students hit 20 or 21, 22 and made the shift into some form of adulthood, they basically stopped drugs.. There was only a small minority who went on. So in spite of all the drug use, almost everybody that graduated from the [00:12:00] school, if they didn’t go to college, they went on to work. They had connections in a range of industries in Newark and the suburbs. Some of them worked at the airport, some of them worked in the trucking industries that were very heavy in Newark at that point. But almost everybody got jobs and kept them and went on into a kind of stable working class settlement.

Amy H-L: So, aside from the first, the original three of you who started, what other teachers came to teach? How did you create that?

Norm F: There were three of us who were directors and taught, but there were about, from the original organizing staff, there were about 10 adults who taught. We supplemented that. We didn’t have a strong math teacher at the beginning, so we found one. We recruited somebody. We knew that we needed an arts teacher and we recruited one, and his art classes were among the most popular. We had a carpentry class and recruited a teacher to come and teach that. [00:13:00] Two people on staff were very good photographers, so the carpentry class built a photography lab and darkroom. We never closed the school. It would stay open all night, but we had to flush students out of the photography lab at 10, 11 and 12 o’clock in the evening. They were still there. And we got a number of state grants. Both philanthropies and state agencies loved us, so we got a grant to put in a kitchen and to serve meals, and we got a number of other grants to supplement enrichment programs that we ran. We didn’t teach a language. That was one of the things. We never found somebody who was capable enough. We had at least two or three English teachers, a couple social studies teachers, two math teachers. The only science we ever taught was biology, and we had a rudimentary lab. 

Jon M: Alternative schools, not to mention organizing in general, are notoriously [00:14:00] incredibly intensive work. Were the teachers, in general, able to maintain the momentum, or did they have to pull back after a while because of stresses or burnout? And how long did the school run? For how many years? 

Norm F: I was there for about seven years and the school went on and became primarily a special ed school serving Newark students that the education board didn’t have facilities or programs to serve. And it went on into the 21st century, and it may well still be there. I’ve never checked. It went on for a long time, and it gradually lost its alternative focus and became.. . Well, I don’t know if that’s true or fair. I don’t really know. I just know that the majority of its students were students with disabilities after, say, the first decade of school.

Jon M: And did you find, during that decade, in terms of the intensity, how [00:15:00] did teachers as a community deal with the stresses of being in a school where, where you had to, you know, pull students out from the photo lab at 10 o’clock at night? 

Amy H-L: There were two groups of faculty. There were the small cohort of the original Newark organizers who became teachers, and then we recruited a bunch of VISTAs, who chose to come to the school because they had a commitment to helping youth and they also had academic skills. Both the groups were very dedicated and both hung in for a long time. What would happen is we would recruit somebody for a particular task, and about halfway through the year they would say, I can’t do this anymore. It’s just too hard. And we would lose them and have to find, recruit somebody else. But the core hung in. When I left, there was still a stable core of people who were the original teaching staff at the school. And most people lived in Newark, close to the school. I lived in New [00:16:00] York and worked in Newark, so there was a fair amount of travel, but most people didn’t have that. I would say that the particular stresses of doing an alternative school and staying incredibly close to your students and being able to intervene whenever you thought they needed intervention was mitigated by the commitment of both the older and younger faculties.

Norm F: I should say one other thing. We closed the school once a month in the first semester and once a month in the second semester, and all the students served internships, which were related as much as possible to their interests. I remember things like one student was very interested in being a veterinarian, and so we found a placement for her with a local vet. A couple people were interested in photography, so we found… we tailored the internships to what the interests of the students [00:17:00] were. And then we had faculty who concentrated on finding placements for students. And we paid a stipend to students, which was decent at that point. I can’t remember what it was. So they spent two months a year in internships that hopefully were related to their interests and what they were thinking about. We had some duds, but we had some really interesting internships with theater groups and music groups and a bunch of other placements. The regular faculty essentially were the liaisons for particular groups of students to the internships and visited them once a week and talked with the intern mentors at the site so that we had some kind of quality control over what the experience was that the students were gaining. 

Jon M: That sounds somewhat similar to things like today, for example, with Summer Youth Employment Program or in New York [00:18:00] City, the Work Learn, Grow program where they’re integrating summer youth employment more with the school year. From your experience, does that sound as though it was somewhat similar?

Norm F: Yeah. The only difference was it was within the school year rather than summer. 

Jon M: Yeah. The City actually is starting to do that just in the last year or so. They’ve been putting out requests for proposals based on starting during the school year instead of having it just being during the summer. 

Amy H-L: A lot of the high school educators we speak with are dealing with conflict resolution as a major theme. There must have been some conflict at that time, and I guess that’s before the trend of restorative justice. How did you deal with it? 

Norm F: Well, I was surprised that there was not a lot of inter-student conflict in the school, and there was not a lot of racial conflict. What there was, and our instinct, we never really caught the people doing it, [00:19:00] but there was a persistent amount of stealing. We thought it was a very small group, but no matter how hard they tried, students would leave a pocketbook or whatever, knapsack, and somebody would go through it and take the wallet or money or whatever, and we would call an all-school meeting and try to flush out person who did it. And we had a small group of suspects, but we couldn’t get them to come forward and we never actually caught them. And we had a very intense school culture, which the students really built more than the staff, I think, though the staff certainly supported it. 

We also had a very intense series of therapy groups run by one or more of the faculty that were looped into the school day. That made a difference. Remember that a lot of our students were heavy drug users and had been through a number of therapeutic [00:20:00] drug programs and stuff like that, and so the culture was a youth solidarity culture. There was a lot of support among young people themselves. We never made it coherent, but there was a code of how you should treat each other, and especially how young men and women should treat each other. This was, again, the early days of the feminist movement. I wouldn’t claim that the faculty built the culture. I think it was the students. But I think it was one of the first places that this group of young people could actually set the norms for how they wanted to interact with each other. There was a fair amount of alienation from parents. Our first graduation, we had a huge fight with the students because they didn’t want us to invite their parents. And we won that one, but it was close. They at one point said that if we invited the parents, they wouldn’t come.

Jon M: So it sounds as though, I mean, what I’m hearing is very exciting and very relevant to today.[00:21:00] What it sounds like is that even though your students were students who basically had been failed by the traditional education system, many of them had been arrested and presumably were very skeptical about most forms of authority, but that they chose to come, whether just totally voluntarily or because if there were any kind of pressures on them to come. And you and the students were able to create an environment which overrode all of those things and where students and faculty were able to create the solidarity of an institution, which meant that a lot of the stuff that tends to divide people, create fights, do all these different kinds of things, you were able to keep from happening within the school, which is obviously a lot of the kind of issues that, say, transfer schools are dealing with right now and are trying to [00:22:00] create the same kind of atmosphere.

Norm F: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s right. A couple of other things that might or might not be relevant. At any point in the years that I was there, about 10% of the students were illiterate. They had never learned to read. And so we had a reading lab, — which had anywhere from eight to 12 people, depending on the year — in which the silent reading method was used by the particular teacher that we hired, who was a genius. And you would walk in and see her using a pointer and kids… She never talked, she just used the pointer, and that’s why it was called a silent reading. The kids would do all the talking. But the point at which a kid who had managed to either evade or somehow function with illiteracy actually became, you know, a reasonable fluent basic reader, was something that was a [00:23:00] constant occurrence in this school. So what you could think of as the kids who needed the school most, there was a bottom floor of achievement and accomplishment. And you could do that within a year, this woman could and did. That was amazing. And most of these kids came to the school feeling like, in spite of the fact that they had a critique of what was wrong with their elementary, middle, and high school education, they were still damaged by it in ways that affected their self-esteem deeply. So all of the classes, in one way or another, or all of the activities in one way or another, were therapeutic in that they were about trying to build the confidence in students that they weren’t stupid, weren’t slow, had a bunch of capacities, whether they were in particular disciplines or they [00:24:00] were in photography or art or whatever, that made them unique. And the staff was really committed to that. And there was enough range in the curriculum so that if you worked at it at all, you could find your capacities and feel like you counted in the atmosphere of the school. And that, and the solidarity that the students built, built a culture that carried on.

Jon M: Speaking of curriculum, and very specifically first about literacy. One of the classic issues with adult literacy is to find high interest, low level reading materials that are relevant to students. A lot of times, literacy programs use student writing, for example, as a way of finding materials that are interesting for the students to read. Do you remember much about what your silent reading teacher did or how you dealt with the questions of students having very low [00:25:00] literacy levels in other courses as well? 

Norm F: I taught whatever we called it, English literature, whatever, for all the years I was there, and social studies. My English curriculum started with poetry. I spent a lot of time reading contemporary anthologies and building a base of the literature that we used that was essentially… I certainly remember the anthologies I used. It was open plainsong American poetry. There was never a poem I used that had a vocabulary or diction that students could have said, I don’t understand this, I can’t read it. And we would read aloud. At that point, this is all pre-computer, so the poem would go up on the board, on the blackboard. Students would take turns reading it, and then we would wrestle our way through what was this about. And after a certain period of time, [00:26:00] students would write their own poetry. We published a couple of magazines of mostly poetry. We did poetry because it was, rather than prose, rather than fiction, because you can encompass a poem that you can put on the board in a relatively brief period of time. Fiction would have taken us much longer. But I remember that as we went along, we graduated to novels, and the last years that I taught, we read a number of novels. And I picked novels that had been made into films so that we could watch the film after we saw and digested the novel. But the literature course that, at least I did, and I did a lot of literature, started with poetry and deceptively simple poetry. 

Amy H-L: And how about the other teachers? How did they make the curriculum digestible to these kids who had been failed in [00:27:00] other schools? 

Norm F: I don’t know what, I never spent enough time in the math classes to understand what the math teachers did. And of course the students had a very jagged background in terms of math and I’m not sure that anybody had done algebra at that point, which was a gatekeeping course for high school. The social studies was, we used a lot of films. It was essentially an approach that started from how you thought about your family background, family history, and what you, we would try to approach the idea of your culture, how you think about yourself as fitting into, and because we had a bunch of different cultures in the room, it opened up differences that were discussable. And then we would use films to try to elaborate on that. We watched a lot of films. There was a [00:28:00] film that was particularly a favorite of the kids. It was a film about a bunch of high school students in a rich suburb of St. Louis called Webster Groves. It was called “16 in Webster Groves.” And these were students who were about to go on to college and they had a remarkably layered notion of what they were about to go into and inherit. And the film didn’t like the kids, for the most part, or where they were headed, and my students didn’t like them at all. And it was just a very enjoyable film to watch because the kids were so blinkered. And we used documentaries a lot in the social studies. 

Amy H-L: How does your experience in Newark inform your work on school policy now?

Jon M: Over the last, uh, 40 to 50 years?

Norm F: Well, I spent a lot of time in high school [00:29:00] reform, funding it as a foundation education officer and, as part of a number of organizations, institutions, trying to contribute to high school reform with various foundation-funded efforts across the country. For me, the experience of Independence High School was always a bedrock. It was nothing that could be easily duplicated, but for instance, one of the things I pushed for very hard in each of the places I was in was some kind of what came to be called advisories, teacher-student groups that were intermediaries to the academic experience and places where students could actually try to process what they were working through and what the tentions were, whether they were student-student tensions, student-teacher tensions, students-school administration tensions. 

What that high school [00:30:00] taught me was that you needed everything that you could do to blunt the edges of the institutional relationships that most schools impose on students. And ours was ideal because we didn’t have any district intermediary to deal with. We were an independent high school, not part of the City of Newark. So we didn’t have to do anything that we didn’t want to do in the way of discipline or uniformity or bureaucratic organization or anything like that. And all the high schools I dealt with subsequently had a huge overlay of bureaucratic impress. So a lot of what I tried to do in high school interventions that we did was to make the high school less of a blunt force imposing itself on students and trying to move toward a culture of, if not cooperation, at least relative openness. 

Amy H-L: What we’re finding [00:31:00] is, in a lot of alternative schools and out of school programs, it’s sort of all about the relationships and the relationships among the adults in an institution, as well as the relationships between the adults and the students, seem to make a tremendous amount of difference. Did you find that? 

Norm F: Well, our school was all about relationships and, you know, it’s an old cliche. Often in many classes, especially if the teachers were younger, you would’ve had a difficulty trying to figure out who the teacher was in many cases, because of the nature of the relationship in the classes, and we were fortunate that we were always able to attract teachers who both had a disciplinary background but didn’t have to rely on the formal authority of teachers, as opposed to the informal authority that comes from both the way that you feel about students and the nature of the [00:32:00] challenge that you want to set for them.

But again, I think the most important constituent of the culture that the school built was what the students built. The teacher-student relationships was an incredibly important part of that, but the student-student relationships were really critical. 

Jon M: What’s your sense from what you’ve seen of transfer schools today, how much they’re following similar kind of model to what you were doing?

Norm F: Oh, I don’t think that they are, but they have a lot of obstacles that we didn’t have to contend with. 

Jon M: Do you want to speak to that a little more?

Norm F: Well, we were smaller. There was always a core of students who knew each other outside the school, so that there were initial relationships that we could build on and that the students could build on. The school was, it was absolutely not anonymous in any way or form. It would be difficult for a student who wanted to isolate themselves and [00:33:00] just come and do whatever, come and do school, to function in that environment. 

Jon M: And your sense is that in today’s transfer schools by and large, that that’s not the case?

Norm F: Yeah. Even the way students come in is probably not the… I’ve been in a small number of them and there are groups and cliques, but there are a lot of individual students who have a problem and a difficulty connecting and that that was not our problem. 

Jon M: Do you think that school systems could, if the will were there, bring programs or schools such as what you were doing to scale?

Norm F: I think there were aspects of what we were doing you could bring to scale. Clearly, the advisories or other forms of student guidance and restorative justice. We did an equivalent of that trying to deal with the theft, which didn’t work out, but brought people together around that there was such a strong [00:34:00] anti-theft norm that we were able to hold the thieving to a minimum, and there were a bunch of other norms that were very useful that we stumbled into and then supported. I think the internships really made a difference, and schools could certainly do that. I think that the extent to which you can blur the boundaries between, let’s call it the exploratory parts of the curriculum or the enrichment parts of the curriculum, and the traditional parts of the curriculum. So the more you have arts and music and dance and theater, and even film and video, and they’re interacting with your academic curriculum throughout the day, the more you tap into what students want to explore and want to do. And I remember once Luis Garden Acosta from El Puente said to a group of us that his ideal was that when you walked into El Puente at any particular time of the day, you wouldn’t know whether [00:35:00] you were in the academic component or the enrichment component. That gets what we were trying to do. 

Amy H-L: Thank you so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wind up?

Norm F: No. I’ve been sitting here, just the other part of my mind, that watches being embarrassed by wondering how much my memories of the school would not be seen as accurate by my then-colleagues. I’m not sure how I find that out. Maybe the responses to the podcast will tell me. 

Jon M: That would be great if it does. Thank you for joining us. 

And thank you listeners for joining. us. Our website,, has articles and podcast episodes. We’re on Facebook, Twitter @ethicalschools, and Instagram. Till next week.

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