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Transforming Urban Schools
Through Investments in Social Capital

Part 4

Transforming urban schools by increasing community control

Pedro A. Noguera, Ph.D.
Graduate School of Education, UC Berkeley
Berkeley, California



Part 4 - Transforming urban schools by increasing community control

In 1968, public education in New York City screeched to a halt as over one million children were kept out of school as a result of a strike by the United Federation of Teachers(UFT). The strike was called in response to a conflict between the union and parents at one of New York City's three demonstration school district located in the Oceanhill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn(Fantini, et. al. 970). As part of an experiment referred to as "community control", district governance had been turned over to a locally elected board made up of parents, church leaders and community residents. The Board was empowered to make decisions related to the governance of schools (three elementary, one intermediate, and one middle school) in the district. This included the hiring and firing of administrators, the allocation of resources, and general oversight of educational performance. The experiment began in the Fall of 1968 with the hope that increased local involvement in school governance would lead to an improvement in the quality of schools in this low income neighborhood.(Fantini, et al. 1970:163)

Shortly after the experiment commenced conflict between the union and the Board erupted when the Board, acting under the recommendation of the Superintendent Rhody McCoy, called for the involuntary transfer of 18 teachers. These teachers were accused of undermining the goals of the experiment in community control, and the Board used their dismissal as a signal to the union that they were indeed in control. More than just an issue of who had power and who could exercise control, the conflict between the community board and the union also exposed profound differences related to the racial implications of the experiment. To a large degree, the concept of community control was embraced because it satisfied two distinct needs: 1) a desire to improve schools in this low income neighborhood which had long been perceived as dysfunctional and of low quality; 2) a desire for a concrete, local manifestation of Black and Puerto Rican nationalism which at the time called for self reliance and racial empowerment. Through community control, parents and activists, religious leaders and politicians, united in wresting control of neighborhood schools out of the hands of pre-dominantly white educators who were perceived as indifferent and unsympathetic to the needs of the community and its children. In their place educators who shared the racial and cultural background of residents, and the ideological aspirations of the Board, were invited to help implement this larger agenda of political empowerment. To begin to fulfill these larger aspirations, community control of local schools would also entail transforming the curriculum such that it reflected and embraced the cultural and historical ideals and images valued by the community and its representatives on the board.

Despite the controversy associated with what was being done in Ocean-Hill Brownsville, the call for greater community control of schools and other public services was a strategy that had been popular in anti-poverty programs for some time. Beginning in 1964 with the passage of the Equal Opportunity Act, community-action programs serving low income communities were encouraged to "develop, conduct and administer programs with the maximum feasible participation of residents of the area and members of the groups served." (11) Similar proposals for greater community control over public services had been made for the made with regard to the management of public housing and police departments, where citizens review boards were called for as a way of improving relations between community and police and reducing charges or police brutality (Currie and Skolnick 1994). While such proposals in housing and law enforcement have represented a significant departure from past practice, community control at an urban public school in New York City was not unlike the kind of relationship that existed between schools and the communities they serve in many parts of the country. In fact, the logic of the idea was completely consistent with the principle of local control - an idea central to the character of American public schools since their creation in the mid 19th century (Cremin, 1988; Katznelson and Weir 1986; Tyack 1982). Kenneth Clark, the psychologist who championed racial integration of schools, articulated the fundamental logic of the proposal in this way:

While a certain degree of control might be taken for granted in middle class suburban schools, within the context of the economically and socially marginal communities of the inner-city, the notion that community residents had the ability to elect representatives to govern local schools was seen as a radical and risky experiment. Critics of the idea, such as Daniel P. Moynihan, argued that placing poor people in control of neighborhood schools "simply weighs them down with yet another burden with which they are not competent to deal." (12) Similar arguments were made by UFT President Albert Shanker who argued that community control would turn the schools over to vigilantes and racists, and others who condemned the Ocean Hill- Brownsville experiment as too political (Alsop, 1968; Schrag 1967), and overly ambitious (Ernst 1968; Ferretti 1968).

Ultimately, it was the UFT strike and the Mayor John Lindsay's (Who initially supported the plan) capitulation to the teachers union which brought an end to community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Yet, despite the fact that the community control experiment was aborted long before its impact on the educational performance of children could be assessed, as is often true with other policy innovations, the idea of improving urban schools through various forms of decentralized management and parental empowerment, has re-surfaced in recent years and gained new credibility. Community control is no longer the title affixed to these initiatives, but throughout the country, reforms aimed at increasing parent involvement in school on decision making bodies(Comer 1988), increasing site-based management, and transferring decision making authority to locally elected boards, are being carried out. Ironically, the logic underlying these new initiatives is almost identical to that which gave birth to community control movement in New York in 1968: by increasing school accountability to the parents they serve, and by providing parents with the organizational capacity to exert control over schools, they can be forced to improve and become more responsive toward those they serve.

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Other articles by Dr. Noguera.

Dr. Pedro Noguera is a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also past president of the Berkeley School Board.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 20, 1999.

The portrait of Dr. Noguera is by freelance photographer Kathy Sloane (

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