GSE Publications

Document Type

Thesis or dissertation

Date of this Version

September 1995


In 1934, Italian immigrant Leonard Covello and others set up Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem. Its purpose was to coordinate the educational influences emanating the neighborhood's many institutions, and to inform local citizen decision-making with intensive local social research. A leader in urban education, Benjamin Franklin High pioneered a distinctive community-centered schooling. Covello insisted that "education for social living" be based on solving real community problems in order to prepare students for leadership and civic participation. Problems ranging from poor housing to leisure opportunities to intergroup relations were channeled through Franklin's system of school-community committees.

This dissertation describes the evolution of the vision, one of active public purpose, that inspired Benjamin Franklin High in its early years. How did the ideas that guided such an unusual school mission evolve? How were they shaped and changed by their interaction with local events, national trends, demographics, personalities, and social conditions? Though an institutional history, this essay attempts to capture the interplay among a wide configuration of educating agents, in particular the "messy" dynamics of a public school's relationship to its community. Fundamental tensions regarding the nature of the public purposes of schooling, as well as whose purposes are pursued, underlie this intensely local struggle.

Chapter I describes the social, economic, and political context of East Harlem in the early 1930s, including the campaign to establish Benjamin Franklin. Chapter II sets out the broader conversation about community schooling in the early 1930s. Chapter III presents the life of Leonard Covello, examining the complex interplay of religious, intellectual, and personal experiences that influenced his vision of public. schooling for East Harlem. In Chapters IV and V, the challenges of promoting cultural democracy - through local research, storefront units, adult education, teacher training, curriculum and public rallies - flesh out the idea of community-centered schooling as it evolved in East Harlem.

Drawing upon varied traditions of community research, early urban sociology, social Christianity and settlement house traditions, Covello shaped a distinct vision of schooling's public role in the democratic development of a diverse people. Implications for current education policy are suggested.


Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Education in Teacher's College, Columbia University, 1995.



Date Posted: 07 November 2008