Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Leonard Covello

The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) is having a book party, dramatic reading and discussion of Leonard Covello's "The Heart is The Teacher on February 22 at the Mulberry Street Branch of the New York Public Library.

The occasion is a reissuing of the book by the John D. Calandra Institute. 

Professor Gerald Meyer wrote the afterword and will speak on the reform educator's pedagogical relevance in today's multi-cultural society.

LuLu LoLo will dramatize passages from the book. Roberto Ragone will "take on Vito Marcantonio's perspective as the seven-time elected congressman from East Harlem was a close friend to Covello," according to a VMF flyer for the event.  

The branch library is located at 10 Jersey Street, corner of Mulberry and Prince streets. The event will begin at 2 p.m. and run approximately two hours.

Below are reviews of the "The Heart is the Teacher" and "Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School."

"The Heart is the Teacher" reads as clear-headed and purposeful as the man it describes.

Its string of anecdotes are rendered in a straight-ahead, clean prose, chronologically scripted from educator Leonard Covello's earliest days in the Italian village of Avigliano, to his retirement from the New York City school system.

It is a narrative which deals only in the essential and does the good job of conveying his ideas.

"The Heart," does a marvelous mapping of the disconnect endured by those who left pre-industrial, rural Italy to settle in urban ghettoes like Manhattan's Lower East Side or East Harlem.

There is much pathos in Covello's story. His mother expired from depression born of that chasm between old world and new, which she could not find it in herself to bridge. "Cara Mamma!" he cries
to the reader when recounting her departure.

Similarly, his first love died in the opening phases of their well-suited marriage.

And, of course, as an educator, he bore certain students' failures as fully as he permitted the success of others to fill his sails with wind.

The early chapters fully divulge the difficulties of the Italian-American experience: the gulf between foreign-born parents and their United States-born children; the gap between success Italian-style, via family loyalty, and the American promise of independent self-realization.

And "The Heart..." is also a possible prescription for a particular kind of American success. Covello did not become a wealthy industrialist, but his academic commitment, first as a student and later as teacher, carved out a significant niche as intellectual and policy wonk.

Himself the subject of certain books on education, Covello's approach was hardly rocket science. Socialist of bent, his approach to kids was strictly old school:

"A child," he wrote, "cannot be left to his own devices. He must have discipline, must be given responsibilities. He is a part of the family and the community and must be made to feel from the beginning that he has a duty toward that family and that community."

The start of World War II stunted his efforts at making Benjamin Franklin High School an engine for change in the surrounding East Harlem neighborhood. It convinced him that such violence, however far away, fed his young charges with the same unfortunate inclinations.

Covello's autobiography is terribly understated so that it suffers somewhat from a lack of drama, although his life was hardly devoid of it. But through the narrative's calmness, the reader may be sensing the affect the educator had on those he spent his life trying to help.

"Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School: Education As If Citizenship Mattered" dissects American society's move away from the public commons and towards the individualistic principles and private sphere championed in the conservative canon, through the experience of one man at one New York City high school.

The authors Michael Johanek and John Puckett recap their effort with the closing question: "How does Covello's theory and practice of community school speak meaningfully to the problem of American's hastening retreat from the public sphere?"

"Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School" is a tough academic slog covering the first days of the community school movement, as envisioned by the education theorist John Dewey, and the way it dovetailed with the early 20th Century reform movement in the United States.

It discusses, in adequate detail, certain preliminary thrusts at integrating a school's efforts into the goals of the surrounding community, and their varying degrees of success.

But mostly, and as the title suggests, the book returns to Leonard Covello, an Italian immigrant convinced of education's value to any newcomer's development, and his efforts at applying community school principles in the well-defined terminus of East Harlem, New York City.

The book demonstrates the verity of Emerson's platitude that, "An institution is the shadow of one man," by tracing Covello's efforts at opening a school for the underserved area, teaching Italian to the children of immigrants from Italy, and grooming enough students to generate at least one formidable star -- Vito Marcantonio.

Marcantonio gave Covello the nickname by which two generations of high school boys would come to know him - "Pop."

More importantly, he helped his old mentor construct a new public high school on the banks of the East River, secured countless employees from the Depression-era Works Projects Administration to staff it, and stood guard when the experiment came in for conservative attacks.

The meat of the book covers the very specific work Covello and his team did implicating Franklin into the troubled neighborhood's affairs.

These included a sociological mapping of immigrant focal points, exhaustive surveys of area businesses, clean-up campaigns, storefront community centers, communal gardens, parades, dances, and conferences on racial tolerance crucial in a neighborhood where Italians, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, and slivers of other groups cohabitated uneasily.

The book makes clear that putting these ideas in play turned out to be a lot harder in practice than they were to write about in theory.

There is admiration for Covello and his dream, but no whitewashing of his shortcomings nor the fact that the Franklin experiment was largely over even before he retired in 1956.

There is fair analysis of the political winds buffeting attempts at improving East Harlem through the direction of a scholastic hub.

As the progressive '30s gave way to the World War, the ensuing conservative era, and Marcantonio's unseating in Congress, the very idea of "community school" carried the unpopular baggage of socialism and Covello's wings were clipped accordingly.

Finally, the authors draw conclusions about how the failure speaks to education in America today and suggest the circumstances of Covello's time prevailed over principles which were not only sound, but of enduring value.