EAST HARLEM — An independent nursery that helped introduce pre-K to the New York and challenged the city to give parents more control of their children's education is turning 50.
The East Harlem Block Nursery was founded in 1965, during the midst of the Civil Rights movement when Latino and African American parents were protesting segregation and saw community-run schooling as an alternative.
It was a grassroots movement, started by activist Carmen Ward by knocking on strangers’ doors and asking them to participate.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” she said. “We were just a group of neighborhood parents who wanted to do something new.”
That group was made up of mostly Puerto Rican parents, many of whom didn’t have high school diplomas. They joined forces with a group of young teachers who were disenfranchised with the public education system to create the nursery on 215 East 106th Street, where it still stands.
On Saturday, they will host a block party on 106th Street to celebrate their golden anniversary.
“The founding impulse for the nursery was initially a school where their language and culture would be respected,” said Tom Roderick, a former teacher at EHBN who wrote a book about its history. “They felt public schools didn’t respect their language and culture so they were very excited when they got this opportunity.”
What made the nursery unique at the time was that they were run entirely by the parents. They sat on the board, were in charge of hiring and firing teachers, and even sat in the classrooms.
Many of them ended up working for in the city schools system as teacher’s aids and, when they got their degree, became teachers, Ward said.
Even though the nursery was separate from the Board of Education, the idea of parents running a school frightened the teacher’s union because they did not like the idea of parents being able to fire them, Roderick said.
“I felt sort of energized, it energized everybody,” Ward said. “All of a sudden people had a voice and everybody felt like they had a say in things. It changed the neighborhood in the sense that it empowered people.”
Because they were a nursery and had independent funding — from President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty program that they received through a local organization called Aspira — they were not part of the city’s school or daycare systems.
As the children graduated from the nursery the parents opened an elementary school for the students to continue their education.
But when the Vietnam War started the nursery lost funding and they became part of the city’s daycare system, Roderick said.
“Schools didn’t have pre-K or kindergarten for the most part,” he said. “Daycare had been set up to help poor mothers to watch their kids while they were at work. It was more of a babysitting program than an education program.”
EHBN changed that. They fought against city bureaucracy for more the parent control. Although they had few political connections they had to fight politically to maintain control of their school, he added.
What resulted was more of a focus on education, early childhood, and more parent involvement in public education. There were no parent coordinators before the nursery came along, Roderick said.
Today East Harlem Block Nursery is made up of three pre-K centers, including the one on 106th Street. The elementary school was absorbed by the Department of Education and later closed.
As their 50th anniversary approaches, they are going back to their roots, said EHBN’s director Frank Alvarado.
They want to offer a job-training program to parents and get them more involved in the school. The goal is to have more parents work at the nurseries like they did when they began.
Saturday’s block party will be a celebration of the former founders, like Ward, teachers, like Roderick, and alumni. They will close off 106th Street from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and have live music, food and family-friendly events.
“I think it’s a wonderful accomplishment,” Roderick said. “The survival of the school for all those years is a credit to the dedication of that initial group of parents and the passion they’ve spread to successive generations.”