Leonard Covello

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Leonard Covello (November 26, 1887 - August 19, 1982) was an Italian-born American educator, most known as the founder and first principal of the Benjamin Franklin High School and for his work on behalf of the children of Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants.


Leonard Covello was born Leonardo Coviello in 1887 at Avigliano, in the Basilicata region of southern Italy. In 1890 his father, Pietro Covello, emigrated to the United States, leaving his wife and three children. Six years later, in 1896, the family was finally able to reunite in East Harlem, New York.[1]

Against all odds, Leonard Covello (as he was called at school in America) was able to assert himself in his studies, winning a Pulitzer scholarship at the high school that enabled him to attend Columbia University from 1907 to 1911 and graduate.

In 1913 he was hired as a teacher of French and Spanish at DeWitt Clinton High School.

With the entrance of the United States into World War I in 1917, Covello went to France where for his knowledge of the French language was assigned to duties as an interpreter and became a member of the Corps of Intelligence Police.,[2] conducting covert intelligence operations in Spain.

In 1920 Covello returned to his former position at DeWitt Clinton High School. Here he deepened his pedagogical ideas on the integration of young Italian-Americans. Covello challenged the practices that tended to separate the children from their culture and language, including their families and their communities of origin, as a prerequisite for their success in studies. As he recollected in his autobiography: "throughout my whole elementary school career, I do not recall one mention of Italy or the Italian language or what famous Italians there were in the world, with the possible exception of Columbus…. We soon got the idea that ‘Italian’ meant something inferior, and a barrier was erected between children of Italian origin and their parents…. We were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of our parents.”[3] In bilingualism and biculturalism Covello saw the means to facilitate the transition of children from immigrants to integrated citizens, without separating them from their communities or native culture, but on the contrary, instilling in them the pride of their roots.[4] Already in 1914 he had founded for this purpose "Il Circolo italiano" (The Italian Circle) at DeWitt Clinton.

In 1922, he created at DeWitt Clinton the Department of Italian, which he directed until 1926, when he was promoted to First Assistant in Modern Languages, a position he held until 1934.[5]

In 1934, the founding of Benjamin Franklin High School fulfilled his dream of creating in the East Harlem neighborhood a school organized around its educational theories.[6] Covello was not only the principal and leader of the school, but carried out an intensive work as lecturer in order to disseminate its pedagogical theories. From 1929 to 1942 he was Adjunct Professor at New York University, from which he received his Ph.D. in Education in 1944.

When in the 1940s, the neighborhood of East Harlem became increasingly Puerto Rican, Covelli fought in favor of racial integration and applied to the Puerto Rican community the same principles he had tested in the 1920s and 1930s with the children of Italian immigrants. After a Sept 29, 1945, riot between black and white students, he successfully worked to calm tempers.[7] At the invitation of Covello, Frank Sinatra visited the school, spoke about ethnic tolerance and sang Aren’t You Glad You’re You? as a sign of reconciliation.[8]

In 1956 Covello retired from his role of principal of Franklin High School and accepted an appointment as an educational consultant of the Puerto Rican Migration Division. In 1962 he worked for YMCA and in 1964 became director of the East Harlem Youth Career Information Conference.

Covello was a founding member of the American Italian Historical Association (1966).

In 1972, Leonard Covello returned to Italy, Sicily at the invitation of educator Danilo Dolci to apply its methods of education to disadvantaged children in Sicily.

Covello died August 19, 1982 in Messina, Italy.

Works of Leonard Covello[edit]

  • The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child (Leiden: Brill, 1967; Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972)
  • The Heart is the Teacher (New York: McGraw Hill, 1958)


  1. ^ Mary Elizabeth Brown, "Leonard Covello".
  2. ^ Mary Elizabeth Brown, "Leonard Covello"
  3. ^ Leonard Covello, The Heart Is the Teacher (New York: McGraw Hill, 1958), 29f.
  4. ^ Balch Institute For Ethnic Studies
  5. ^ Balch Institute For Ethnic Studies
  6. ^ Michael C. Johanek, Leonard Covello"
  7. ^ Mary Elizabeth Brown, "Leonard Covello".
  8. ^ The New York Times
  • Michael C. Johanek, Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School: Education As If Citizenship Mattered (Temple University Press, 2006).
  • Mary Elizabeth Brown, "Leonard Covello". In The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia, ed. Salvatore J. LaGumina, et al. (New York: Garland Pub., 2000), pp. 149–50

External links[edit]