Theodore Roosevelt High School (New York City)
Theodore Roosevelt High School was a large public high school in Bronx, New York. Opened in November 1918 and fully named Roosevelt High School, it was renamed Theodore Roosevelt High School soon after President Theodore Roosevelt died in January 1919. Conducted within the building of school PS 31, the high school's courses focused on accounting or secretarial skills, drew snowballing enrollment, and gained classrooms in three other schools' buildings. Theodore Roosevelt High School entered its own building—newly built at 500 East Fordham Road—in 1928.
Sitting at the southern edge of Fordham University's campus and the northern edge of the Bronx's Belmont section, the high school's building became a community venue for politicians' speeches and organizations' meetings. The school colors were red and white, and the sports teams were the Rough Riders—nickname of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry led by Colonel Roosevelt before he became US President—though the mascot became a teddy bear. Its 1930s and 1940s students participated extracurricularly at roughly 50% or New York City's lowest rate, yet Roosevelt well performed its educational role, preparing students less for college than for the basic workforce, the high school's enduring image even in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, other high schools' students might meet graduation requirements via night classes or summer sessions at Roosevelt—where illicit drugs were newly prevalent. Heroin usage by young men in gangs dissolved ethnic hostilities whereby local Italians had kept down Roosevelt's numbers of blacks and Puerto Ricans, among whom drug use likewise became common after 1960. Exiting the 1970s, after national stagflation and city financial crisis, then the Bronx's urban decay and white flight amid soaring crime rates, the high school was among New York's worst, its dropout rate amid the crack epidemic at the city's highest in the 1980s.
In the early 1990s, a new principal, Thelma Baxter, led Theodore Roosevelt High School into a remarkable turnaround, a revival cut short by her 1999 promotion to superintendent of schools in central Harlem, reinitiating deterioration at the Bronx high school, ordered by the city's Department of Education in 2001 to shut down. In 2002, it accepted its final freshman class, graduating at 3% in 2006. Theodore Roosevelt High School then closed. Several small public high schools, having opened since 2002, now occupy the building, Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus.
In the early 20th century, American educators sought to expand schooling and extend school enrollment into adolescence, seen as a prime opportunity for proper socialization, especially to assimilate the rapidly growing immigrant populations in cities. Newly defining or even creating the transition from childhood to adulthood, high schools became venues where youth vied for control over identity, behavior, and allegiance, while the 19th-century esteem for Protestant respectability eroded amid emerging quests for intricate cosmopolitanism. In a multiethnic city like New York, the high school was intentionally employed as a fundamental agent of socialization. Entering 1918, the Bronx had two high schools: Morris and Evander Childs.
The Roosevelt High School was organized on 14 November 1918 from the commercial classes comprising a Morris High School annex conducted in PS 31 at 144 Street and Mott Avenue, thereupon Roosevelt's location. Initially led by teacher Edward M Williams, Roosevelt's 830 students got their first principal—William R Hayward—on 9 December 1918. On 8 January 1919, two days after President Theodore Roosevelt died, the city's Board of Superintendents proposed a name change, approved two days later by the Board of Education. The next day, principal Hayward announced the Theodore Roosevelt High School, and sought its namesake's spirit to preside over it. Rapidly growing, Theodore Roosevelt High School gained its own annex—16 classrooms in PS 47—on 22 January 1919.
From 1900 to 1920, New York City's fastest growing borough was the Bronx, whose population grew over two and a half times in that period. At 1922, the Bronx Board of Trade concluded, "It is probably due to the fact that its housing conditions are of the best that The Bronx for years has had the lowest death rate and the highest birth rate of any of the Boroughs". Nearly $457 million was spent on "building operations" in the Bronx from 1901 to 1920—some $24 million per year—but 1921 brought a spending record, over $75 million. By 1922, Theodore Roosevelt had over 1460 commercial students, focusing on either accounting or secretarial skills in courses ranging from one to four years. A second annex was created on 25 September 1925 (in PS 70), a third on 1 February 1926 (in PS 73), and a fourth on 1 February 1928 (in PS 39 in Manhattan).
By 1920, there had been a call to construct for Theodore Roosevelt High School its own building. Entering its ninth year, Roosevelt carried over 150 teachers and 4000 students. Yet ground had been broken on 18 May 1926, and the cornerstone laid on 17 November 1926, for Theodore Roosevelt High School's building, which opened in September 1928. The high school was in the Bronx on Fordham Road, across the street from Fordham University, founded in 1841, whose sprawling campus of Collegiate Gothic buildings was several street blocks east of the Grand Concourse. From 1920 to 1930, rented mostly by affluent doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, upscale apartments were rapidly built along the Grand Concourse—whose apartments thereupon became highly coveted—where up to some 80% of residents were Jews, leading the Bronx's rapid population growth, while subway lines were built for rapid transit into Manhattan.
Starting in 1929, the Great Depression damaged many livelihoods in the Bronx, whose Democratic Party boss, Edward J Flynn, had close ties with Franklin D Roosevelt—cousin of Theodore Roosevelt and previously New York state's governor—who became US President in 1933. US government then heavily subsidized public works in the Bronx, where the Bronx Central Post Office, the Triborough Bridge, the Whitestone Bridge, and Orchard Beach were built, while parks and schools were revitalized, in the 1930s. Reachable locally by trollies, Orchard Beach, unlike the carnival atmosphere of Brooklyn's Coney Island, had elegant bathhouses, and was called by a community leader "The Riviera of the Bronx". Yet even in the 1940s, plenty farmland remained in the Bronx.
Theodore Roosevelt High School's neighborhood was mostly of American whites, whereas the predominant minority groups were more recently arrived Irish, Italians, and Jews, while there were very few blacks. Having fled potato famine in the 19th century and found jobs in America largely laying railroads, the Irish were the earliest immigrants and frequently menaced Jews, whose families, however, were usually fervent about education. In 1930, though a "white high school", Roosevelt became New York City's first high school to employ a nonwhite teacher of home economics once Sarah L Delany, holding a masters degree in education from Columbia University, and knowing it far easier for a bureaucracy to deny her than to eject her, maneuvered to be hired without administration having met her. Delany taught at Roosevelt and two other "excellent" New York City high schools until she retired in 1960. Around then, Roosevelt's first mathematics teams were organized by newly hired teacher Alfred Posamentier, who soon left to join academia and spearhead efforts to improve mathematics teachers' effectiveness.
In the 1930s and 1940s, some 80% of graduates from New York City high schools had been extracurricularly active, as in sports or clubs. Participation was highest, 99%, at Bay Ridge High School, a girls' school in Brooklyn, and was lowest, 56%, at Theodore Roosevelt High School. Many parents, especially first- or second-generation immigrants, wanted their daughters away from men, a factor apparently quite important to Italians, comprising nearly one in three of Bay Ridge High School's students, who commuted from a wide area since parents viewed this school as "safe". Though Bay Ridge High School's neighborhood was heavily American white—as were one in four of this high school's students—perhaps faculty encouraged universal involvement and prevented spontaneous ethnic segregation, for both Italian girls and the few black girls participated extracurricularly far more extensively and prominently than elsewhere, a great involvement starkly absent from black boys at Roosevelt.
In 8 October 1939, Wendell Willkie, a Republican Party candidate campaigning for US Presidency in the 1940 election, gave a speech at Theodore Roosevelt High School, and died that day in 1944. On a rainy day, 21 October 1944, campaigning for reelection, President Franklin D Roosevelt rode by motorcade through the Bronx tiredly waving, while children in onlooking crowds apprehended a connection to a world outside the Bronx. President FDR's death in 1945 severed for many adults, including some who taught at Theodore Roosevelt, a sense of continuity with the past. In 1947, the anti-Communist group Catholic War Veterans of New York alleged that the city's Board of Education was aiding subversives by letting American Youth for Democracy, allegedly Communists, hold meetings in Theodore Roosevelt High School's building.
Theodore Roosevelt High School was in the Bronx's Belmont section, a Little Italy represented highly in Roosevelt's student body. Yet altogether, Roosevelt students came from a variety of Bronx neighborhoods, including the more affluent apartment buildings along the Grand Concourse, largely occupied by Jews. In the 1950s, the music group Dion and the Belmonts emerged from the Belmont section, while Roosevelt continued to prepare students not for college but for jobs upon graduation. Roosevelt students of the 1960s included Ace Frehley, later the lead guitarist of KISS, and Chazz Palminteri, later the actor whose play A Bronx Tale was Palminteri's childhood memoir based in Belmont, and spun into the 1993 screenplay A Bronx Tale, Robert De Niro's directing debut. Although later actor Jimmie Walker gained his diploma from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he completed the requirements in 1965 by attending night classes at Theodore Roosevelt High School, which also offered summer sessions that drew students from other high schools.
During the 1950s, US government's policy shifted Puerto Rico's economy from agriculture to manufacturing, whereby many emigrated for work in New York City, where emigrant Southern blacks and Caribbean blacks increasingly emerged from poverty, a progress that halted around 1970 amid rising stagflation and US government's focus on the Vietnam War. Via crisis in the New York City economy at 1975 and looting in the New York City blackout of 1977, many Bronx neighborhoods went aflame, leaving many businesses and buildings abandoned amid a devastating urban decay in the late 1970s. From 1970 to 1980, the city's population fell from eight to seven million while white flight ensued, although crimes ranging from vandalism to murder soared.
Previously uncommon within the city's ethnic minority groups, illegal drug use and selling became common in the 1960s. By 1967, illegal drug selling was prevalent in Theodore Roosevelt High School. Arrival of crack cocaine in the 1980s escalated the socioeconomic disaster in the Bronx, whose high schools, Roosevelt degenerating with them, were thought by many local college educators to be the city's very worst. During the 1980s, New York City's most violent section was often the Bronx's Morris Heights, policed by the 46th Precinct, whose police officers, some reputedly dumped on the precinct for being corrupt, included ones aiding illegal drug dealers and menacing residents. Roosevelt is protected by the 48th Precinct, but threats in the 46th Precinct's jurisdiction, adjacent westward, could threaten Roosevelt, the zone high school for neighborhoods policed by the 46th. While many of the city's educational administrators and officials maneuvered to benefit their own families with school jobs, the children's education got insufficient attention. In 1984, Theodore Roosevelt High School had New York City's highest dropout rate.
In 1986, Roosevelt had a new principal, Paul B Shapiro, and the high school began spending an extra $750 thousand—atop its normal budget of $10 million—to raise school attendance. At 1990, Roosevelt was among the first several of New York City's schools to begin using metal detectors at students' entrances, though Roosevelt students could sneak in metal weapons, anyway. Versus many other schools', Roosevelt's students were beset more harshly by poverty, and by the specters of AIDS and gang violence. And nearly one in three Roosevelt students, speaking English as a second language, needed help learning English. Or a student could enter Roosevelt unable to read at all, and, once there, soon cease attending. Some students kept attending but barely involved themselves in the schoolwork. Often failing to graduate in four years, or even in five years as "superseniors", some became "ultraseniors", perhaps still Roosevelt students at age 21, the age where nongraduating students are dropped by the school system. Among New York state's worst schools, Theodore Roosevelt High School was placed on the New York State Department of Education's list failing schools. New York City educational bureaucracy shielded anyone from blame for such deterioration.
In 1992, Thelma B Baxter—whose mother had been Roosevelt's valedictorian in 1923—became Roosevelt's principal. Baxter extended class hours, and ensured that students retained the same teacher in a subject for both semesters during a school year. Though finding "100 percent" of the students poor, she found parents' problems no excuse for staff allowing students to do poorly. Despite having "basically the same school", Baxter ensured that they "put tougher standards in place". Though Baxter was "pugnacious" like the school's namesake, students often stopped by her office to talk, seek advice, or embrace, and Baxter frequently walked the halls while accosting students, newly prohibited from wearing hats inside the building. In a four-year span, Roosevelt students taking the math Regents exam rose from some 200 to over 500.
In January 1996, after three years of rising attendance, test scores, and graduation rate, Theodore Roosevelt High School left the state's list of failing schools, and Baxter was the subject of a New York Times editorial. During the next two years, the suspension rate fell some 50%. In September 1997, Baxter had begun "moral and efficacy" seminars where freshmen were shown videos and discussed issues of school attendance and right versus wrong. Roosevelt also began a "Saturday Institute" where some 500 middle-school students and their parents attended worshops and tutoring to help prepare for high school. At mayor Rudolf Giuliani's 1998 initiative to push students in high school beyond five years into night or weekend schools, Baxter pointed out the particular challenges that her students face—such as language barriers and parents returning with them to the Caribbean for significant periods—and asserted that she preferred to keep underperforming students in a "caring atmosphere".
In the early 1990s, Williams College, often ranked America's best liberal arts college, began an exchange program with Roosevelt. Taken from Roosevelt's honors program, and chaperoned by English teacher Frank Brown, select students periodically visited Williams' campus, and, demonstrating commitment to the program, then graduating from Roosevelt, received full scholarships to Williams. Meanwhile, in late 1998, coached by Frank Brown, Roosevelt's soccer team vied against Martin Luther King High School's in the championship game of Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL). During it, Roosevelt learned and immediately alerted PSAL that two of King's star players were ineligible, having played in Nigeria too many high-school seasons. After the game, Roosevelt sought not the 1998 boys soccer title but annulment of King's holding it. Denying the petitions, PSAL maintained that petitions must be filed before a game, a response that coach Brown and principal Baxter found unjust.
In September 1998, to implement at Roosevelt an afterschool program, The After-School Corporation had granted $200 thousand to Phipps Houses, which hired singer Russell Glover, once of the Boys Choir of Harlem, to create and direct it: Superior Effort Afterschool Liberates (SEAL). From 3pm to 5pm, SEAL included 14 activities involving about 400 of Roosevelt's roughly 4000 students. The highlight, as though inspired by Vegas and hip hop, was the "Russell Glover Show", three hours long, a revue—including break dancing, fashion show, gymnastics, karate, singing, and other performances, mostly by SEAL participants—that by April 1999, its fourth show, held in Roosevelt's gymnasium, drew a crowd of some 1000 Roosevelt students. A ninth grader remarked, "This show gets kids motivated. It gives you the idea that you can do something with your life". Finding "crossover value" in SEAL activities, Baxter commented, "To prepare to be academically successful, kids need to develop their bodies and minds". Actually, Glover mostly prepared students for job training or hunting. During Baxter's span at Roosevelt, its community partnerships rose from four to thirty. Although Roosevelt still lagged behind other New York City high schools, Roosevelt's rapid and remarkable turnaround brought Baxter wide renown.
In 1999, seeking to mimic throughout central Harlem her accruing successes at Theodore Roosevelt High School, principal Thelma Baxter accepted appointment as superintendent of School District 5, and thereby left Roosevelt. In 2000, Roosevelt returned to New York state's list of failing schools, graduating 33% of students in their fourth years, versus 50% as the citywide average. In 2001, the New York City Department of Education ordered the school, also considered violent, to begin the lengthy process of closure. The high school accepted its last class of freshman in 2002, and would shut down after graduation in 2006. While several small high schools opened within Roosevelt's building, Roosevelt occupied only the first and fourth of the building's four stories, and hosted about double the citywide average of reported incidents, ranging from loitering to felony assault.
In January 2004, apparently finding the city's Department of Education too nonchalant about the schools' condition, mayor Michael Bloomberg asserted responsibility for city's generally underperforming public schools, and announced that some, newly identified as "impact" schools, would get extra police presence. That month, a riot in Roosevelt's suspension center prompted reaction to list the school among the "Dangerous Dozen". Yet the school's violence had recently fallen, then resurged once the Department of Education placed the suspension center—intended for up to 20 students suspended from various Bronx high schools for infractions from vandalism to striking teachers—on the fourth floor of Roosevelt's building, but reduced its number of security staff. Still, during January, Roosevelt hosted 110 "criminal and disorderly incidents", although it was often not mentioned that many were committed in Roosevelt by students of other high schools.
In April 2004, mayor Bloomberg announced addition of Roosevelt, and three other schools, to the list of "impact" schools, especially violent, to get extra police presence. In June 2005, Roosevelt's student body down to some 1500 students and its building newly housing several small schools, mayor Bloomberg visited Roosevelt to announce before the news media that six schools, including Roosevelt, that had been made "impact" schools subsequently experienced sharp falls in crime. Others, too, found things calmer in the Roosevelt building, where, during that one year, felony assaults dropped from five to one, misdemeanor assaults from thirteen to six, and sexual assaults from three to zero. Meanwhile, the movement toward small schools, apparently performing better, gained favor by mayor Bloomberg's administration. Widely troubled, New York City's large high schools sustained a general policy of shutdown. On 30 June 2006, Roosevelt's final class graduated at the lowest rate among New York City's large high schools, 3%. Thereupon, the Theodore Roosevelt High School closed.
- Elsie B Goldsmith, "Schedule of schools: 1: Commercial education", pp 2–21, Directory of Opportunities for Vocational Training in New York City (New York: Vocational Service for Juniors, 1922), p 16.
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- Lloyd Ultan & Barbara Unger, Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictorial History of the Borough (Piscataway NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp 107–8, including quote from p 108: "Child, when I showed up that day—at Theodore Roosevelt High School, a white high school—they just about died when they saw me. A colored woman! But my name was on the list to teach there, and it was too late for them to send me someplace else. The plan had worked! Once I was in, they couldn't figure out how to get rid of me. So I became the first colored teacher in the New York City system to teach domestic science on the high school level. I spent the rest of my career teaching at excellent high schools! Between 1930 and 1960, when I retired, I taught at Theodore Roosevelt High School, which is on Fordham Road in the Bronx, then at Girls' High School in Brooklyn, and finally at Evander Childs High School, which is on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx".
- Harold Thau w/ Arthur Tobier, Bronx to Broadway: A Life in Show Business (New York: Applause Theater & Cinema Books, 2002), pp 32–3: "It wasn't until my father's business went into financial hemorrhage and all the help had to be let go that I got a close look at the downside of free enterprise. ... Every night for a year, with the meager receipts of the evening in a brown paper bag, I closed the door on a failing business and rode a cab up to the Bronx, asking myself: What could I do to help? How could I make a difference? I really didn't have the answers. No one seemed to have them. ... For a long time, a shroud of gloom lay over my soul. Theodore Roosevelt High School didn't help me much in this regard. It wasn't a progressive academic institution; it never was. The governing idea there was, 'Get these boys and girls out into the world and into jobs that'll permit them to survive' ". Google Books search with the term born leaves elusive Thau's birth year, yet p 28 shows a photograph and caption, viewable not at Google Books but via Amazon.com's Look Inside, indicating that he was barmitzvahed in 1947. This suggests his age 14—presumably starting high school—in 1948.
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- Mark Coultan, "Weak schools caned where winning counts", Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Nov 2006: "And they don't just name aircraft carriers after their presidents. There's the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, and the Eleanor Roosevelt High School. However, the Theodore Roosevelt High School closed this year. But there's a story to that. Theodore Roosevelt High, in the south Bronx, opened in 1919 and as the area descended into drug-fuelled despair, so did the school. An energetic principal, Thelma Baxter, revived the school in the 1990s but after she was promoted the school went downhill again. Schools are reflective of society, and America loves winners. Losers? Nobody wants to know. In Australia, struggling schools get extra help; in America, it's the best schools that get the money. The worst are told to improve, or close. The principals and teachers find new jobs, and the children are found new schools. Often three new schools occupy the same building".
- Editor, "Cloning Thelma Baxter", New York Times, 27 Jan 1996.
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- "Thelma Baxter", Zoominfo, Web access 11 Mar 2014: "Dr Thelma Baxter is a nationally recognized educational consultant on school reform and literacy. She is the retired Harlem school superintendent and principal of Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, NY. When this failing school achieved three years of improved test scores, graduation rates and attendance, the New York Times acknowledged her with a 1996 editorial entitled, 'Cloning Thelma Baxter'. Dr Baxter has taught at the collegiate level preparing other education administrators".
- "Crew's brigade to help failing schools", New York Daily News, 8 Sep 1999.
- New York School Boards, 1996;2:15: "Principal Thelma Baxter's explanation for the dramatic turnaround of Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, which was just removed from the state's list of failing schools, offers a valuable lesson. 'We are here with basically the same school', Baxter said. 'But we have put tougher standards in place'".
- Raphael Sugarman, "District chief has big hopes of repeating past successes", New York Daily News, 21 Sep 1999.
- Jeff Simmons, "Flunking schools make grade", New York Daily News, 23 Jan 1996.
- "Williams, MCLA announce teaching program", The William Record, 22 Sep 1998: "For the past several years Williams has also had a cooperative program with Mt Greylock Regional High School and Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. The program involves student and faculty exchanges between the two high schools and student teaching opportunities at Roosevelt for Williams students during Winter Study".
- Julian Garcia, "Roosevelt will appeal MLK ruling", New York Daily News, 15 Dec 1998.
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- Celeste Katz, "Bx riot HS may join list", New York Daily News, 24 Jan 2004.
- Elissa Gootman, "Principals say bad planning contributed to violence", New York Times, 24 Jan 2004.
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- David M Herszenhorn, "Crime is down in 6 schools on city's most-troubled list", New York Times, 23 Jun 2005.
- Clara Hemphill, "Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus", InsideSchools, Mar 2012.
Theodore Roosevelt High School's website was hosted at http://www.TR-HS.org, now inactive.