The movement for community controlled schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville

In 1967, parents in Ocean-Hill and Brownsville said: enough. Fourteen years after Brown vs. Board of Education, New York City schools remained deeply segregated. The neighborhood, like others in New York City, had experienced a rapid and comprehensive demographic shift: Black and Puerto Rican families moved in, seeking affordable housing, as white and Jewish families departed.

Local schools simply weren’t meeting community needs. Black teachers were few and far between, and a civil service exam which required an in-person interview—later abandoned as irreparably racist—prevented ambitious educators of color from advancing to supervisory rules. Historian Jerald Podair describes unacceptable disparities in the New York City public school system in the 1960s:

In the city's schools during the mid 1960s, the black dropout rate was twice that of the rate among the student body as a whole. Blacks constituted approximately 30 percent of the city's student population in 1966, but earned only 2.3 percent of the academic diplomas. The average Harlem sixth grader was 2 years behind grade level in reading. At P.S. 271, the flagship school of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district, 73 percent of the pupils were below grade level in reading, 84 percent in math. The outlook was little better for blacks teachers and staff: they constituted only 8 percent of the teaching staff, and only 2.8 percent of the supervisors in New York schools at mid decade.

Meanwhile, by the mid-1960s, families in Brownsville had established activist networks and successful community organizing initiatives, including the Brownsville Community Council, a powerful coalition of neighborhood advocacy groups.

In 1967, parents throughout the city, including Ocean Hill-Brownsville, would wait no longer for reform. They demanded the right to control personnel, finances, and curriculum in the public schools that served their own communities.

The New York City Board of Education, with support from the Ford Foundation, agreed to establish a community-elected board to control the schools in East New York and two other distrincts. Teachers and administrators in the experimental system experimented with Montessori-style kindergarten, dissolving grade levels, and abolishing grading, and rejecting standardized tests. Led by the African American Teachers Association, they advocated a value system rooted in “collective work and responsibility,” “cooperative economics,” “willingness to challenge authority,” and “curiosity.” 

Conflict erupted between the community-elected board, who sought to control personnel decisions, and the city’s teacher’s union (the United Federation of Teachers), which saw independent schools as a threat. The resulting citywide teacher’s strike generated counterprotests by students and teachers who attended or supported the experimental schools. Union pickets were protected by a massive police presence—at one point, three thousand police officers were reported to have been dispatched to our own neighborhood school to “guard” union members—and police violently attacked and arrested students, teachers, reporters, and protestors, including children and pregnant women. 

After the strike, activist teachers continued to imagine new models for community-based, collective political leadership and alternative education. One of these educators was Jitu Weusi, founder of The East, a community center, school, and performance space rooted in pan-African principles. Another important legacy was the Brownsville Community Development Corporation, now best known for its BMS Family Health and Wellness Centers. Serving tens of thousands of Brownsville residents, BMS seeks to “enable every individual and family in the communities we serve to achieve total health and wellness.”


Charles S. Isaacs, Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville : a Teacher’s Education, 1968-69. Excelsior Editions, 2014.
buy | preview | Brooklyn Public Library 

School Colors Podcast, “Episode 3: The Third Strike.” School Colors is a production of Brooklyn Deep, the citizen journalism project of the Brooklyn Movement Center. Made possible by support from the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Audio and transcript available.

Caroline Loomis, “ “As far as I’m concerned, they’re on strike because they’re against me”: Children’s Voices in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Community Control Struggle, 1968-69.” Theory, Research, and Action in Urban Education. Vol 5, Issue 1: Spring 2017.

Website for The Brooklyn Five: five women who as teenagers witnessed New York City’s historic, 1968-69 United Federation of Teachers Strike. Sonia Cotto, Cleaster Cotton, Sufia DeSilva, C. Monifa Edwards, and Veronica Gee.

Mike Stivers, “Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Fifty Years Later,” Jacobin Magazine

“Fifty years and counting: Lessons from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teacher’s Strike,” presented by Brooklyn Historical Society. Featuring: Charles Isaacs, Monifa Edwards (student, JHS 271), and historian Heather Lewis.

Marilyn Gittell Digital Archive, New Media Lab, City University of New York