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Bookmarked: Still in The Crossfire

With school funding in question and student protests growing, a new book on the assassinated Philadelphia education reformer Marcus Foster reminds us how long and difficult the fight has been.

On Friday, November 17, 1967, thousands of Philadelphia public school students, many of them inspired by the ideas of the black power movement, walked out of school and converged on School District headquarters on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Much like middle and high school students, who jointly walked out of their schools last Friday to protest political inaction on the massive budget cuts that threaten even basic school programming and seem likely to only heighten education inequality across the region, the 1967 students marched calmly and seriously to Center City.

Inside the school district building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, school board officials were debating—and about to approve—most of the students' demands, including an increase in black teachers and the teaching of African history.

The seeds of protest had been planted a few weeks before at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia, where new principal, Marcus Foster, had begun a substantial turnaround. In six months, he had catalyzed parents, community and civic activists, and teachers to substantially lift student expectations and student performance. Foster, who grew up in South Philly in the 1930s, had himself transcended the low expectations for black students—why excel at school if good jobs were off limits?—and had gone on to Cheyney State Teachers College before becoming a rising star of education reform.

Foster is the subject of the excellent new book In The Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform (Penn Press) by John P. Spencer, a professor of education at Ursinus College, which places the apparently never-ending question of how to improve our schools within the contexts of shifting demographics, economic change, and clashing ideologies. Spencer is particularly good setting Foster amidst the layers of civil rights and political reform of the 1960s—from self-help to desegregation to black power—and telling the story in plain language through Foster's real world tests at Dunbar Elementary in North Philly and the Octavius Catto School in West Philly.

His story reminds us of the sheer difficulty of achieving meaningful education reform.

At the improving Gratz, where Foster was working to instill the idea that students could achieve by working within the white-controlled system, black power activists were promoting a more radical vision. Which of these two ideologies were most represented at the student protest on November 17, isn't clear—it's likely that most students didn't have clearly defined ideologies—but the march was seen by the city's police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, as something to confront with force; Rizzo unleashed his officers to beat and brutalize the students. Foster's vision of careful, comprehensive reform had indeed been lost in crossfire. The students, he said, "went down there to talk about their education and what everybody wound up talking about was police brutality."

The seemingly forgotten Foster reemerges on these pages as a determined, brilliant, and creative son of Philadelphia, whose thoughtful and nuanced approach to education was often overwhelmed by the blunt force of fundamentalism and barbarism. Having carried the overcrowded Gratz through a school expansion—imagine that!—requiring the demolition of white-owned row houses, Foster was given the Philadelphia Award; He was, after Marian Anderson and Leon Sullivan, only the third African-American to receive it. After a year as head of the School District's new Office of Community Affairs, where he elevated the voices of community and students, he was named superintendent of schools in Oakland, California, a city undergoing persistent racial conflict.

In Oakland, writes Spencer, Foster put forth policies that raised the expectations of students and empowered them to achieve, while holding teachers and the community accountable. But a wave of in-school violence undermined his approach. With wider community calls for law-and-order crackdowns in schools, Foster continued to advocate for the students, seeing them as victims of society. He nevertheless forged a careful compromise, better securing schools, while also trying to mend relationships between black students—and the black community—and police. This didn't sit well with the Black Panthers or with the college dropouts and escaped convicts of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a group of parochial quasi-radicals looking for an assassination to arouse the masses. They got Foster on November 6, 1973, three months before kidnapping Patty Hearst.