Inspiring Legacy of Leonard Covello
By Alfonso Guerriero Jr.
Someone needs to inform our politicians of the old adage it takes a village to raise a child before they continue to propose and ratify more ineffective educratic laws for our school system. Throughout the country, incumbents or those seeking public office continue to debate about how to resolve the problems of public education in America. Furthermore, whether one is a moderate conservative, ultra-liberal, a Tea Party member, or an independent; everyone has an opinion about the direction our nation’s school system must take in order to survive.
I would like to contribute to this debate by dropping a name: Leonard Covello. Leonard Covello (1887-1982) was an Italian immigrant from Avigliano in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy and settled with his parents and siblings in East Harlem, New York. Eventually Leonard won a scholarship to Columbia University and became a New York City Public School Teacher. As a teacher, he witnessed the struggles of Italian immigrants, and the difficult process of assimilation. From his experiences as an immigrant attending public school and later as an educator influenced by Anna C. Ruddy (an ardent social reformer) and later by the more radical social activism of Norman Thomas, Leonard Covello developed a vision to open a school in East Harlem.
In his autobiography The Heart Is the Teacher he declared “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.”
His hurtful experiences motivated Leonard to create a school that would serve the immigrant population and the community. His holistic philosophy professed that the advancement and survival of any society rely a great deal on cultivating a neighborhood through schools, regardless of ethnicity, religion or race. Leonard Covello’s concept uses schools as the core that keeps everything within a society proficient and innovative, otherwise it is doomed to enter the doldrums of history.
Nonetheless, in 1934, through his tenacity and commitment to public education for all, he became the principal of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem. The school became a beacon for teaching citizenship to its students, offered adult education courses especially to immigrants, and emphasized learning about other ethnic, religious and racial groups. While he was the principal at Benjamin Franklin he earned his PhD in Educational Sociology at New York University in 1944 and completed his doctoral dissertation, The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child: A Study of the Southern Italian Family Mores and Their Effect on the School Situation in Italy and America (1944, published in 1967). For several decades he advocated for public schools to serve the community and even went back to Italy to retire and continue to spread his convictions on public education until his death in 1982.
At the time of planning Benjamin Franklin High School, Leonard Covello, who became known as Pop by his students, caught the ear and support of two prominent politicians also of Italian descent, Congressman Vito Marcantonio and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Both knew the importance of getting votes in East Harlem’s Little Italy, but I would like to think they understood that the main purpose for public education is to serve its community, without using it as a political platform to further their own careers. Today, Benjamin Franklin High School at East 116th Street no longer exists (only the building remains) for it was unable to sustain Covello’s vision. There are too many reasons for why this occurred. Based on Covello’s model, however, a primary reason is because we have lost our direction of what the purpose of public education is.
There are politicians who seek cookie-cutter solutions to very complex problems in our nation’s school systems and this usually means immigrants and minorities are sacrificed. It also means that teachers are used as scapegoats for the reasons for the failure of public schools. For those who truly seek education reform in our country, why not examine the works of Leonard Covello and include his educational theory in the debate for improving public education. Perhaps the President and those running for office as well as leaders from state to city governments can learn from this Italian immigrant and educator.