John Simon was a student in the late 1960s. Caught up in the idealism of the era, he was convinced that one person can make a difference somewhere. About the time that he was taking part in the anti-DeGaulle riots in Paris—he was purportedly in Europe to do postgraduate work in literature—he read Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The self-described middle-class Jewish boy was riveted by the insight he gained into the experience of poor blacks growing up in America and decided that he should return and do something about it.
No more unlikely person could have walked into the slums of New York in 1970 to help the most incorrigible problem kids of the city. The children he targeted to help were chronic juvenile criminals with drug and alcohol problems, almost all illiterate. On the other hand, Simon says, "My childhood was filled with Little League and Boy Scouts, good grades and unrequited crushes. I never threw a punch in anger, and the only place I showed signs of aggressiveness was in the classroom, where harassed teachers were forced constantly to remind me not to wave my hand in their face."
He began to work as a volunteer in an Upper West Side youth center and was pleased to see kids who had been given up by the school system responding to his attention. He took to tutoring teenagers who wanted to read and then began looking into their family lives.
Simon was eventually made aware of a welfare scam that was destroying the lives of the kids he had begun to care about. In a city where onerous taxes and absurd rent control laws had destroyed much available housing, well-connected landowners were making a bundle off of "welfare hotels"—actually hovels—exempted from rent controls, and supported from the city's housing fund. Simon's efforts to help community members to take over management of their own abandoned buildings helped to establish the community's trust in him.
One day, late in January 1973, he went to complain to the principal of the school where several of the kids he worked with at the youth center were failing to learn. The principal explained that no one wants to work with kids who are potentially violent and almost always truant in their classrooms. Simon protested, and the administrator told him to put up or shut up.
Simon decided to put up and was hired (at $5,000 a year) to teach a small group of unwanted pupils, even though he had no teacher's credentials. He insisted on a few ground rules, including the right to set his own guidelines and to hold classes away from the main school. Soon he had a classroom in an unused portion of a church building and set about learning how to help kids who were truant more than present and often stoned if they did come to school.
Simon's strategy in working with his kids, poor and mostly minorities, was to put up with just about anything if he could get them to do some serious study. His students, junior high school age, started to respond. Sitting around in an unregimented, unglamorous room, filled with used overstuffed furniture, the incorrigibles began to develop interests in books and even math.
But it would be a mistake to envision an idyllic scene with ex-junkies turning into scholars. Many of the kids continued in their pursuits of criminal and chemical thrills. Fights broke out every day. Simon himself was attacked by a youth with a knife, and an axe murder was once only narrowly averted. The kids were adept at pushing him to his limits.
Simon told REASON that the major difference between his approach and the public school approach was a matter of choice. He does not force anybody to go to his classes, and the options within the classroom are much clearer than in public schools. There are no orderly rows of square desks; kids can get up and move to another area whenever they feel like it; and if a student feels like working on his math all day, Simon doesn't force a book on him.
The young self-educated educator has slowly built up a reputation of success. He estimates that 85 percent of the students who participate in his program go on to graduate from high school, compared to about 30 percent of those in the same category who do not receive the attention and benefit of Simon's methods. His students, on the average, jump more than two years in performance on the standardized tests that New York City schools give every year. And his accomplishments come at incredible savings. For the '80–'81 year, his cost per pupil was under $3,000, compared to the Board of Education's figure of over $8,000. Over half of the $3,000 per pupil comes from private sources. In fact, it has been private contributions that have kept his program alive. A particularly important grant came from the John Hay Whitney Foundation early in the school's life, when they gave him support to write the book To Become Somebody (Houghton Mifflin, 1982) about his experience.
Today, there are three spin-offs of his original school with over 100 students. After initial problems they are all doing well, and their examples have apparently changed the thinking of many public educators.
And what has become of the fiery-eyed idealist who walked into New York to change the injustices of society? Well, his criticism of the school system is not so vehement lately, and with the respect he is getting from the educational establishment has come a willingness on his part to work with the system. An observer can only hope that he is not co-opted by the machinery of government schools. But no matter what happens in the future, John Simon as an individual has done what the entire bureaucracy of the New York City school system could not.
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: One-Room School Master".