Our second entrant into the Fifth Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest is Rachel Klepper, who takes us back to New York City’s Yorkville neighborhood in the late 1940s to examine white, Black, and Latinx parents’ complicated embrace of an after-school program.
At Public School 151, in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, children from the surrounding schools gathered each afternoon with the Yorkville Youth Council (YYC), a program co-founded in 1947 by public and private actors seeking to experiment with after-school education. In the same classrooms where children followed teachers’ instructions to learn reading or math during the day, after 3:00 p.m. they rejected the confines of their desks to sit cross-legged on the floor and paint on large pieces of paper. They displayed and sold their art at public events. They played on the playground and joined gender-divided clubs. Some chose to attend the homework center, where they could ask for help with their assignments. Through each of these activities, leaders encouraged group cooperation and friendships among the children. The YYC saw existing school sites as the place for alternative learning to continue after the final bell rang, opening new possibilities for what education in a public school building could look like. Together, the Board of Education and private philanthropists redefined the boundaries of an urban elementary school in the 1940s and 1950s, offering curriculum, teaching methods, and leadership that contrasted with, or built upon, the school day.
The Yorkville Youth Council relied on school administrators, philanthropists, and parents’ shared embrace of after-school time as a place to shape educational opportunities in New York City. By the 1960s the YCC served 1,500 children from age 3-12 at five school sites. Although urban schools are most centrally portrayed as academic institutions, they overlap with and depend upon recreation and social service agencies to fully impact children. As a result, public schools have long relied on private funding, especially in their creation of experimental programs and their provision of resources to children experiencing poverty. As ideas about children’s needs, and about the issues faced by their neighborhoods, changed over time, educators and city residents continued to debate how best to work together and share responsibility for care, education, and socialization.
The main resource that the New York City Board of Education provided to the YYC was use of its school buildings. They did not allocate much money to community programs, but could provide access to the spaces that they already had, which were often empty in the afternoons. Although New Yorkers had experimented with community use of schools in the early 1900s, in 1947 only a small percentage of schools partnered with community members or organizations to stay open past the end of the day for supplemental programs. However, the Board of Education’s Division of Community Education envisioned a new model. Mark McCloskey and Hyman Sorokoff, who ran the division, spoke of their programming expansion plans in their publication, “Schools and Neighbors in Action.” They illustrated the value of growing the role of schools with a cartoon of a school building represented as an island. McCloskey and Sorokoff presented two options: the island could remain isolated from the surrounding land, and thus empty and desolate, or it could be served by bridges that would allow children to move back and forth into the vibrant building all day and night. These contrasting images, with the authors’ obvious preference for the latter, symbolized their belief in how after-school programs might reshape New York City schools in the mid-twentieth century.
Just like a bridge connecting an island to the mainland, The Division of Community Education saw after-school programs as features intended to alter the landscape around them. In this time period the Board of Education, along with the philanthropists and parents that supported YYC, grew concerned about juvenile delinquency in the neighborhood. The Yorkville neighborhood had once been predominantly German but by the 1940s included a variety of white, working-class European as well as Black and Puerto Rican communities. For a short time Yorkville was relatively diverse, racially and economically. As in other cities after World War II, adult residents feared a rise in crime and poor social behavior among teenagers. While some new programs sought to work with those young people, others, like the YYC, focused on the prevention of delinquency in even younger children. They were “worried about the unruly behavior of school-age children, many of whom were locked out of apartments while their mothers worked.” The alternative space of after-school programming stood in contrast to children’s freedom outside. The YYC saw their program not just as custodial care, but rather filling simultaneous needs for childcare, personal development, and citizenship education that would help children avoid misbehavior.
While the YYC sought to enroll the working-class public school children who it deemed to otherwise be “running the streets,” they also included private school children, whose parents had helped to start the program and provided funding for the staff and supplies. These white, upper class, mostly female parents engaged in traditional fundraising practices to encourage donations, such as hosting dinners, art sales, or other events. In 1951 they published and sold copies of a cookbook titled “Cook and Be Merry: Yorkville Menus from the Old World Adapted to the Tempo of Today.” Sharing basic recipes from many different countries, the cookbook reflected their simplified ideas of ethnic unity while appealing to middle- and upper-class women for monetary support. The YCC needed to appeal to these women to maintain funding for resources. The YYC was an avenue for them to take action in their neighborhood, blending their sense of responsibility to their families and to their city by creating a space for their own children alongside others that they believed needed their help.
Bringing together both public and private school children made the YYC unique among after-school activities in public school buildings. This was an intentional part of the mission to decrease “violent resentment” between children of different classes and backgrounds in Yorkville. YYC leadership believed that in an after-school, play-based setting, children could freely cooperate and build understanding between racial and ethnic groups. They could learn about one another without pressure by practicing music or sports together. Like the Board of Education administrators that they worked with, the private school parents who funded and volunteered for the YYC used this color-blind rhetoric of cooperation to obscure the power dynamics that existed in their public-private partnership.
Notably absent from the equation were the Black and Latinx parents of children who attended. These parents relied on the program for child care or educational opportunities and chose to send their children, but they were not credited with contributing to the program in the way that white, wealthier parents were. This was especially significant because the language of juvenile delinquency, which was shared by the YYC’s public and private advocates, became more racialized in the 1950s. Spurred by criminal justice policies as well as rhetoric from children’s institutions, white New Yorkers started to more closely associate criminal behavior with Black and Latinx children and youth. This bias underlay the YYC’s perspective on Yorkville and its needs.
As the YYC grew, it gave public school leaders and neighborhood residents a means to categorize which children needed supervision or learning in the evenings and which did not. They were more likely to consider children of color to be threats to the neighborhood, and thought these children would benefit most from the influence of additional educators in the evenings, centering these children in their descriptions of who the YYC could help. Even though YYC leaders admitted children of different races and believed that the program could promote cooperation between the neighborhood’s diverse population, they were still influenced by racist conceptions of which children were most dangerous on city streets, and which parents had resources to contribute to the program. The YYC, therefore, exhibited both the desire of wealthier Yorkville residents to control the experiences of other children in the neighborhood, as well as the conviction that the power of play could create needed connections between children.
A 1974 report on the YYC’s work described their approach as providing “structured freedom.” This phrase stresses two aspects of the goals that united private school parents and public schools in their embrace of after-school programs. Both groups saw YYC activities as learning opportunities that would create happier and more responsible children, through freedom not otherwise available in public schools. And yet, who did the structuring of that freedom? As in many public schools, it was the parents and administrators with the most power who made these choices. Through after-school, wealthy residents and Board of Education administrators worked together in the 1940s to set up new spaces that would structure the lives of New York City’s children for a greater portion of the day.
The story of the Yorkville Youth Council brings to mind many similar programs that exist today. Parents look to after-school programs for supervision during the work-day, academic progress, or cultural, social, and physical enrichment. School systems, non-profits, and federal or state governments propose after-school as a strategy to reduce educational inequities and improve outcomes for children experiencing poverty. In today’s educational landscape, as in that of the past, after-school is a unique place to analyze the partnerships that form around children’s spaces. With myriad goals and potential models, they don’t have one responsible entity or funding source. Instead, they bring groups together under a mix of shared and diverging goals and reflect hierarchies of city power. The YYC offers an example of this tenuous, yet pivotal, embrace and allows us to consider the legacy of programs that shape children’s experience of their schools, communities, and neighborhoods.
Rachel Klepper is a PhD candidate in History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is currently writing her dissertation on the history of after-school programs in public schools, non-profits, and community organizations in mid-twentieth century New York City.
Featured Image (at top): Angelo Rizzuto, “Cardboard Stair Sledding in New York City,” 1956, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
 Catharine Mackenzie, “Community Recreation,” New York Times, 1947, sec. Magazine.
 “Community Centers: Paintings Displayed,” New York Amsterdam News, City Edition, May 27, 1961.
 Mildred G. McClosky, Youth into Adult: Nine Selected Youth Programs (New York: National Commission on Resources for Youth, 1974).
 Margaret Hickey, “Play Centers Substitute for City Streets,” Ladies’ Home Journal (New York: Meredith Corporation, October 1954).
 McClosky, Youth into Adult; Hickey, “Play Centers Substitute for City Streets.”
 Mark McCloskey and Hyman Sorokoff, Schools and Neighbors in Action (Oceana Publications, 1951).
 Pamela J. Wridt, “Childhoods in Place and Placeless Childhoods: An Historical Geography of Young People in Yorkville and East Harlem, 1940–2000” Ph.D. diss., (City University of New York, 2004).
 Ruth Carson, “More School Time for your Money: In Some Forward-Looking Towns, Schools Stay Open Almost Round the Clock, Winter and Summer, for Many Kinds of Community Activities,” Parents’ Magazine & Better Homemaking (Des Moines: Meredith Corporation, 1962).
 Yorkville Youth Council, Inc., ed., Cook and Be Merry: Yorkville Menus from the Old World Adapted to the Tempo of Today (New York: Yorkville Youth Council, Inc., 1951).
 Mary Jean Kempner and Edna Woolman Chase, “People and Ideas: The Young for the Young: The New York Parents League,” Vogue (New York: Condé Nast, 1949).
 For more, see Carl Suddler, Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York, (New York: NYU Press, 2019).
 McClosky, Youth into Adult.
 “Executive Summary: Afterschool in Communities of Concentrated Poverty” Afterschool Alliance, http://www.afterschoolalliance.org/AA3PM/Concentrated_Poverty_Executive_Summary.pdf.