The Story of Harlem Prep: Cultivating a Community School in New York City

By Barry M. Goldenberg

Editors' Note: This is part of a roundtable series,“New Histories of Education in New York City.” For an introduction and overview, click here.

One year after the struggle at IS 201 began, Harlem residents came together to create central Harlem’s only high school, the independent “Harlem Prep.” In our second post, Barry Goldenberg excavates the history of this “community school,” revealing the unlikely combination of corporate capital and community support that helped the institution graduate over 800 students – most of them dropouts from the public system – in just over a decade.

In the waning months of 1966, Harlem parents and activists stood in firm protest over the opening of Intermediate School 201 in Harlem. Promised by the city’s education leaders a new integrated school both in students and staff, parents and activists were outraged when neither of these promises were kept. Notably, over the past five decades, historians have aptly documented how, in result, parents and local activists protested to have their voices heard in the education of their children.[1] The story of I.S. 201 in which the local community battled with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the Board of Education is an important one about the racial tensions in New York City (and elsewhere), the frailty of political alliances, and, above all, about relationships between schools, education, and their communities.

A picture taken from an article on Harlem Prep in the Summer 1971 edition of The Lamp, a magazine printed by Standard Oil of New Jersey. University of Texas-Austin, Briscoe Center Archives.

A picture taken from an article on Harlem Prep in the Summer 1971 edition of The Lamp, a magazine printed by Standard Oil of New Jersey. University of Texas-Austin, Briscoe Center Archives.

However, just a few blocks away from I.S 201 in Harlem, one year later, began another story about a school and its relationship with the community that is not only decidedly different in tenor and scope, but has rarely been told: the story of Harlem Preparatory School.[2] An independent “community school” that existed in Central Harlem from 1967-1974, Harlem Prep, as it was popularly known, was made up of former high school “dropouts” (or more accurately, “forceouts” as the school’s headmaster Edward Carpenter preferred), recovering drug addicts, Vietnam War veterans, and older, non-traditional students including those with children.[3] Holding classes in an old supermarket that used blackboards as classroom dividers, and supported primarily by philanthropy and business, the school’s constant financial struggles and diverse population did not hinder it from sending hundreds of non-traditional students to highly selective colleges.[4] In fact, Harlem Prep was the only high school in Central Harlem at the time, and it became a successful community effort in educating the increasing population of youth pushed out on the New York City streets as well as college-aged young adults desiring a second chance at school.[5]

This purpose of this essay is to share the story of how Harlem Prep cultivated its “community school” status at a fractious moment in New York City. The school’s leaders were able to solicit support from local and national corporations/business elite while still also retaining widespread support from Black activists and the broader Harlem community. I hope that investigating Harlem Prep’s ability to build such a fascinating coalition of supporters can then be useful in thinking about the relationship between schools and their communities in New York City today. Yet, this essay also serves another important purpose: to insert Harlem Prep and the triumph of the myriad of bright students into the narrative of this important time period in New York City history—a history that is full of narratives of decline and the failure of students and schools. If the 50th anniversary of I.S. 201 reminds us of division and controversy, let this milestone also remind us of hope and possibility in the students who roam the halls of New York City schools each day.

The Rise of Harlem Prep

The creation of Harlem Prep was no accident. All throughout New York City, particularly in Harlem, dropout rates were high and educational achievement in public schools was low.[6] Nowhere for these students to go, there was an urgent need in Harlem for an institution like Harlem Prep—if not just a general need for any high quality, humanizing high school. Furthermore, with the rise of Freedom Schools in the South as a result of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s, and then a later proliferation of Black Nationalist schools nationwide centered on Black culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Harlem Prep was founded in an era where alternative and/or independent Black schools were emerging.[7]

An overhead picture of the Harlem Prep “classrooms,” with blackboards being used as dividers,  that show the open-space learning style. University of Texas-Austin, Briscoe Center Archives

An overhead picture of the Harlem Prep “classrooms,” with blackboards being used as dividers,

that show the open-space learning style. University of Texas-Austin, Briscoe Center Archives

Yet, Harlem Prep was unique not only because of its Harlem location (and its unorthodox pedagogical elements), but because of the school’s non-conforming ideology, and, most relevantly here, the way school leaders conceptualized community. Headmaster Edward Carpenter sought unity and valued diversity inside school walls—in terms of political ideology, religion, race, and class of teachers and students—and cultivated that same ethos outside school walls in terms of who could support the school financially and who served as advocates. As one alumnus describes, “it was a very much loved and respected institution” in Harlem and a well-known school locally; another alumnus explains that the Harlem community was “totally supportive” of the school’s efforts while a former teacher describes how he felt protected from community vices because of his affiliation with Harlem Prep.[8] How were Carpenter and Harlem Prep able to cultivate this diverse community support, and who made up this eclectic coalition of people and organizations? And, more broadly, what did the school mean to the Harlem community? Records illustrate how Harlem Prep was able to successfully develop a community coalition in two ways: one, outside of school through its financial supporters and advocates made up business elite and prominent activists; and two, inside of school through its daily operations influenced by parents, in tandem with a deliberate effort in community outreach.

Building a Community Coalition: Financial Support and Advocacy from Elites

Since Harlem Prep was entirely funded by private sources, the school cast a wide net for potential financial supporters. Carnegie Corporation, the philanthropy founded by wealthy 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie, was the first major funder, providing a large $300,000 grant to the school (via, at first, the New York Urban League) from 1967 to 1969.[9] Although Carnegie Corporation would not provide additional funds due to a policy of no long-term commitments, Carnegie program officers communicated favorably about Harlem Prep to their counterparts at Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation, both of which became major funders in future years.[10] Ford Foundation, one of the most influential philanthropies in the world, particularly, provided numerous grants upwards of $100,000 from 1969 to 1974, and was one of its leading advocates who would play a large role in keeping the school open through its constant financial duress.

While philanthropies, particularly Ford Foundation, were investing in education and community-oriented programs at unprecedented rates during this era, Harlem Prep was able to solicit continued support, in part it seemed, because of the relationships Harlem Prep genuinely fostered with these philanthropic representatives. For instance, Harlem Prep administrators constantly invited philanthropic leaders at Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and Rockefeller Foundation to visit the school to meet the students and learn about the school’s pedagogical strategies, as well as attend all major events such as graduation ceremonies (in which foundation representatives were often recognized for their contributions to the school). In his first visit to the school in 1970, Joshua Smith, a Black program officer at the Ford Foundation, wrote in a memo about how his visit was an “emotional experience” and that he was “dazzled by [Headmaster Carpenter’s] ability to relate instantly to students.”[11] Although Smith alluded in this first letter that additional Ford grants were unlikely, ironically, Smith would actually develop a lasting friendship with Carpenter and Chair of Harlem Prep’s Board of Trustees Robert Mangum that would serve as the catalyst for Ford’s large continued financial investment and advocacy.

The corporate sector, too, contributed significantly to keeping Harlem Prep open—most notably Standard Oil of New Jersey (later becoming Exxon), who provided large grants between $50,000 and $300,000 throughout most of Harlem Prep’s tenure. Companies such as Metropolitan Life and Chase Manhattan also contributed grants of $20,000 and $50,000, respectively, while a bevy of other major corporations provided annual gifts of $5,000 or less such as Coca-Cola, New York life Insurance, Con Edison, New York Times, Avon Products, J.C. Penney Company, Nabisco, Phillip Morris, and New York Telephone Company.[12]

A picture of the Harlem Prep students, working behind the Harlem Prep “Moja Logo” slogan, in a promotional booklet from 1972, printed by Standard Oil of New Jersey. Rockefeller Archive Center

A picture of the Harlem Prep students, working behind the Harlem Prep “Moja Logo” slogan, in a promotional booklet from 1972, printed by Standard Oil of New Jersey. Rockefeller Archive Center

Separate from just accepting checks to keep the school operating, Carpenter and Mangum, like they did with the philanthropic leaders, made a concerted effort to include these respective representatives to be part of the burgeoning Harlem Prep community. Corporate supporters would often visit the school and interact with students, such as the story of one alumnus’s memories of Sheila Mosler of Mosler Safes rolling up in a limo or when he met with David Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan Bank.[13] To be sure, Harlem Prep’s financial instability made it necessary for interactions with corporate sponsors—and businesses also most likely benefitted from a public relations standpoint—but there is also little doubt that Harlem Prep’s explicit open-minded attitude welcomed supporters that cut across traditional racial and ideological lines.

These same principles applied to local Black activists and national Black leaders, too. Although not to discount Robert Mangum using his position as a New York State Judge to reach out to prominent politicians such as U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel and U.S. Senator Jacob Javits for support—the latter wrote how he “personally investigated” Harlem Prep and was “deeply impressed”—Headmaster Edward Carpenter and other administrators held school-sponsored fundraisers centered in the local community.[14] In April 1973, for example, through “concerted efforts on the part of the school, its students, faculty and parents,” Harlem Prep co-sponsored a luncheon with the Amsterdam News, the Better Business Bureau, and a community organization called One Hundred Black Men. (Notably, the goal of this community-sponsored luncheon was to “invite corporate executives so that they might see the school in operation” in hopes that they would be willing to provide support.)[15] Fundraisers and events like these were relatively common throughout Harlem Prep’s existence, and Carpenter reached out to activists such as Preston Wilcox and Dr. Kenneth Clark for assorted reasons. Other well-known Black figures such as Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Farrakhan, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Whitney Young all visited the school on various occasions or supported the school at different junctures. Making sure these important figures in the Black community supported Harlem Prep may have helped legitimize the school in the community. Regardless, in speaking with alumni, all could attest to the open-door policy of Harlem Prep that contributed to the school’s sense of community and students’ sense of self-worth.

Building a Community Coalition: Daily Operations and Community Outreach

Despite Harlem Prep’s networking with the philanthropic and corporate world, conversely on a day-to-day level, Harlem Prep was very much grounded in the local community. The belief that Harlem Prep “was based in the community,” as one alumnus notes, was reflected in school personnel, and the type of programs and partnerships the school cultivated.[16] A breakdown of school leadership, such as the makeup of its Board of Trustees, is one such example; although of course constantly evolving, the Board was generally made up of an eclectic mix of parents, community members, and businesspeople. In 1972, for instance, the 14-person Board included five parents, a local Reverend, Executive Director of the Negro Labor Committee, a New York-based Black consultant from the College Board, and a current Harlem Prep student.[17] This is significant because even though Harlem Prep had a range of aforementioned corporate supporters, the parents and the community—as well as the pedagogical freedom that teachers had to shape instruction—had a large influence on the school’s direction. In addition, Headmaster Edward Carpenter, a Black New Yorker, was a lifelong educator and Chairman Judge Robert Mangum, the first Black judge appointed to the New York State Court of Claims, was a veteran civil rights advocate of President Johnson’s administration. Neither of them ever ceded control of the school to their corporate sponsors, maintaining true to the students, parents, activists, and greater community that they were dedicated to serving.

Harlem Prep also sought to partner with community institutions, such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as well as create community initiatives such as an adult evening program.[18] The latter, for example, in 1968-1969, enrolled over 300 adults—many of them parents of actual Harlem Prep students—in which teachers helped these parents achieve a wide range of goals such as improving their basic literacy skills or helping them gain entrance to evening college programs. Although this adult evening program and other partnerships faded out as the school became bogged down in greater financial trouble, they were certainly important in grounding the school in, and for, the Harlem community.

Above all, perhaps the most revealing aspect of Harlem Prep’s “community school” status was its commencement exercises: a ceremony that was held outside on the street, in the heart of the Harlem in front of the Hotel Theresa on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. Video from this event depicts students dressed in their best attire cheering and clapping along to various speeches and a student singing Aretha Franklin’s iconic song, “Young, Gifted, and Black,” following the conferring of degrees.[19] A memo written from a Carnegie Corporation officer in 1969 that attended the graduation ceremony best illustrates the joyous scene:

They had blocked off 126th Street for the Harlem Prep graduation so that members of the community could come and listen. And listen they did—old people sitting on the stoops and peering from the windows of the three-floor walk-ups; and crowds of children clinging to the wire fence around the playground…. Students spoke—about hope, and love and learning; of how they had been rescued from narcotics and life in the streets.[20]

This practice of outside graduation ceremonies continued for the entirety of Harlem Prep’s tenure, and, according to alumni, served as an important capstone for the community to be able to take pride and be part of the success of these Harlem Prep graduates. Ultimately, administrators, teachers, students and community members seemed to recognize the powerful symbolism of what the triumphs of these students meant.

A picture of Harlem Prep students, staff, and speakers at graduation, in front of the Hotel Theresa on 125th Street in Harlem. Hussein Ahdieh, personal collection.

A picture of Harlem Prep students, staff, and speakers at graduation, in front of the Hotel Theresa on 125th Street in Harlem. Hussein Ahdieh, personal collection.

New York City Education Today: What Can We Learn From Harlem Prep?

Despite administrators and advocate’s best efforts, unfortunately, Harlem Prep was unable to secure long-term funding while retaining its current educational model. With barely enough funds to remain open in fall 1973 and thus, little leverage to negotiate, Harlem Prep had no choice but to integrate with the Department of Education in February 1974.[21] Although the school remained similar at first, its unique characteristics—its non-credentialed teachers, the only graduation requirement of being accepted to a college, the streamlined administrative structure—slowly eroded under the Board of Education’s bureaucratic control. However, during its seven years, Harlem Prep graduated upwards of 800 students who were previously deemed unsuccessful in school: a beautiful testament to the belief in untapped student potential and an alternative narrative about the possibilities in community-school relations.

Although Harlem Prep no longer exists, there is plenty educators, and New York City residents in general, can learn from Harlem Prep’s story of community building. Today, the relationship between schools and communities seems as perilous as ever. There is the assumption that New York City urban schools are inherently unable to become community hubs—due to space constraints, funding discrepancies, perceived community vices, charter school politics, and so on—compared to their suburban counterparts. The story of Harlem Prep shatters this commonly held belief; the school was able to root itself in the Harlem community by first, of course, providing a high-quality education that emphasized student cultural interests, led by caring and committed teachers, and sending them off to college. Furthermore, the graduation ceremony, the partnerships and events, the support of trusted local Black activists and the school’s wholehearted embrace of Harlem as an entity—including its Blackness and cultural past—were all key ingredients. But, most of all, Harlem Prep was able to seek out seemingly contrasting support from the largely white business and philanthropic sector in New York City (and other prominent Black figures) by heartily welcoming their input, inviting them to participate in the school’s successes, and building non-traditional alliances. And while the specific reasons why each business supported Harlem Prep remain unclear, Carpenter and Mangum were open-minded, not cynical—they sought to find the people inside these organizations (as well as at the major philanthropies) who might care about education and built genuine relationships with these leaders, Black or white.

Although not without its imperfections and blemishes, the story of Harlem Prep is a story of the Harlem (and greater New York City) community coming together and fighting for the creation and equitable sustenance of a school, the supposed bedrock of a community—not unlike parents and activists did at nearby I.S. 201. But, it remains different than I.S. 201 and other later school battles because of Harlem Prep’s success in cultivating community and bringing people together, and ultimately influencing the lives of so many brilliant young people. It is my hope that Harlem Prep’s story can inspire educators and school advocates to rekindle this same belief in student potential—and each other—to utilize similar strategic tactics in alliance building to collectively re-imagine schools and their relationships with communities in New York City today.

Barry M. Goldenberg is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) and Ph.D. candidate in the History and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

[1] See, for example, historians of education such as Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars: A History of New York City Public Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1974); Heather Lewis, New York City Schools from Brownsville to Bloomberg: Community Control and its Legacy (New York: Teachers College Press, 2014); Daniel Perlstein, Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (New York: Peter Lang, 2004); and Gerald Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[2] Today, a charter school operates in New York City named Harlem Prep, which is part of the Democracy Prep Charter Network. This Harlem Prep bears no relationship to the Harlem Preparatory Academy discussed in this paper, and the similar name is coincidental.

[3] Edward F. Carpenter, “The Development of an Alternative School: Harlem Prep, 1967-1972,” unpublished dissertation (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1973).

[4] See, among many Harlem Prep documents that summarize how many students graduated, National Center for Educational Communication, ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Harlem Prep (New York, New York) by Edmund W. Gordon, ED124682 (Washington, D.C., 1972).

[5] Ruth Dowd, “Report About Harlem Prep’s First Year,” page 5, September 13, 1968, Series 200, Box 149, Folder 951, Ford Foundation Records, Rockefeller Archive Center.

[6] For example, the HARYOU Report, let by psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark, was a large report of over 600 pages that documented in thorough statistical detail the status of Harlem education. See Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change (HARYOU: New York, NY, 1964).

[7] See, for example, about Freedom Schools: Teach Freedom: Education for Liberation in the African-American Tradition, ed. Charles M. Payne and Carol Sills Strickland (New York: Teachers College Press, 2008). See, for example, Black Nationalist Schools: Russell J. Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power and Radical Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[8] Peter Hopson interviewed by Author and Michael Montero, New York, NY, February 11, 2015; Aissatou Bey-Grecia interviewed by Barry Goldenberg, Ibrahim Ali, and Robert Randolph, New York, NY, February 25, 2015Sandy Campbell, interviewed by Barry Goldenberg, Michael Montero, and Robert Randolph, New York, NY, January 14, 2015

[9] The New York Urban League—a local affiliate of the National Urban League, which sought African-American betterment through more moderate strategies—applied for the Carnegie Corporation grant and developed the initial idea, as well as chose the leadership, for Harlem Prep. Within the first year of existence, Harlem Prep separated from the New York Urban League and established its own independent status. See Carnegie Corporation, “Letter to R.L. Wingate (NYUL) Requesting a Report of the $300,000 Grant given to Harlem Prep in 1968” September 28, 1971, Series III, Box 743, Folder 7, Carnegie Corporation of New York Records, 1900-2004, Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts.

[10] Barbara Finberg, “Letter to Robert J. Mangum about Response to Letter to Alan Pifer on No Additional Support to Harlem Prep,” March 9, 1971, Series III, Box 743, Folder 7, Carnegie Corporation of New York Records, 1900-2004, Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts.

[11] Joshua Smith, “Memo to Edward Meade about Smith’s First Visit to the School,” October 13, 1970, Ford Foundation Records, Microfilm Reel 1781; Folder Harlem Preparatory School (FA732D), Rockefeller Archive Center.

[12] See, among many documents, “List of Harlem Prep Donors (small gifts) for 1971-1972,” Series 200, Box 149, Folder 951, Ford Foundation Records, Rockefeller Archive Center.

[13] Sterling Nile interviewed by Barry Goldenberg, New York, NY, March 4, 2015

[14] Jacob K. Javits, “Letter to Commissoner Allen (U.S. Office of Education) Urging Him to Consider Supporting Harlem Prep,” February 19, 1970, Ford Foundation Records, Microfilm Reel 1781; Folder Harlem Preparatory School (FA732D), Rockefeller Archive Center.

[15] “Program from Harlem Prep Fundraising Luncheon,” April 1973, Series 200, Box 149, Folder 952, Ford Foundation Records, Rockefeller Archive Center.

[16] Clifford Jacobs interviewed by Barry Goldenberg, November 18, 2013, Queens, NY.

[17] “‘Why Harlem Prep?’ Booklet,” 1972, Ford Foundation Records, Rockefeller Archive Center; Alumni and other documentation have concluded that there was always at least one current student on the Board.

[18] Robert Mangum and Edward Carpenter, “Grant Proposal for 1971-1972 to Rockefeller Foundation,” January 1971, Series 200, Box 149, Folder 951, Ford Foundation Records, Rockefeller Archive Center.

[19] Standard Oil of New Jersey, Step by Step: The Story of Harlem Prep, n.d., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lb6Icl45ufU.

[20] Eli Evan, “Memo (from Carnegie) about Alan Pifer Receiving the Distinguished Service Award at Harlem Prep Commencement,” June 13, 1969, Series III, Box 743, Folder 7, Carnegie Corporation of New York Records, 1900-2004, Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts.

[21] Edward Carpenter, “Letter to Joshua Smith about All the Problems with Finances and the Board of Education,” January 16, 1974, Ford Foundation Records, Microfilm Reel 1781; Folder Harlem Preparatory School (FA732D), Rockefeller Archive Center.