A tale of two districts: history of Poughkeepsie schools

Pictured above, a teacher leads a class at the Smith Early Learning Center, part of the Poughkeepsie School District. The facility serves preschool and kindergarten students. In recent years, increasing numbers of students of Latinx descent have been enrolled at the Center. All photos by Alexis Cerritos.

Bathrooms out-of-service for months. A sole safe water fountain in the high school. Toilets clogged with sanitary napkins. Teachers over-assertive of authority in the classroom. Mismanaged funds.

On the flip side, a cash-strapped school district with teachers and administrators doing the best with what they have in a high-poverty city.

These are the combined opinions of Poughkeepsie High School (PHS) senior, Kiara, and PHS grad and current Dutchess Community College student Jacqueline Jones of the Poughkeepsie City School District. “The environments of the schools are toxic,” Kiara divulged. “Many staff members make it clear they don’t want to be there.”

Newly appointed Superintendent of Schools Dr. Eric Rosser also recognizes that this is a struggling district. But he also believes that untapped potential abounds.

“As with all urban school districts, the Poughkeepsie City School District struggles with meeting the evolving academic, social, emotional and wellness needs of its students,” Dr. Ross, who took the reins of the district this past July, expressed over email. He noted that the complex needs of students make it difficult for teachers to provide quality education for them.

But as Kiara, Jones and students like them move through the Poughkeepsie City schools with a subpar view of their education, two thriving school districts neighbor theirs—the majority white and wealthy Spackenkill Union Free School District and Arlington Central School District.

The Spackenkill and Poughkeepsie districts have a special relationship. What hangs in the air between them is a bitter battle for their separation fought and won 48 years ago, and a missed opportunity to share educational excellence and resources: a chance to become a unified school district.

Despite this distinction in the quality of the two school districts, prospects for education of Black students have still increased over centuries. Back in the early 1800s, the 645 Black Poughkeepsie High students in the 2017-18 year could not have made it past elementary school.

The Road to Desegregating Public Education for Black Poughkeepsie youth

The Poughkeepsie City School District opened its doors in 1843, providing schooling only for white children in the City. The school district’s Board of Education created a separate school for Black children in 1844. The elementary school was then called the Poughkeepsie Colored School No. 1. An average of 20 kids attended class, but up to 70 kids were registered.

Public outrage over nonexistent secondary and higher education opportunities for Black Poughkeepsie youth arose in public discourse around the late 1860s and early 1870s.

There is no record of a Black student attending Poughkeepsie High School before 1870. Neither Vassar College nor the now- closed Eastman Business College admitted Black students in the 1860s. Vassar admitted its first openly Black student, Beatrix McCleary, in 1940 (The Miscellany News, “A brief history of race at Vassar,” 11.14.1997).

In the absence of higher education opportunities for Black students, the Poughkeepsie community decided to make its own. The idea to establish a Black college in Poughkeepsie was first vocalized in September 1870 during a Mid-Hudson education conference. In the preceding decade, other historically Black colleges like Fisk, Howard and Hampton came into existence. But Toussaint L’Ouverture College, the proposed name for Poughkeepsie’s iteration, was never realized. Lack of finances, dwindling moral support and a rising anti-segregation movement in New York State spelled failure for the project. The Black community leaders and members alike made it clear—they wanted to desegregate public education, not set up their own schools.

Textile dyeing company owner Joseph Rhodes and wife led this struggle in Poughkeepsie when they attempted to enroll their daughters Marietta, 9, and Josephine, 15, in the white Fifth Ward School. On their first day, Marietta was sent home by her teacher after lunch when another student hit her.

After further pressure from Black advocacy groups across New York State, the New York State legislature passed in 1874 a law to abolish segregation in public education. Poughkeepsie schools were completely desegregated in 1875.

(Lawrence H. Mamiya and Lorraine M. Roberts, “Invisible People, Untold Stories: A Historical Overview of the Black Community in Poughkeepsie,” 1986.)

Above, students practice forming the shapes of numerals with blocks, in order to improve number recognition skills.

A Fight Against Shared Educational Excellence

Everything changed when tech giant IBM came to town—that is, the Town of Poughkeepsie. IBM opened a plant in the Spackenkill part of the Town of Poughkeepsie in 1942. The company recruited wealthy and highly educated professionals who could afford the expensive homes and property taxes that flowed into Spackenkill schools.

In the years to come, more people, more jobs and more money flooded the neighborhood.

In the meantime, the City of Poughkeepsie witnessed its land values plummet and its population decline. Very little of IBM’s wealth production touched the City. They were powerless in seeing their neighborhood’s metamorphosis into “the old city.”

Five years after IBM opened its Poughkeepsie plant, the New York State Education Department published a Master Plan calling for the consolidation of the Spackenkill Union Free School District and the Poughkeepsie City School District.

But in defiance of the Department, Spackenkill district residents overwhelmingly backed a plan in 1956 for the district to build a high school of its own. At the time, the district shared Poughkeepsie High School with the primarily Black and lower-income Poughkeepsie City School District. Spackenkill now wanted its own high school, and its own independent district.

To sway residents away from this plan, the State Education Department offered a 10 percent increase in operating funds for the combined district for five years. The Spackenkill Board of Education was not interested. For the next 15 years, parents and the School Board of the largely white and relatively wealthy district fought to ensure exclusive benefits of IBM’s presence.

In a public hearing two days before Spackenkill district residents voted to approve the high school’s construction, community members in the Town and City of Poughkeepsie spoke out against the new high school.

“If we build our own high school, all we are doing is creating a middle-class ghetto high school,” declared the son of a Methodist minister Kenneth Park. “I see no other word for it than racism with the result of leaving Poughkeepsie to rot.”

A senior at Poughkeepsie High School at the time from the Spackenkill district highlighted how attending school with Poughkeepsie City students broke down barriers between the Town and the City. “When we went [to Poughkeepsie], they thought of us as snobs,” noted Kathy Will. “I think their opinion of us has changed as us of them.”

Despite public outcry, despite firm disapproval from the State Department of Education and despite having no promise of building aid from the state, residents approved construction of the school on Sept. 20, 1971 by a vote of roughly two to one. Construction began the following spring. The State Commissioner of Education, who had previously refused to provide building funds for the school, was later forced to do so in the 1971 Saslaw v. Nyquist case.

The Spackenkill Board of Education president during the early years of the case, Norman Carter, stated during a 2005 interview that it was not the Spackenkill district’s responsibility to carry Poughkeepsie. Toward the end of the battle, the district was asked by the state appellate court in the 1971 Saslaw v. Board of Regents case to prove how Spackenkill’s independence would benefit students in both Poughkeepsie and Spackenkill. Spackenkill School Board officials had never visited Poughkeepsie High School.

“We took the position that with the growing population [in Spackenkill] Poughkeepsie High School wasn’t big enough,” Carter said. The state pointed out that the property taxes that would flow into a combined district because of IBM could expand the Poughkeepsie High School building. Carter rebutted with the district’s desires for singular success for its own children. “I like the idea of local control,” he shared in the interview. “We could get our own teachers and look for the best.”

Spackenkill’s advocates rejoiced their long-fought victory in achieving their vision of local control. They lauded themselves as a determined community that achieved independence and community control of its own school system. This is how they would ensure the educational excellence of their own children.

(Educational Foundations, Summer-Fall 2006, “The Politics of School Districting: A Case Study in Upstate New York.”)

At the Early Learning Center, students develop their language skills through a variety of pedagogical exercises.

The Spackenkill and Poughkeepsie districts today

Advocates of Spackenkill’s independence got what they wanted—a superior high school and school district. They abandoned the Poughkeepsie City School District and took their tax base and resources with them.

Today, Spackenkill High School boasts a National Blue Ribbon award for academic excellence (Poughkeepsie Journal, “Spack- enkill High School named National Blue Ribbon School,” 11.23.2018). Only 62 schools in the country hold the distinction. Students can choose from 14 Advanced Placement classes. A total of 95 percent of the Class of 2018 attended colleges and universities such as Boston University, Wellesley College and Yale University, according to the school’s 2018 class profile (Spackenkill High School 2018-2019). The district was 67 percent white by 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. IBM is still located in the Town of Poughkeepsie. On the other hand, Spackenkill’s separation deteriorated the Poughkeepsie City School District. The Poughkeepsie district, still primarily comprised of students of color, remains majority low-income and low-resourced. Of the high school’s 1,127 students in 2017-18, 87 percent were either Black or Hispanic (645 Black and 340 Latinx), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The district is majority Title I, which means most if not all students are low-income.

The school district has seen a myriad of scandals over the years regarding its high school graduation rates, integrity of its former Superintendent of Schools Nicole Williams, and aging infrastructure.

Poughkeepsie High School’s graduation rate plummeted to 47.7 percent in 2018, declining from the 68 percent touted by Superintendent Williams in the previous year. An investigation by the Dutchess County Board of Education and the state found that nine students were improperly graduated last year due to excessive absences (Poughkeepsie Journal, “Poughkeepsie: Graduation rate fell 20 percentage points,” 06.22.2018).

These improper graduations, combined with inadequate services with the School Board, culminated in Williams accepting a $433,000 buyout to resign (Poughkeepsie Journal, “BUYOUT: $433,000 for ex-Poughkeepsie school chief,” 07.05.2019).

The schools’ infrastructure issues—heating issues due to failing boiler systems, aging buildings, rodents and mold in the middle school and elementary schools and more—burden the small district. Its property values are the lowest and rates of school-age poverty are the highest in the region (Poughkeepsie Journal, “Air quality, fire safety concerns plague Poughkeepsie schools,” 12.14.2018).

This is not to say that the current struggles of the Poughkeepsie school district are a direct result of the Spackenkill victory. Like many urban centers in the United States, Poughkeepsie has seen its fair share of white flight as more Black families arrived in its neighborhoods. The City of Poughkeepsie is physically segregated by Route 9 and the east-west arterial (US-44/ NY-55) running through its center. Majority white and higher-income neighborhoods exist in the South and majority Black and lower-income neighborhoods exist on the North side (Geospatial Mapping at Vassar, “Poughkeepsie: A City Divided,” 06.01.2017).

Kiara, who is graduating early to leave the Poughkeepsie City School District as quickly as possible, views the districts’ problems as exhaustive. But what she finds most egregious is the lack of a voice students have in the future of their schools. “The adults that choose what happens to us and what changes are made in schools have no idea what students need,” Kiara shared. “I would love to see students given a chance to speak up for themselves.”

One bulletin board at the Early Learning Center displays an encouraging message, accompanied by art created by the students.

All photos courtesy of Alexis Cerritos.

[Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the demographics of Poughkeepsie. In fact, majority white and higher-income neighborhoods are in the South, and majority Black and lower-income neighborhoods are in the North.]

4 Comments

  1. You mixed up the north and south demographics. Southside POK is predominantly white and higher income while the north is lower income and predominantly minority.

    • Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We have corrected the article above to reflect the correct demographic information.

  2. Nice job. I have so many friends whose children have benefitted from Spackenkill school district but I still find the split deplorable. We all benefit indirectly from the presence of the City of Poughkeepsie (government, law, finance, etc) and we actually have a debt that needs to be paid, beginning with the schools.

  3. “School District History Recounted”, Miscellany News, November 7,2019

    Truly outstanding article combining research historical context and a balanced set of interviews about the current state of the City Schools. Hopefully the surrounding communities will join in improving the City Schools. Its time for “reparations.”

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