How Georgia-born education leader made mark before 1973 assassination

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Credit: Courtesy Photo

In a guest column, two academics recall and honor the life of Georgia-born education reformer Marcus Foster.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He serves on a charter school board and formerly served on the Fayetteville School Board. David T. Marshall is an assistant professor of educational research in the College of Education at Auburn University. He served two terms as chair of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission and formerly taught middle and high school social studies in Philadelphia.

By Robert Maranto and David T. Marshall

Friday marks what would have been the 100th birthday of Marcus Foster, one of the 20th century’s greatest educators and the first Black big city school superintendent. Before his assassination, the 50th anniversary of which comes this November, Foster left a rich legacy of pragmatic problem-solving that could guide educators in our own polarized times.

Who was Marcus Foster?

Foster was born in Athens, Georgia, on March 31, 1923. He was 3 when his parents became part of the Great Migration, moving to Philadelphia. After his parents divorced, Foster was raised by his then single mother in tough South Philadelphia, where the teen was a scholar, a leader, and someone handy with his fists.

He eventually worked his way through Cheyney University, the nation’s first historically Black college and university. Foster became a Philadelphia public school teacher back when Black talent was kept in segregated elementary schools and used to keep Blacks in line. Foster rose beyond that.

As Ursinus College professor John P. Spencer wrote in the one book on Foster, “In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform,” when a white female elementary school principal ordered Foster to discipline a boy by making sure to “fix him so he can’t walk.” Foster instead used dialogue, a hallmark of his later career as an education leader.

As principal of Philadelphia’s Dunbar Elementary School, Foster convinced his faculty to have high expectations for all students, including Southern-born Black students who were often written off by Northern Black teachers. Well before Head Start, Foster had Dunbar produce a 30-page booklet instructing parents how to be their children’s first teacher.

As Foster later wrote in a jab at education professors, “inner city folks … want people in there who get the job done, who get youngsters learning no matter what it takes. They won’t be interested in beautiful theories that explain why the task is impossible.”

At Catto Disciplinary School, which served secondary students who had been expelled elsewhere, Foster kept order, but also restored extracurricular activities, improved academics and partnered with local businesses for vocational training and student employment. Some families began requesting assignments to the reform school!

Perhaps Foster’s greatest achievement in Philadelphia came leading Simon Gratz High School, widely considered in the mid-1960s to be the city’s worst comprehensive high school. Foster walked door to door in the neighborhood — unheard of for a principal back then. He did outreach to parents, imposed order and again restored athletics and extracurricular activities like dances.

Where locals had complained that “Gratz is for rats,” Foster saw potential. He even set up “storefront schools” in the North Philadelphia neighborhood to serve parents and students after hours. Building a solid academic program highlighting Black excellence, Foster more than doubled college acceptances and cut the dropout rate in half. Foster inspired some Gratz students to become educators.

In 1970, Foster became school superintendent in Oakland, California. He saw the 70,000-student Oakland system as more reformable than the 290,000-student Philadelphia system, telling a journalist, “I know kids and teachers and communities … If it works at Gratz and in sections of Philadelphia, it can work in Oakland.”

As superintendent, Foster built a cross-racial, bipartisan coalition to improve academics. Though he leaned left, the Nixon White House approached Foster to serve as U.S. commissioner of education. Even former Philadelphia adversary Frank Rizzo, the city’s mayor by the early 1970s, asked Foster to return to serve as superintendent. Despite their intense ideological differences, Spencer suggests that the conservative Rizzo respected Foster’s trustworthiness and emphasis on academic achievement.

Foster stayed in Oakland, where he empowered principals, set learning goals, cut absenteeism, settled contract negotiations to avoid a teacher strike and managed the first successful school bond election in decades. To improve school safety, Foster rejected leftist calls to hire Black Panthers to keep order, but also spurned demands by conservatives (including teachers) for armed police — if Philadelphia could do school safety without cops, so could Oakland. His more measured solution involved trained peace officers and student identification cards.

That prompted the Symbionese Liberation Army to condemn Foster to death as a puppet of the white establishment. Ambushed after a November 1973 school board meeting, the 50-year-old Foster fell in a barrage of cyanide-filled bullets. The SLA hoped the assassination would spark a popular uprising. Instead, it proved such a “public relations mistake,” as one member put it, that the SLA kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst to change the conversation. It worked.

Foster was a leader driven less by ideology than common sense, with success reflecting his ability to solve problems, in part by valuing people over the system. Foster did not avoid conflict, but instead saw nonviolent conflict as offering opportunities for progress. In his 1971 book, “Making Schools Work,” he wrote that “in a conflict situation, all sides usually have legitimate concerns …Where there is conflict, there is energy, and where there is energy, there can be change.”

Foster remains relevant a half-century after his assassination. This week, the 100th anniversary of his birth, we resolve to honor Foster’s 20th century contributions to public education. Today more than ever, we need leaders that, like Marcus Foster, believe in the art of the possible.