First JFK principal Bob Mastruzzi dies

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On May 13, Robert R. Mastruzzi died. Ironically, the date of his passing coincides with Schools Chancellor Richard Klein’s 2010 announcement of the phasing out of Kennedy’s ninth and 10th graders until they graduate in 2014. So, when the school opens in September 2014, renamed “The Kennedy Campus,” the eight-story, block-square building becomes home-base for six mini-schools, each run by an administrative principal.

Bob Mastruzzi came to the building in April 1972, while it was still under construction. The first incoming class (ninth and tenth grade) arrived in September 1972 — a racial mix of students from rich to poor, from Riverdale, Kingsbridge, west and central Harlem and selected Bronx neighborhoods.  Hundreds of kids traveled more than an hour, by subway and bus, to be educated at “the best public school in the city.” Under Mr. Mastruzzi’s skilled direction, on average, 5,000 adolescents studied an exemplary curriculum taught by “color blind” teachers every school year.

Abundant activities

Over time, Kennedy boasted an award winning debate team; a uniformed marching band; film, music and drama presentations; a 22,000-volume library served by three librarians; a $2-million-dollar athletic field with an astro turf football field, baseball diamond and six-lane track; an art students’ outdoor mural, “Catch the Kennedy Spirit,” illustrated with students in sports action; a display case filled with trophies from city-wide championships, a fully equipped auto shop for girls, boys and special ed students; gym and dance along with ceramics, wood, metal and print shops; and the Gordon Parks Photography Center, to mention a few of the reasons kids were eager to come to school. 

For those less motivated, a well-trained, collaborative attendance, guidance and college counseling crew were heavily involved. For students for whom English was a second language, 34 inspired language teachers on the fifth Fiesta floor enhanced the cultural differences of Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, Vietnamese and French and developed their competence, level by level, in English. The science department’s Gateway Collaborative paved the way for students’ admission to the City College Bio-Med Program. Educators from around the globe came to witness Kennedy’s innovations. Fifty New York State high school art and reading teachers observed Demonstration Reading Improvement Through Art classes prior to replicating the federally-funded research program in their home schools. Volunteer faculty and students hosted the 1982 New York State Special Olympics, a newsworthy, charitable on-site event. 

Professor Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, a sociologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, devoted three years searching for good highschools. After a week at Kennedy, she included us as one of the six good high schools in the United States. (Lightfoot, S.L., The Good High School: Portraits in character and culture, 1983, Basic Books, Inc.). 

Here are some of Mastruzzi’s quotes from the book:

“A physical plant alone does not make a good athletic program.”

“I don’t think you will find one racist, or anyone with racist tendencies, in this school.”

“If you have problems with discipline, you will not be a teacher in this school. These kids are good kids.”

“Good principals must have a strong physical presence.”

“A good leader must have a vision, a game plan… be always ready to alter the plan when conditions change.”

In 1984, Principal Mastruzzi left Kennedy to be superintendent of the Manhattan high schools. Shortly after that, he was appointed superintendent of all five boroughs’ special education high schools. He retired in 1992 to bask in the warmth and caring of his wife and family. 

Warm memories

If you asked any Kennedy staff member, teacher or supervisor to recall a specific incident of our principal’s generosity, kindness or sincerity, you’d be overwhelmed by the affection and admiration universally expressed.  Further, Mr. Mastruzzi’s good relationships with the city and state bureaucracies, neighboring colleges, professional associations and unions were significant. His charisma was reciprocated by Riverdale’s businesses and banks, churches and synagogues, legislators, fire and police departments, local school services and health agencies, the media, Bronx School District 8, feeder schools, the Kennedy Parents’ Association and more. His exemplary career in public education began as a physical education teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School and culminated with appoints as superintendent, confirming Professor Lightfoot’s honorary title — Urban School Pioneer. 

Condolences may be sent to Mrs. Corinne Mastruzzi, 1275 Raleigh Road, Mamaroneck, N.Y. 10543-1234.

Sylvia K. Corwin was an assistant principal John F. Kennedy High School. She writes on behalf of JFK assistant principals, teachers of all disciplines and non-teaching staff. She can be reached at sylviacorwin@comcast.net.

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