The Great Depression prompts the New York City Board of Education to announce that it will no longer fund Elisabeth Irwin’s progressive experiment at P.S.41.
In the spring of 1932, the Great Depression was hitting every institution in American life deep and hard. Banks and businesses were failing, and the schools were no different. Many private schools closed and public schools were forced to cut spending drastically. So-called extras were on the chopping block. The Public Education Association had to focus its dwindling resources on feeding the thousands of children who arrived at school hungry every morning. Early in 1932, PEA Executive Director Howard Nudd informed Superintendent O’Shea that his organization would no longer be able to provide funding for Irwin’s experimental classes. O’Shea immediately announced that, because of the budgetary crisis, Little Red would be eliminated, with students in the experimental classes to be absorbed into the regular classes in the fall. This news left the students in Irwin’s classes stunned and distraught, and their parents very angry.
It is not without irony, that in the years that followed, Irwin found she was able to influence public school reform more successfully than while Little Red had been an experimental pilot program within the public school system. The Great Depression had threatened the school’s very existence, but it had also precipitated a sea change in American politics. For Elisabeth Irwin and the Little Red School House, the stars were suddenly realigned. Franklin Roosevelt’s election in November assured that Little Red would have a special friend in the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt would serve on the school’s board of advisors for decades and she often participated in its programs starting in 1934.
—Nicholas O’Han, “The Little School That Could”