February 9, 2023

Norm Fruchter, leader in NYC education equity movement, dies at 85

Norm Fruchter, a towering figure in the education equity movements in New York City and Newark, died Wednesday after being struck by a car in late December, a spokesperson for his family confirmed.

Fruchter was hit by a car while crossing the street near his home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn on Dec. 22, and died from his injuries at NYU Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn on Jan. 4, said Michele Cahill, a friend of the family. He was 85 years old.

An activist, community organizer, school leader, novelist, and academic, Fruchter was on the front lines of some of the most pivotal social and educational battles of the past half century in the five boroughs and his native New Jersey. He was active in the civil rights movement, fought for parents to have real power in running schools, and led the progressive push for small public schools. For decades, he helped spearhead efforts to increase diversity and desegregate city schools.

“Every important, major education initiative in New York City, Norm was part of it, and in very deliberate but very quiet ways,” Lester Young, the chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents, told Chalkbeat.

Fruchter’s long and varied career took him from stints as a community organizer and activist in Newark, New Jersey, where he founded an alternative high school, to the academy, where he started a major academic institute at New York University. He also had roles on multiple New York City school boards and in the philanthropic world. 

The throughline connecting all of those pursuits was a profound commitment to educational justice and community empowerment, said Cahill, a former high-ranking official in the city education department and close personal friend of Fruchter.

“Norm lived and breathed justice and education equity,” she said. “He’s an enormous, enormous intellect, and he applied it in different contexts at different times.”

Fruchter’s curiosity, creativity, and passion didn’t end with education: He authored two novels and produced films. He was a loving partner to his wife, Heather Lewis, devoted father to his kids and a doting grandfather. 

“He was a wonderful, caring person with such appreciation for community,” Cahill said.

Civil rights activism spurs education work

Fruchter was born in 1937 in Camden, New Jersey, where he attended public schools and went on to Rutgers University, graduating in 1959. After college, Fruchter moved to England on a Fulbright scholarship to teach high school before returning to New York City, where he joined Students for a Democratic Society and became deeply involved in the civil rights movement.

Fruchter’s organizing work took him back across the Hudson River to Newark, where he worked in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods fighting for tenant protections and protesting police brutality. As an outgrowth of that work, Fruchter in 1970 co-founded and led Newark’s Independence High School, a groundbreaking institution for students who’d dropped out of traditional high schools. It served as a model for “transfer schools” that eventually sprung up in New York City.

In 1983, Fruchter was elected as a member of the community school board in Brooklyn’s District 15, which includes the Park Slope neighborhood where he’d lived with his first wife Rachel and two kids since the early 1970s.

The district was then, as now, a microcosm of some of the city’s thorniest education debates.

Fruchter recalled getting a pitch from a group of parents dissatisfied with the largely segregated local public school in their neighborhood and pushing to open a new one.

“I shared the parents’ vision of a small school driven by progressive instruction, project-based learning and a parent choice lottery admission process designed to ensure a diverse and representative student population,” he later wrote, even though he had some misgivings about the idea of starting a new school. That push eventually led to the creation of Brooklyn New School, a progressive elementary school that remains a popular choice in District 15.

Dorothy Siegel, who served on the school board with Fruchter, said he used his perch on the school board to challenge an “old boys network” that installed almost all white, male principals in district schools, going to other parts of the city to recruit Black and Hispanic administrators. 

“He went up against anything that wasn’t good for education,” she said. 

It was during his years on the District 15 school board that Fruchter met Carmen Fariña, then a teacher in the district who would go on to become schools chancellor under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“He encouraged me to really push forward my notion of social studies, which was all based on multicultural education,” Fariña told Chalkbeat in an interview. Later, when she became superintendent of District 15, “he was there to offer advice.” When she became chancellor, Fruchter served on her parent advisory council, “and would make sure the voice of people who weren’t being heard was being heard,” Fariña said.

“I think he was really one of the first people to put equity and diversity on people’s minds,” she added, noting that some of his ideas about alternative education were ahead of their time and have since become more widely accepted.

Fruchter took his deep knowledge and core educational beliefs in the power of small schools, progressive educational practices, parent involvement, and diversity to the philanthropic and academic worlds. He headed the Urban Education Program at the Aaron Diamond Foundation, where he helped propel the growth of small schools in New York City, and founded the Institute for Education and Social Policy at NYU.

The institute played a central role in the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that resulted in a judicial decision mandating more funding for city schools. It also served as an incubator for the ASD Nest program, an innovative initiative for kids with autism, said Siegel, who worked at the institute and created Nest. 

“If it wasn’t for him none of it would have happened,” she said.

A ‘thinker’ who city leaders turn to for advice

Multiple mayors and chancellors sought his counsel, even when they had conflicting political views.

He was known in leadership circles “as a thinker,” Fariña said. “I don’t think there was any mayor who didn’t bring him to the table at least to hear what he had to say.”

Fruchter served as a member of de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group and a member of the Panel for Educational Policy, the entity that replaced the school board after the shift to mayoral control of city schools under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

As a member of the PEP, Fruchter was attentive to the perspectives of community members, parents, and educators, said Isaac Carmignani, another mayoral appointee at the time.

He helped push the education department to proactively include parent leaders and other panel members in discussions about policies that could impact schools well before they made it to contentious public meetings, Carmignani said.

“It made it a smoother process,” Carmignani said. “He listened to everybody, he insulted nobody. It didn’t matter if he agreed with you or disagreed with you. We need more of that style.”

Fruchter also had an independent streak. In 2015, the education department sought approval to place students from a Success Academy charter school in the same building as three struggling middle schools that were part of the mayor’s school turnaround program. Fruchter was one of two mayoral appointees who voted against the proposal, bucking the policy of the mayor who selected him — a rare move that raised eyebrows at the time. (The proposal still passed.)

“He wasn’t caving into the unspoken social contract: Whatever the city put on the table you should vote ‘yes,’” said Lori Podvesker, who served on the panel with Fruchter. “He stood by his principles.” 

Inspiring the next generation of activists

Fruchter also nurtured and encouraged a new generation of education advocates and activists.

Zakiyah Ansari met Fruchter about 20 years ago through a community advocacy program housed at NYU, when she was just starting her education organizing work. By then, Fruchter had become a highly influential education advocate, but Ansari — now the advocacy and New York City director for Alliance For Quality Education — said he was too humble to talk about his many accomplishments.

“You learned about these stories from other people … ‘Did you know that Norm’ this, that and the other,” Ansari said. “Whatever it was, it always came from other people who, because of the relationship they had had with him, they just wanted to kind of share, ‘Do you know who’s in your presence?’”

Ansari worked with Fruchter on the early stages of a national organization called Alliance to Reclaim our Schools. Through that and other community organizing work, Ansari said Fruchter was always an important resource. When Alliance for Quality Education was first trying to learn about community schools, which serve high-needs students by providing extra wraparound services, she turned to Fruchter to explain how the model worked. He helped the group “hone our messaging and narrative,” which she credits for helping to secure more state funding for the city’s sprawling community schools program. 

Besides his deep historical knowledge that spanned multiple city mayors and chancellors, as well as national issues, Fruchter had a way of connecting with people and getting his point across to anyone, Ansari said. When he wanted to interview Ansari about her journey as a parent and activist, Ansari was initially hesitant, but Fruchter persuaded her that her story mattered. 

“He had this way of convincing you to do things — not forcing you in any way but explaining it enough that you understood the importance,” Ansari said. “I’m so grateful that he convinced me to do that and that I had him in my life.”

In recent years, Fruchter served as a senior adviser to the Metro Center at NYU, produced a film about parent activism in New York City schools, and moved to Bay Ridge with his second wife, Heather Lewis, a professor at Pratt Institute. 

Fruchter’s first wife, Rachel Gillett, was killed in 1997 after being struck by a car while cycling in Prospect Park.

Fruchter is survived by Lewis, his son Lev, an educator, and daughter Chenda, who works in New York City government, along with grandchildren Zoe, Ella, Jack and Benjamin, adult step-children Jesse, Alina, Shayna and Josh, and six step-grandchildren.

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at [email protected].