HISTORY OF MARTIN DE PORRESIn the late 1960’s, when the Christian Brothers were teaching at Mater Christi Diocesan High School in Astoria, starting a school like Martin de Porres or working with emotionally disturbed children were not pieces of their “life plan”. They were comfortable teaching subjects like Religion, English and Physics. They eventually moved on to become assistant principals, deans and moderators of athletic teams. What appeared to be a simple request to assist poor students would lead them on an unexpected path. Over a few years time, they and their colleagues would make one commitment after another that would lead them into the vanguard of special education in New York City.
In the 1969-1970 school year, the brothers were asked by the pastor of St. Rita’s parish to assist some of his poorer parishioners, many of whom came from city housing projects in the surrounding area, in attending Mater Christi. The S.P.R.O.N.S. (Special Program For Needy Students) program was born. The students attended Mater Christi free of charge and thus benefited from a Catholic school education.
In 1970, MR. BILL JESINKEY, a graduate of Manhattan College, was a guidance counselor at P.S. 4, a “600” school run by the Bd. of Ed. He was surprised to learn that one of his former students was attending Mater Christi (as part of SPRONS). This was a few years before Federal Legislation for Special Education and “special” students did not have many options open to them. Bill saw an opportunity for a better educational plan for some of his students. After conferring with the brothers in charge of SPRONS, Bill was able to have 10 of his “600” students admitted in 1971-72. They were also able to become one of the first schools in the city to secure funds from the State Education Department for this Special Ed. Program. By the Spring of 1972, it was apparent to the brothers that some of the changes they were bringing about in Mater Christi were not well received by the entire school community. Parents complained that they had enrolled their children here to keep them away from some of the same students who were now being accepted into Mater Christi, the dress code was too relaxed, some brothers wore their hair too long, etc. Finally, Br. David Detje was fired as the principal. In response to this decision, a majority of the brothers decided to terminate their relationship with the school.
Brothers David, Raymond, Tom, Paul and Phil were forced to move to a new home. The move was an educational experience in itself. Their new quarters did not come with a housekeeper or a cook and the brothers soon learned to really “live” in the community. Without prospects for employment in the fall, they decided to go ahead with a previously planned vacation. Their old friend Bill Jesinkey found out about the brothers lack of jobs and the wheels began to turn in his head. He offered them an opportunity to start a school for students with special needs who were not being serviced in their local school districts. The brothers were at the Mother House in Rome when word came that Bill had gotten a grant from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and secured the basement of a Dutch reform Church in Astoria to house the fledgling program.
The A.S.F.E.C. (Alternative Solutions for Exceptional Children) School as the new program was called, soon moved into the Martin de Porres Community Center in the Astoria Housing Projects. The school then took the name of the center because of its well-known reputation and its recognition factor. As the program grew from a handful of students, Bill was more than a little worried about how these men, who were used to teaching and administering a school with more than a thousand students, would deal with a small unique program of 40 disturbed students. It seemed as if fate helped to resolve the talent overload. The Executive Director of the Martin de Porres Center left to take another job and Br. David Detje was selected to take his place. The nature of the grant required that Bill develop a child advocacy service. Therefore, Br. Raymond became principal. Tom Darnowski would handle intake, which was complicated because of the need to file a petition in Family Court on each child. Bill was even kind enough to loan Tom his wonderful pink vehicle to round up children in the early days when transportation was difficult. Brothers Phil and Paul became the heart of the teaching staff with help from some of their former students (Harry Jackson and Chet Tolbert) at Mater Christi.
There always seemed to be a need to reach out and seek help; ranging from a psychiatrist to a cook. The school soon needed more staff and recruited teachers Gail Quinn and Ron John. Gloria Aloise, a secretary from Mater Christi, who believed in the brothers’ good work was enticed to join them; as were community residents Louise Parks, Delma Crump and Walter Key. A college student volunteered her services for a while before she was hired as the first Para-professional. Ellen Dorsey later taught Language Arts. The school had a diversified, well-rounded, caring staff even if they weren’t quite sure how to handle some of these “special” children.
By 1975 having endured robberies, floods and other natural and unnatural disasters, Martin de Porres School was ready to expand. Br. Phil opened the Martin de Porres Group Home in December 1974. It was decided that some children were traveling too far to get to Astoria, so there would be two sites in Northern and Southeastern Queens. A new federally funded development was being built across the street from the present school and they were mandated to offer space to a community program. The school applied and won the space. Thus the Martin De Porres School North was established. The South school found space in an old convent building in Christ the King parish in Springfield Gardens. More staff was hired to teach in the two schools from former students and colleagues at Mater Christi, and relatives of the staff. Carol Scarano and Betty Williams found their calling in this way.
The schools continued to grow and in 1977, they were consolidated for monetary reasons, into one school at the site of the former Mary Magdalene School. The two teaching staffs blended to become one. Angela Vulich, who served as a secretary since A.S.F.E.C in 1973 was hired to be the executive secretary in the new building. Peggy Tarzian, a parishioner, was hired full time in 1979 as our receptionist. From 1978 to the mid eighties we hired Arty Williams, Karel Lancaster, John Galassi, Vivian Howell, Mary Degen, Mary Klein and Priscilla O’Connell. Ed Dana who had been a LaSallian volunteer in the summers returned to join our social work staff and Br. Kevin Finn left St. Gabriel’s school to join us in our work here. And so began the building of the school and program that now has the reputation of being the best service of its kind in the greater New York City area.
Today the School celebrates many years of “Touching the Hearts and Minds of Troubled Youth.” This
success is attributable to the commitment and dedication of the De LaSalle Brothers and their Associates
and Partners who, “Together and By Association” have sustained, energized, and creatively renewed this
mission over these many years. Over 400 children and young men and women now attend our educational
programs in Elmont and Far Rockaway.
It is with great reverence and pride that the LaSallian Family of Martin de Porres shares in the legacy of
John Baptist de la Salle – a tradition spanning over three hundred years and touching the lives of thousands
of young people throughout the world.
621 Elmont Rd
Elmont, NY 11003
Phone: 1(516) 502 2840
Fax: 1(516) 502 2841