Niagara Gazette

October 14, 2013

HIGGS: Beech Avenue School and city integration

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — First, I need to “fess up” about an error I made in my Sept. 23 column as I mentioned that a “campus-type high school on Military Road where the former Plantation Restaurant and Club was located.” Well, it appears I have at least two readers who noted the misinformation about the Plantation Restaurant as it was indeed still up and running on the property adjacent to the new high school. And, it was still owned by the Broda family which I incorrectly named the Baran family. I apologize as I am not a resident of the LaSalle section of neither Niagara Falls, nor am I all that familiar with its history and furthermore, I should have looked into this before I stated that it was already demolished.

One reader, Gloria Yacoots Pasquale, brought me up to speed on the Plantation and added some comments about her class of 1961 and how they felt about the “early demise (of this “state-of-the-art” school) after only 44 years of service to the students of this area.” She mentioned that many alumni felt they would see their children and grandchildren go on to also be graduates of LaSalle, their alma mater. The only memory left is the granite wall that graced the walkway entrance which states “LaSalle Senior High School 1956.” Apparently it was rescued from demolition by some members of the class of 1961 and with the help of many classes before and after them with donations and a lot of work the “Wall” has been placed in front of LaSalle Jr. High School on 76th and Buffalo Avenue, (now known as LaSalle Preparatory School). She said “the hard work and dedication shows the “Pride & Spirit of LaSalle.” I feel her comments are worth sharing as it tells an important part of the story.

Now on to Beech Avenue School located at 1800 Beech Ave. near the “big blue water tower” east of Highland Avenue. This elementary school was opened in 1958 and became part of the focus of the desegregation program where much of its history is centered. The school was designed by the architectural firm of Sargent, Webster, Crenchaw and Folley of Syracuse. A one-story building with 12 classrooms, an auditorium, gymnasium and pool, it cost $910,963.78 which included land costs, building and equipment. An additional eight classrooms were added in 1958.

Henry J. Kalfas was appointed the first principal. Henry, more commonly known as Hank, was well-known and well-loved as he served in various capacities in Niagara Falls.

Following his service as principal at Beech Avenue School he was appointed superintendent of schools in January of 1969. A new career came after his formal retirement from the school district as he joined the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce as CEO which eventually led to his final working career as executive director of the S.P.U.R. an arm of the chamber. Hank, as we all knew him was considered the founder of the Festival of Lights as he journeyed to Simcoe, Ont., and came home with plans to light up the downtown of Niagara Falls. I volunteered each year of the Festival greeting visitors at the Wintergarden and coordinating the annual silent auction.

Following his appointment as superintendent in January 1969, an advisory committee was formed to study and implement a plan to desegregate the school. Integration was slow to happen and Beech Avenue School was still a predominantly black population in 1969. The plan was full integration by September of that year according to numerous articles on this subject in the Niagara Gazette. Voluntary busing was suggested by means of a questionnaire to parents to be returned in February if they were willing to transfer their elementary student to Beech Avenue at the start of the September 1969-70 school year. During July, 150 students were volunteered and during August 1969, 132 white students were registered under the voluntary program and evenly distributed through the kindergarten and sixth grades. The remaining 18 students were enrolled in the Informal Class. I do not mean to make this sound like it was easy but space limits the long back and forth discussions and some arguments among the advisory committee and the board of education members during the year.

The real goal was citywide integration and studies began anew in 1970 to reduce the racial imbalance. Beech Avenue School was 66 percent black and 10th Street School was 40 percent black with Ashland Avenue; Cayuga Drive, Pacific Avenue, 24th Street and 99th Street schools predominately white.

A perimeter plan was begun called Plan 21 by the advisory committee and school administrators to reassign more than 450 pupils to keep the ratio to 80 percent white and 20 percent black and was approved in March of 1970. Busing was the big objection due to cost and inconvenience. The Plan 21 was called “structurally sound by Dr. Martin Sobel of the Bureau of Intercultural Relations in January of 1970 and was considered a model by the State Department of Education. It involved eight schools: Ashland Avenue, Beech Avenue, 10th Street, 22nd Street, 24th Street, 79th Street, 95th Street and 99th Street.

By April of 1970 plans were in the talking stage for a 20 acre site for the new $4.7 million Harry F. Abate School and a $4.7 million public library. In 1978 the Beech Avenue School was officially rededicated the Henry J. Kalfas School and in 1990 it became an early childhood magnet school. Today Mrs. Kerins serves as the principal.

Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.