In 1996 Paul Lukas stumbled across hundreds of discarded student records in a disused New York City school building. Luckily, he recognized that what appeared to be a few hundred old report cards were valuable historical documents. Understanding these records became an obsession that, in Lukas' words, changed his life. He pursued their origin and their meaning.
You can read the entire tale here:
[What he uncovered makes great reading –
part history lesson, part detective yarn, part human interest story]
One fascinating aspect of the story is Lukas' description of the way in which the school, called the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, helped its graduates find work, and continued to do this for many years after the girls had become alumnae. He writes that the school
had kept track of its students' employment history for years after they graduated, which provided a look into the students' post-school lives and also painted a striking portrait of the Depression-era labor market.
Later, he goes on, he found out the reason they kept these records:
The school had its own job placement office – essentially an in-house employment bureau – and had helped the students secure those jobs...Many graduates continued to obtain work via the school for years—sometimes for a decade or more—which speaks to the unusually strong bond the school had with its students.
How did the school maintain such strong bonds with students who generally attended for just two years, usually between the ages of about 14 and 17? One motivation for staying connected with alumnae was the intent of its first director, Mary Schenck Woolman, who established the job placement office in part "to build up a series of records that shall be of general sociological value." To build up those records meant maintaining ongoing contact with graduates, in some cases for a decade or more after they left.
[How did the school maintain strong bonds with students who attended for just two years, between the ages of about 14 and 17?]
But what mattered most was the result of this effort to maintain contact: a two-way relationship between the school's administrators and its alumnae.
Lukas describes how, 15 years after leaving, alumna Mary Meyer contacted the school to fill a job opening for a seamstress at her own company. The notation on her alumnae record states that she "Called here for girl."
...even if the school didn't supply Mary with an employee, the mere fact that she asked them to do so feels like a validation of Manhattan Trade and its mission. "Called here for girl"—it's my favorite entry, my favorite detail, in the entire report card collection.
It represents the mutual understanding between school and graduate, that a brief period as a student gives way to a lifelong identity as an alumna. This provides future opportunities on both sides: a source of employment for students and a source of qualified talent for the alumni employer.
It's as true today as it was in 1921, when Mary Meyer completed her own dressmaking education and entered the workforce as an alumna of Manhattan Trade School for Girls.
Image: Student record from Manhattan Trade School for Girls