Education scholars and activists across the country are mourning the loss of Norm Fruchter, brilliant researcher, author and radical thinker who mentored and influenced hundreds of educators and organizers over the many decades of his career.
I was privileged to work with Norm for two decades as a researcher-organizer–a role that embodies how Norm connected and bridged the worlds of scholarship and grassroots organizing. For those who didn’t know Norm, here is a quick review of the last few decades of Norm’s career: He was the founding Co-Director of the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy (IESP) in 1994, where he recruited a team that brought the knowledge and resources of the university to support community organizing for equity in public schools. The unshakeable ethic guiding that work was that the parents and young people most impacted by educational inequities were most qualified to envision solutions to those inequities, and to lead the advocacy to change them.
When Norm announced his first retirement (which he didn’t follow through on) after IESP shifted away from organizing in 2006, Norm helped move a staff team to the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) at Brown University with then director Dr. Warren Simmons. At AISR, Norm directed the Community Organizing and Engagement program for another decade. During his tenure, Annenberg’s NYC office became a home for several of the city and state’s most influential education organizing groups - the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, Urban Youth Collaborative, and Alliance for Quality Education. When a change of leadership at Brown again put the integrity of this work in danger, Norm helped move the team back to NYU in 2016, this time to the Metro Center under its previous Director. As the Deputy Director of NYU Metro Center, and then as Senior Consultant, Norm continued in his late 70s and 80s to lead research projects, mentor staff, write on a vast range of topics, organize events, and share his sharp intellect and deep analysis as the first and last editor on numerous articles, policy briefs, op-eds and reports, including his monthly blog posts which can be found on the Perspectives page of the NYU Metro Center website.
At Metro Center and previously, Norm was a prolific writer, authoring dozens of articles, research publications and evaluations, as well as several books on urban school reform (and two fiction books). He had vast knowledge about movements for justice, schooling, and racial equity, but moved with humility as a listener and a learner, most especially with public school parents, students and organizers. He had a wealth of information at his fingertips but had a profound reverence for the deeper truth of people’s lived experiences.
While I was lucky to work with Norm on research, and learn from his probing questions, critical insights and exacting editing, most of my experience with Norm was around education justice organizing. His knowledge and vision helped shape countless advocacy platforms, and animated many organizing campaigns.
I remember Norm taking the mic at dozens of rallies on the steps of City Hall, street corners and church sanctuaries, where he used his scholarly gravitas and exhaustive knowledge to champion the community’s vision. He could connect with anyone and make them think more deeply -- from regular parents on the street, to academics, elected officials and the Chancellor.
I remember Norm sitting alongside parents and students, explaining patiently but bluntly and unapologetically to senior Department of Education and City Hall officials why their ideas ran counter to research evidence and would do little to advance student learning or wellbeing, and why they should adopt the community’s solutions.
I remember the glee with which Norm delivered me copies of the pages from Eva Moskowitz’s 2018 book in which she mentioned us in relation to campaigns opposing the co-locations of Success Academy Charter Schools. The book denounced Norm as the “mastermind” behind the anti-charter organizing (which he wasn’t), and a leftist and fan of Fidel Castro (which he was). He couldn’t have been more pleased.
I thought of Norm as a gentleman revolutionary - fully committed to a remake of society and an upending of systems of power, and all from a place of respect, humility and grace. He also valued living well - long before the pandemic, Norm would join conference calls from beautiful locations with birds singing in the background, or would arrive at the office for morning meetings with a breakfast of an enormous chocolate chip cookie and fresh fruit. This was a life to aspire to!
In 2014, just after grassroots organizing had helped propel Bill de Blasio to election as Mayor of NYC, Norm spoke at a retreat of the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice where parents and organizers were strategizing their stance to the new, hopefully allied administration. Norm coached the group to put aside the boxing gloves they had worn with the previous administration, and to use their hard-earned relationships, trust and credibility to join the inner circle of the new administration … but to keep those boxing gloves close, because he was certain they would be needed.
This strategic guidance reflected how Norm himself moved in the field of education. His scholarship, intellect and leadership earned him enormous respect and legitimacy inside educational institutions; and that never stopped him from critiquing those institutions, speaking the truth, and leveraging his credibility for change. He consistently and unwaveringly put his knowledge, relationships and reputation to the service of communities organizing for education justice.
My friend and Metro Center colleague Barbara Gross, remarked after Norm’s death that we just always thought he would be here. For many of us, he was always here. Even if we didn’t see him for a period, when we reached out he was always generous with his time, knowledge and care. He guided our paths professionally, but also personally as humans with dreams of a just and caring school system, striving to pursue those dreams with courage, rigor and integrity. We’re so grateful for his legacy and imprint in public schooling, in the education justice movement and in our hearts.