Wednesday, February 7, 2024

James Eterno RIP, we have lost a teacher warrior for NYC schools


Today, I  heard the tragic news that James Eterno, NYC teacher, had died, after a major stroke last spring.  He was only 63 years old.  

I got to know James first because of his strong advocacy for smaller classes, and support for the work of Class Size Matters.


I got to know him even better through his valiant efforts to save Jamaica HS from closing in 2009-2010

He organized and spoke up at rallies, the PEP, and City Council hearings, the last I recall where he brought students to testify why the school should be saved. 


Here is a video of James at rally/meeting to save the school in Dec. 2009.  Check out the comments below the video from former students. Here is another video of him, speaking against Jamaica’s closure, at our Emergency Parent Conference on school closings in Jan. 2010.

As a result of his courageous advocacy, he won the Skinny Award in 2011 as a "teacher-warrior”.   

James not only fought to keep the school open, but even after the PEP rubber stamped the awful decision to phase out the school, he never stopped fighting for the rights of Jamaica students to receive a quality education.

In Sept. 2011, along with the Jamaica HS PTA President, he sent a letter to State Ed Commissioner John King, pointing out how DOE had reneged on its promises  in the Educational Impact Statement to provide adequate resources to the school during the phase-out, so that students in the four academic programs could be provided with the required courses and credits they needed to graduate. He also pointed out how two of the three guidance counselors had been laid off, and the one remaining had a student load of over 600 students.  The DOE had also promised smaller classes as enrollment fell; instead there were 35  classes that violated the UFT class size limits of 34 students per class. I don't know whether John King responded, but given his history of letting DOE get away with anything, likely not.

James continued to teach social studies at Middle College HS.  In 2018, he wrote a brilliant piece for our blog, critiquing the various deeply-flawed educational fads that have been adopted in NYC schools over the years, at that point the Common Core,. On the blog I wrote, if only Chancellor Carranza were listening!  If only he would hire James as his education advisor!  

He also was interviewed on our WBAI radio show and podcast Talk out of School  in Nov.  2021.

James was one of the most vital, energetic, courageous, intelligent, and compassionate people I have ever met.  He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.  My deepest sympathy goes to his family.

Below is an excerpt from my speech at the 2011 Skinny Awards, with praise from a former student and colleagues.


Our last Skinny award goes to someone who I have known and admired for many years.

First of all, I’d like to say that I feel personally connected with the fate of Jamaica as my mother-in-law taught there for many years.   Luckily for her, she passed away a few years ago before she could hear what this administration wants to do with it.  

I met James Eterno about seven years ago and he actually appeared at the first forum I ever organized on class size; I invited a principal, a parent, an academic, a student and a teacher talk about the importance of class size , and James was the teacher, and he spoke eloquently about how much easier it was to engage and reach students when he had the rare chance to have a smaller class.

He has supported our work over the years, even as he has worked hard as a teacher and as an advocate to save his school and steer the entire system in a different direction. 

As a teacher, he is incredibly committed; one of his students. Sharmin Piannca, was quoted in the Queens Chronicle as saying: “The teachers do nothing but good things for you here…Mr. Eterno stayed after school for three hours a day to help me prepare for AP tests.”

I asked Sharmin to share more of her observations.  This is what she wrote:

 “I would love to comment on Mr. Eterno. I've known him for about 3 years now and he's always stepped in as the substitute father figure at school. He is charismatic and builds nothing but good confidence in his students. He'll make you feel like you're on top of the world.

He's very gracious with his time and sacrificed a lot for us. Not to mention he's also a great teacher. I've always had fun debating in both the two classes I had with him-global history and AP U.S history. Frankly, I feel like I'm one step closer to a scholar than the typical high school student, however arrogant that may seem.

Plenty of teachers like Mr. Eterno go unnoticed and I think it's important to shed light on their intelligence and success in the classroom. I can guarantee from the friends I've spoken to over the years from top high schools like Bronx science and Brooklyn Tech don't have teachers that are half as great as some of our teachers at Jamaica like Mr. Eterno."

Incidentally, Sharmin also had wonderful things to say about three other teachers of hers who are here tonight:. …

“Ms. Mclean really pushes her students and is an awesome AP biology teacher,  Mr. Mostachio is a law teacher who is incredibly intelligent not just on the subjects he teaches but life in general, and Ms. Sutera, who is just so strong and powerful-not just because she's a phys ed teacher but she loves what she does and she's a darn good coach!”

But to get back to James.  I have seen him countless times, at rallies, at hearings, and even testifying at City Council hearings about why Jamaica HS must be saved.  He must work 24 hours a day, and is so impressive with the facts,  figures and the passion that make his presentations so compelling.  

I know that he is also an inspiration to his fellow teachers; who were literally banging on the doors to be here tonight, so they could honor him. Here is what a fellow teacher, Marc Epstein had to say:

"I was thinking of a way to best describe James’s role as defender of the teaching staff at embattled Jamaica High School, to those who don’t know him, and this is what came to mind.

If you were in a foxhole on Guadalcanal in 1942, and you faced a nighttime banzai attack from Japanese Imperial marines, you’d want James in the foxhole with you.
Conversely, if James was fighting for Emperor Hirohito in the jungles of the Philippines, I can guarantee you that he’d still be carrying out his duties in defense of the empire in 2011.
If all our UFT chapter chairs were as tenacious, fearless, and as well versed in the teacher’s contract as James is, I doubt that we’d be in the mess we are in today.”
 is what another fellow teacher, Dena Gordon, said about James:

“James Eterno is what a chapter leader should be. He fights for all of us. He has fought to improve the educational opportunities for all the children of New York. I feel so lucky to be able to stand by James during this difficult time and have him by my side. He has mentored a generation of people showing what it really means to fight for the children of this city of New York.”

James, will you come and receive the 2011 Skinny award, as a teacher warrior, battling to save NYC schools?


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