In 1966 Foster became the first black principal of a Philadelphia senior high school, assigned to Simon Gratz with the task of making significant improvements at the school. Gratz was infamous for its city-highest levels of truancy and dropouts, with a graduation rate of only 72%. Only 18 of its graduating seniors from the previous year had pursued higher education. According to Mary James, community coordinator at the school, “Gratz didn’t have a band; it didn’t have [new] uniforms for its sports teams and no one could find the college guidance office before Marcus [Foster] came here.”
Making an immediate impact, Foster burned the school’s hand-me-down athletic uniforms and ordered new ones. Within three years Foster had instituted a band, a choir and an honor society, and built a new gymnasium. He sought to instill a sense of pride in the student body; student chants of “Gratz is for rats” were soon replaced with “Gratz is Great” buttons. Foster worked to bring dropouts back to school, often through personal visits. His “Go for Gratz” campaign re-enrolled 150 dropouts in one day and 225 within a week’s time. School parent Mrs. Arrie Ellis said: “My son would not have graduated if it hadn’t been for Dr. Foster.” Foster instituted a night school for career skills development and persuaded local research laboratories to train students in medicine and biochemistry. He established a nursing training program. By 1968, 180 of the graduates were heading to college, and had received $166,000 in scholarships.
In 1970, Foster became superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, the first black man to fill that role in any large California school district. Foster took the position to determine whether his developed ideas could “be used to get a whole school system moving and a whole community involved in the schools.” Foster encountered initial resistance from the Black Caucus (a radical group) for their exclusion from the selection process and from black militants “for accusing them of creating racial tensions.” Foster said, “I stepped on some toes and did receive severe threats, but it was just so much talk. It’s more bark than bite.” Foster soon began to make progress, rewarding perfect attendance to counteract high truancy and working to bring peace to the schools.
Foster was murdered on November 6, 1973, by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a left-wing urban militant group famously known for its kidnapping of Patty Hearst, shortly after their execution of Foster. He was shot as he left work, struck seven times in the back and once in the stomach by cyanide-laced bullets. Ironically, despite all of his work for black students, the SLA viewed Foster as an enemy of black people. They killed him for his alleged support of a student identification card program and for police patrols in school buildings, but in fact he opposed both proposals. Although his life was cut tragically short, Foster’s legacy lives on through the Marcus Foster Education Fund, an organization that promotes community involvement as the best way to transform urban education.
Tamara A. Measler
Sources: Obituary, Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 8, 1983; Acel Moore, “Gratz High Mourns Foster,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 8, 1973; “Oakland School Chief Marcus Foster Is Slain,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 7, 1973; Frederik Ohles, et al, Biographical Dictionary of Modern American Educators (Westport, CT, 1997), 116; Michael Taylor, “Forgotten Footnote: Before Hearst, SLA killed educator,” SFGate.com, Nov. 14, 2002; Hugh J. Scott, et al, “Marcus A. Foster: Tribute and Reflection,” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 55, no. 6 (Feb. 1974); “Crime: Murder in California,” Time.com, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,944720,00.html; “Dr. Marcus A. Foster,” Marcus Foster Education Fund, http://www.marcusfoster.org/about; Harry C. Silcox, “In Memory of Marcus A. Foster 1923-1973,” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 54, no.1 (Feb. 1974).. The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records, Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 8, folder 17: newspaper clippings; Series 3 (Award Ceremony), Box 17, folder 11: newspaper clippings. Photo: Courtesy of Temple University Urban Archives. Comments: Foster made clever comments, mildly provocative and easy to remember, that reflected his educational philosophy. Here are a few examples: “It’s easy to say that you’re going to help children become socially competent…But you can easily wind up with well-mannered ignoramuses.” “I don’t like to hear children called ‘bad’ because they don’t learn. You never hear of a doctor call someone a ‘bad’ patient because he didn’t get well.” “”Everyone knows if teachers go into schools expecting youngsters to act like hoodlums, and do sloppy work or no work at all, they will begin to produce just that.” While working as an educator, Foster earned a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.