Librado Romero / The New York Times

Harold O. Levy '74 visits Public School 189, a school he attended, on his first day serving as interim New York City Schools chancellor in January of 2000.

December 2, 2018

Harold O. Levy ’74, Transformative Figure in New York City Public Schools, Dies at 65

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Harold Levy ’74 J.D ’79, former head of the New York City public school system and a spirited advocate for education, died from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis on Tuesday at the age of 65. Levy’s contemporaries recounted a zeal and energy that left a lasting impact on thousands of underprivileged and minority children in his prodigious career.

The son of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, Levy grew up in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1970, 30 years before taking the helm as chancellor of the very same school system of his alma mater — the largest in the country and among the most diverse.

Levy’s drive was evident even during college. As an undergraduate in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Levy served on the University Senate and was eventually elected student trustee. Prof. Barry Strauss ’74, history and classics — who was one of Levy’s friends during college — remembered him as intellectual and ambitious in a time when, “for a lot of people, [being ambitious] wasn’t cool.”

Before becoming an education reformer, the young Harold O' Levy ’74 J.D. ‘79 was a Sun columnist and an avid student politician.

Before becoming an education reformer, the young Harold O’ Levy ’74 J.D. ‘79 was a Sun columnist and an avid student politician.

“What struck me about Harold freshman year was just how mature and pragmatic he was,” said Joel Rudin ’74, who met Levy the first week of freshman year. “He was years ahead of the most of the rest of us in terms of being level-headed and understanding [of] how things get done in the world.”

The former student trustee was also a columnist and member of The Sun’s editorial writing board. Sun alumni advisor John Schroeder ’74, who as associate editor worked with Levy, remembered him as a “principled student politician” who was always concerned about empowering students — and “one of the best, one of the most intelligent, most articulate” columnists he worked with.

Mature though he may have been, Levy’s classmates also reflected on his lighter side during his time as an undergraduate. While in student government, he passed a resolution to keep the song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in the Willard Straight jukebox forever. When a brick flooring was added under the A.D. White statue, Levy and some friends from The Sun put a hoop on A.D. White’s head and played basketball to “protest” the brick patio, a controversial construction at the time, according to Strauss.

In his early career, Levy was a corporate lawyer for CitiGroup, now one of the largest banks in the U.S., but he supported and advocated for public education even before his time as the New York public school system’s chancellor from 2000 to 2002.

Levy chaired the City Bar Association’s Committee on Education and worked pro bono for several community organizations. He was president of the University Settlement Society of New York, an education center for immigrant communities. 

When Levy started as interim chancellor, he was appointed against the wishes of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Within four months, Levy won popular support from many city officials, and Giuliani endorsed him to become the formal chancellor.

Levy’s list of accomplishments in only two years leading the behemoth school system are evidence of an energy and pragmatism that ran throughout his time in office.

He established a summer school to pick up the slack for 300,000 failing students, doing away with automatic promotion to the next grade. He opened new specialized high schools, founded the New York City Teaching Fellows to recruit thousands of teachers and led the schools through 9/11.

When Levy began his chancellorship in 2000, there were four specialized public schools in the city. Over two years, Levy spurred the opening of three more: the High School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College; the High School of American Studies at Lehman College; and the High School for Sciences at York College.

“Harold had an indomitable spirit and really big heart, both of which led him to devote much of his career to providing greater educational opportunities to all young people, but especially those from low income families,” said Alessandro Weiss, principal of the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, in a phone call to The Sun.

After serving as chancellor, Levy remained devoted to education. He continued to visit many of the schools he helped create over the course of his time in various offices, sitting in on classes and meeting students even after his official responsibilities ended, according to Weiss.

Levy convened national conventions for principals of specialized high schools from all over the country, joined the Kaplan Education Foundation and invested in education through Palm Ventures. In 2014, he became the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships to students with financial need. Alessandro Bailetti ’12, who was a Cooke scholar, remembers Levy as a “different kind of director.”

“He was such an example,” Bailetti said. “It’s difficult for me to change the verb from ‘is’ to ‘was’ because I feel like he’s still so fresh. I still feel like he’s still around. His legacy will live forever with every student his work touched.”

Even when Levy was diagnosed with ALS in 2017, he continued advocating for education reform. Levy wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that called for changes in the college admissions process to make it more accessible for low-income students. Levy wanted to end legacy admissions and increase guidance counselors.

“Please stop giving to your alma mater,” Levy wrote. “Donors to top universities are getting hefty tax deductions to support a system that can seem calculated to ensure that the rich get richer.”

Levy is survived by his wife, Pat Sapinsley, and two children Hannah Levy ’13 and Noah Levy ’16. He died in his home in Manhattan.