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IN MEMORIAM ∙ Bill Jesinkey, 1934—2014

William JesinkeyWilliam (Bill) Jesinkey, the founding Executive Director of Advocates for Children and a leader in special education in New York City, died on December 25, 2014, at the age of 80. Bill was a brilliant and imaginative thinker and practical doer, who throughout his career was able to bring people and groups together and use untapped resources to create outstanding educational programs and services for the City’s neediest students.

Bill grew up in South Brooklyn, graduated from Manhattan College, and received a Masters degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. In 1960, he became a teacher in the City’s public school system, working in the “600 schools,” which at the time warehoused students—almost entirely Black and Latino boys—who were thrown out of other schools because of behavior problems. Bill found that most of the kids he worked with had emotional and other disabilities that interfered with their learning, but despite state and federal laws mandating and funding services for students with disabilities, they were not even considered for appropriate educational services.

In the early 1970s, based on his unique experience and knowledge, and using his leadership and organizing skills, Bill undertook a campaign to challenge what he saw as the denial of students’ educational rights. He brought together concerned groups and individuals to pool resources and obtain foundation and public funding to create the organization that became Advocates for Children. The mission of the organization—which guides AFC to this day—was to provide educational advocacy for individual kids and families and, based on issues emerging from its cases, work for systemic public education reform through research, organizing, administrative negotiation, and impact litigation. Bill’s influential “Lost Children” report, documenting the school system’s failure to provide appropriate educational services to the most disadvantaged students, was AFC’s first publication.

In parallel effort, Bill formed a partnership with a group of Christian Brothers in Queens who were working in parochial schools and were frustrated by their inability to help the young people in their community. Together they established the Martin de Porres School, an exemplary special education school for children and youth with emotional disabilities. The school remains in existence today, along with a related, independent program, the Martin de Porres Group Homes, which serves students who need residential care.

Bill was committed to public education, and once AFC and Martin de Porres were firmly established, he returned to the school system, working as a special educator. In 1983, he was appointed by the Chancellor of the City’s public schools as Superintendent of the Division of Special Education. As Superintendent, Bill worked tirelessly to create and provide quality educational programs and services to students with severe disabilities and to persuade principals across the system to consider these kids as their children.

After he retired from the school system, Bill continued to apply his leadership and knowledge to special and public education projects. He maintained his relationship with AFC throughout his life, and his selfless, passionate efforts resulted in quality educational services for thousands of students. He was an inspirational mentor who leaves a wonderful legacy in the countless teachers and advocates he influenced. Bill’s obituary card aptly quoted the statement of Francis of Assisi, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

By Jane Stern, former Executive Director of AFC, and Richard Sexton, former AFC Board Member.