David Patrick Columbia visits the East Harlem School
There goes the neighborhood–to a new and better place.On a Wednesday morning last month, my friend Eve Stuart took me up to the East Harlem School on East 103rd Street between First and Second Avenues. Eve is on the school's board. I'd heard of the school vaguely because another friend Bronson van Wyck had recently been honored by them at one of their fundraisers.
The school is located on the site of Exodus House, which was founded in 1963 by Dr. Lynn and Mrs. Leola Hageman as a drug addiction center. In 1984, out of "concern for the welfare and well-being of the community's many underserved, at-risk children," the Hagemans converted the site into an after-school and summer program facility. Then nine years later, the Hagemans' sons Ivan and Hans Hageman opened a year-round middle school on the original site as way of better addressing the needs of these children and their families.
The East Harlem School–or EHS, as the kids call it–is chartered by the New York State Department of Education and accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. EHS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. I add that bit of information because if the thought of helping the young ones get a better grip on their futures in this miasmic world of ours is one to consider.
I've "covered" a lot of charities and philanthropic ventures, as a regular reader knows. I am especially drawn to those organizations that assist people with their day-to-day survival with matters of food, care, children, and the animals. I grew up in an emotionally and financially stressed household and remain sensitive to the matters that children confront–especially today.
I was fortunate. I had a mother who did everything in her power (and while working) to keep us fed, clothed, and sheltered. She also was a reader by nature and got me on the road by reading to me before I went to sleep–until I could read myself. I also had sisters and aunts who looked after my welfare and assisted my mother. All children need this to progress in life. I had a father who had more problems than I can enumerate and was deeply troubled by them. This brought friction into the household, some of it violent. Fortunately, my father was never unkind or cruel to me.
I relate these matters of personal experience because they are commonplace. They are very often at the center of what confront children growing up in what is many ways a very hostile world, often both in home and outside; they can be decisive in a child's future. Unless the child gets assistance in the form of attention (kindness) and affection (kind attention), so they can learn about something better out there.
Eve Stuart loves this school and really wanted me to see what it was like. I had no expectations and morning appointments are not appealing to me since I have late nights. But I went because I knew it would be good for me to tell you about it.
We were met by one of the school's staff, who introduced us to two students: Alejandro and Camille. Both were my tour guides of the school. Alejandro and Camille are in the eighth grade and in the process of preparing to graduate to high school next year. Alejandro lives in the neighborhood and Camille has a 50-minute commute from her home in the Bronx.
The school has 150 students from Grades Four to Eight. There are never more than 18 in a classroom. Because class was in session, we couldn't go into any classrooms that were in use. Although we did see the Science Room where they learn about growing hydroponically and study modern science. I was thinking: What a great environment in which to be a student and learn. We also saw the cafeteria where the lunches are prepared with the help of the students and the menu is entirely vegetarian. We also saw the art classroom and some of the works of students, where talent becomes recognizable. The entire school starts the day with a "moment of silent." Then everyone is transported to Randall's Island nearby where they have an hour and a half of what we used to call Phys Ed. Then it's back to the classrooms.
We happened to be there when there was a change of classes. While Camille was showing us the lockers and explaining how they had no locks on them, a class broke; the hallway filled when students moving to their next classroom. They were orderly and matter-of-factly quiet. I never saw that before. In my life.
What impressed me most that these children were being taught obligation to themselves and to others, as well as the idea that challenge strengthens commitment, and they are capable of meeting it. The schools sends home a report every week on every student. If there is an issue, the family comes into discuss it. Everyone is in on the solutions.
The school year runs through July. The program is altered to accommodate the time of year. Ivan Hageman who runs the school now told me that they often accept children whose numbers are not so encouraging. Hageman is naturally drawn to the challenge of transformation and providing it for the children. Admission is based on character, not a lottery or test. When high school graduation draws near, they are all prepared to take their SATs and succeed. All of their graduates–100%–go on to college.
All families must pay to attend this private school, which is neither a charter school nor a public school. Then dollars a week, if that is all you can afford. I've been told that some have paid in change because it was about scraping together those 10 bucks. Self-respect is promised. Others pay more when they can afford it. But the main source of running the school is through fundraising.