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A school grows in Harlem

Two brothers build a middle school that demands a lot -and gets kidsto deliver

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 9, 1999


Ordinarily, pedestrians passing through New York City's hard-edged East Harlem neighborhood on a gray January morning might not be inclined to smile.

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On this particular day, however, grins emerge as passersby make way for a lengthy column of middle-school children from the East Harlem School at Exodus House who are hurtling along the sidewalk with energy worthy of a military parade.

They're on what principal Ivan Hageman jokingly calls the "death march," a brisk walk-run to Central Park. To Mr. Hageman, exercise is a strategy for self-improvement - exactly what he and his brother, Hans, are trying to teach the 55 children at EHS.

Across the country, sagging test scores and high drop-out rates continue to trouble most city schools, and the debate still burns

over how best to improve urban education. These problems have prompted calls for smaller classes, earlier intervention for at-risk children, and more-qualified teachers. They have also spurred a burgeoning movement toward alternative schools - from charter schools to private enterprises - in neighborhoods that previously offered little if anything by way of school choice.

For the Hagemans, the answer lies in a small-school environment, lots of personal attention, high expectations, and a balance between serious academics and concern with personal development. The intent of the private school, which opened in 1993 with just 13 students, is to help neighborhood children who might slip between the cracks strengthen skills and become aware of new possibilities.

"We're interested in the whole person," says Hans, executive director of the school. "We've been given a strong core of values and we bring these to the school."

An unusual legacy

The Hageman brothers bring to the students at EHS the legacy of their own unusual boyhoods. Their father, Lynn, was a minister who in the 1960s founded Exodus House, a drug rehabilitation center located in the East Harlem building that now houses EHS.

Ivan and Hans grew up in one of America's toughest neighborhoods, but their academic skills gained them entrance to some highly privileged circles. Ivan sped through Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in three years, while Hans graduated from Princeton University in New Jersey, and then earned a law degree from Columbia University. But despite the promise of more lucrative careers, both ultimately decided to return home and continue the family commitment to service.

Instead of drug rehabilitation, however, the two brothers focused in on education, pouring their energies into giving at least some neighborhood children access to top-quality schooling in which responsibility, discipline, a greater awareness of the outside world, and rigorous academics are woven into the curriculum.

The vast majority of EHS students come from families living at or below the poverty level. Most live in single-parent homes, and some have seen their families ripped apart by crack-cocaine use. A few end up homeless, which is why the brothers hope eventually to add a dormitory to the school.

They decided to use the physical asset they had at hand - the building that had housed Exodus House - to set up the Grades 5-through-8 middle school. They faced the same financial hurdle any would-be school founder might. But the Hagemans found the necessary resources by tapping into networks built up over years at the high-power schools they attended.

Both brothers were scholarship students at Manhattan's Collegiate School - the prep school that John Kennedy Jr. also attended. They got him interested in their project, and received a $50,000 grant in start-up money from the Robin Hood Foundation, a group that includes Mr. Kennedy among its board members and is the school's largest donor.

Tuition at EHS is $1,100 a year, with parents paying what they can afford. The admissions process is fairly loose, based largely on the Hagemans' determination that the child will benefit from what the school has to offer. Equally essential to the Hagemans is some kind of commitment from parents that they understand what the school will demand of students.

A full-time operation