Storefront Schooling At No Charge

One-man neighborhood initiative grows into thriving Harlem elementary school

ON a tour of Harlem's East 129th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, Ned O'Gorman looks past the dilapidated, burned-out buildings and tells the story of the school he has nurtured on this block for 26 years.

Mr. O'Gorman points out the storefront on Madison Avenue where he originally founded the Children's Storefront in 1966. Trash and debris cover the area and an old tattered sofa barricades the entrance. Around the corner, another former location is sealed shut with cinder blocks.

"When I came here 26 years ago," O'Gorman says, "there was a green grocer, a laundry, a fish market, a drugstore. There were all sorts of wonderful things. Then the crack world came in and everybody left. Now we've got the church, the funeral parlor, and the remnants of the grocery store. And that's it."

Yet, thanks to the Children's Storefront, the block is still alive with children's voices. Students play double Dutch on the sidewalk and scamper back and forth across the street, which is closed to traffic during school hours.

The Storefront, which now occupies two row houses on one side of East 129th Street and a sparkling new building across the street, offers a free education to 120 students from preschool to eighth grade.

As fifth-grade student Vincent Robinson puts it: "You don't have to pay, and you can learn a lot."

The school is so popular that the waiting list for admission stretches 400 names long. "The phone rings every day with someone wanting to bring their child here," says O'Gorman, who still serves as headmaster of the school.

Funding for the $1.7 million annual budget comes from foundations, corporations, and individuals. The school accepts no government grants.

The Storefront began as a preschool and after-school program, offering books, meals, and love to neighborhood children. "I've never taken an education course in my life and never will," O'Gorman says. "I'm a poet. I'm not a professional teacher."

The Children's Storefront remained a preschool for 15 years. "Moms would come in with baby carriages and leave the kids," O'Gorman says. "I would feed the children."

In 1981, he decided to expand the Storefront beyond preschool. "We didn't see any point in sending the kids out of here at five years old and into the public school system, which for the most part in New York City is a doomed structure," says O'Gorman.

The initial first-grade class had just four students, and the entire school had a student population of 24 in 1981. Since then, the school has added one grade each year, until 1989 when the first class of eighth-graders graduated and the expansion was complete.

Last year, an anonymous $1.2 million donation allowed the school to buy and renovate its new building. "If you've lived here for a long time, it looks funny to see that building there," says Antoinette Williams, pointing to the pristine schoolhouse.

Ms. Williams attended the Children's Storefront as a preschooler in 1967. She still lives on 129th Street and now works as an assistant teacher at the school.

"I just remember a small room with a lot of books," she says of the early Storefront. "It started me off for education."

Williams recalls days when O'Gorman would come get her if her mother didn't bring her to school. "He was always full of a lot of love," she says.

Many people in the neighborhood were suspicious of O'Gorman when he first arrived, Williams says. What was this white man doing in their neighborhood? "They couldn't understand it at first," she says. "They tried to give him a hard time and run him off the block."

Nearly three decades later, O'Gorman and the neighbors seem to have reached an understanding. "He's making a school out of abandoned buildings," Williams says. "He's here for a reason - to make things better, not to take over the block."

O'Gorman says his mission is to "educate and liberate and heal the kids who come here."

"We're sort of a maverick place," he says. "What we try to do is get more or less a rounded kid out of here. So that they understand something about the human family."

Classes are small, with a student-to-teacher ratio of about 15 to 1. The school's offerings far exceed most elementary and middle schools - public or private. There's science, drama, music, art, computers, physical education, and three years of compulsory Latin.

"I learn as much as I need to learn. And that's too much," says fourth-grader Msgivenchi (Gigi) Jennings.

Along with most of the students at the Children's Storefront, Gigi has never attended any other school; she came here when she was less than two years old.

"I don't think she would survive in public school," says Gigi's mother, Robin Jennings. "There's too many children. She loves a lot of attention so public school wouldn't do her no good. They're like a family here."

Turnover - like absenteeism - is low at the school. "They hardly ever leave," says preschool teacher Kathleen McKelvy. "We get attached to each other." About a dozen new students came into the upper school this fall, she says. And another dozen or so came into the preschool.

"We always save a couple of spaces for kids that are sort of out on a limb and don't know how to get back to the trunk," Ms. McKelvy says.

Classes are generally grouped into two grade levels. And each class includes students with a range of abilities, O'Gorman says.

"There's nothing very revolutionary about our teaching methods here except as those teaching methods are embodied in the charisma of all of our teachers," O'Gorman says.

Lerine Reynolds has seen positive results for her two children who have attended the Storefront. Her daughter graduated from the school three years ago; she's now thriving at an alternative high school in the city.

"She wants to be an obstetrician, and she wants to go to Cornell," Ms. Reynolds says of her daughter. "But that's a little bit out of my reach."

Reynolds's youngest son is in second grade at the school now. "My kids were in public school and the atmosphere was horrible," she says. "Here it's not only a school for teaching. If you have outside problems, they help you. The teachers just don't have time for that in public school."

Reynolds's greatest regret is not finding the Children's Storefront earlier. "If I had found this school years ago, I could have saved my older son," she says. "He dropped out of school, and he's not satisfied with the job he has."

Jeff Grant, who teaches seventh- and eighth-graders at the Storefront, came to the school six years ago after teaching at a private school that catered to wealthy students.

He describes his former students as the kind that "if you don't teach them, they'll get taught by their parents. Here, you really feel the sense of urgency and responsibility," he says.

Mr. Grant remembers his first year on the job at the Storefront. "Ned gave me my classroom and said, `Here you go.' He doesn't tamper."

That independence brings out the best in teachers, says Rita Brown, who has taught at the school for three years. "The independence that Ned gives us makes you want to be more accountable and keep pushing yourself."

In the school's "Reading Room," Ms. Brown works with students who need extra help with reading.

"This is probably one of the most difficult areas of Harlem," says Brown, who was born and raised here. "They come in angry and hurting," she says of the children.

As she speaks quietly at a table in the small room, Brown points to a child at another table who is struggling to focus on her work with a volunteer tutor. "This is a very angry child who we love," Brown says. "It's OK if she's mad today. We still want to help her. This is what the Children's Storefront is all about: not giving up."

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