Ordinarily, pedestrians passing through New York City's hard-edged East Harlem neighborhood on a gray January morning might not be inclined to smile.
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
The school day at EHS runs from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., 11 months a year. Parents must agree to check and sign all homework assignments and keep their kids away from TV on school nights.
One of the school's goals is to get as many children as possible into outstanding public or private high schools. A guidance counselor works full time with the seventh- and eighth-graders on their high school prospects, and encourages many to apply for scholarships to boarding school.
Some parents say the formula succeeds remarkably well. Sheryl Moglier and Joann Spigner-Rice are waiting early outside the gates of EHS one recent morning with their daughters, hoping to get them enrolled.
"I want my daughter in this school," says Ms. Moglier, who lives in the Bronx. "My cousin went here and you should see the change in him. He reads instead of watching TV. He takes the future seriously." He's now at one of the city's best public high schools, she says, playing on the basketball team and pulling good grades.
Many EHS students, too, say they love the more disciplined life at their school. "I don't miss TV," insists fifth-grader Deanna Pagan. "It just wastes time. This is much more important. It's getting us ready for college and to get good jobs."
Anyway, she says, "Ivan tells us TV just fills our minds with negative images."
Although they do little teaching now, the relationship the Hageman brothers have with the students remains one of the foundations of the school. "They're tough on the kids but the kids adore them," says Emily Swistel, an intern from Dartmouth College. "When Ivan is in the room, all eyes are on him."
Small classes, quiet moments
Classes at EHS are no larger than 15 students, and often begin with a moment of silent meditation. Twice a week there are silent breakfasts and lunches, but sometimes these are really occasions for Ivan to play ringmaster.
At one recent silent meal, Ivan teased the kids as they ate, telling them how tough he was going to be in a comparative- religion class he plans to teach. He also practiced his Spanish on them, and then broke into a rendition of "The Girl From Ipanema." The students laughed and smiled as he talked, and a few adoringly hung on him.
EHS has little of the ringing bells and slamming lockers to which so many middle-school children are accustomed. The school day here is divided into two long periods, a humanities block combining English, social studies, and writing, and a science and math section.
From 2:30 till 3:15 p.m., everybody meets in "family group," where students and faculty may share thoughts about the issues of the day. That's followed by a study hall, and then an activities period, which may include judo, chess, dance, basketball, or wrestling.
Last year, the school's eighth-graders all scored above the national norm on standardized tests, and all but one got a scholarship to a private school or a spot in a competitive public high school.
Private gifts have also allowed some students to have exotic off-site experiences, like a trip to the Bahamas to study ecosystems, or a dog-sledding expedition in Minnesota led by Hans.
Not every child makes it here, however. Ivan blames some mismatches on not spending enough time to ensure that parents understood the program. Some, he says, dismiss the TV ban as unnecessary and balk at being required to sign homework.
But those kids who do make it speak enthusiastically about the difference between EHS and their public school experiences.
"In public school, people just walk out of classes, say whatever to the teacher," says Wesley Miller, a sixth-grader. "The teachers there say they care about the students, but they don't act like it."
At EHS, Wesley says, "You get smarter, you learn more." Plus, he adds, somebody here cares about his future.
"Ivan and Hans," he says, rubbing absently at a stray ink mark on his cheek and casting a serious gaze upward through long, dark eyelashes. "They want to pass the right path to us."
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