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Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as Harlem Knights

Harlem Knights

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The school operates nearly year-round, closing for only a few weeks in August.

Hans put his entrepreneurial skills to work writing grant proposals. One of his first calls was to John F. Kennedy Jr., a former collegue from the district attorney's office and a member of the board of directors for the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity founded by Wall Street financiers. At Kennedy's urging, the foundation awarded a $50,000 grant as seed money for a year-round, academically challenging middle school for the children of East Harlem.

For much of 1992, only Hans and a receptionist were paid, while he refined his proposal. Ivan joined Hans in the spring of 1993, and the East Harlem School at Exodus House opened the following fall with 13 students.

The school operates nearly year-round, closing for only a few weeks in August. It occupies three stories of the old Exodus House, a large utilitarian cinderblock building.

Students pay a tuition of $100 a month, 12 months a year. Parents who can't afford that help out around the school in a variety of ways. Tuition brings in about $50,000 a year, leaving Hans to hustle up grants and arrange fund-raisers to cover the rest of the $500,000 budget. Each of the brothers makes a little more than $40,000 a year. Salaries for the other faculty members range from the mid $20,000s to the low $30,000s.

Since opening in 1993, the school has produced three graduating classes, with 22 students going off to such prestigious East Coast boarding schools as Miss Porter's, Miss Hall's, and Northfield Mount Hermon, as well as to a number of New York City public high schools.

Like all visitors to the East Harlem School at Exodus House, I was buzzed in through a large wrought-iron gate. I was greeted there by a student dressed in the school uniform-blue pants or skirt and a white shirt. The student introduced himself, shook my hand, and welcomed me to "our school." His self-confidence and direct, courteous manner were not what I was used to from most youngsters his age.

"We expect them to carry themselves with a whole lot of dignity," Ivan told me later. That means there is no talking in class while others are speaking, and no teasing, cursing, or slumping in seats, among other things.

"They really want you to learn and make something of yourself," 14-year-old Keyerra Fredericks said of the Hagemans. "If students slouch in their seats, the teacher tells them to sit up and take the pen out of their mouth. We're asked to do two to three rewrites of essays, and our final project paper-10 pages long-has to be revised four times."

As in many alternative public schools, the classes at East Harlem are interdisciplinary. English and social studies are interwoven, as are science and math, and each class runs one to two hours. Classes are small-15 students at the most. The school day is long, stretching from 7:45 in the morning to 6 in the evening. Students spend the last two hours in supervised study hall doing homework.

In addition to Hans and Ivan, the school employs four teachers. Although none of them came to East Harlem with much traditional teaching experience, they each have impressive backgrounds. Laurent Alfred, who teaches humanities, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, swam for the 1992 St. Croix Olympic team, and lived for a time in the Cameroons. He speaks fluent French and Creole.

What impressed me most during my visits to East Harlem was the students' dignity and decorum, the intellectual rigor of their schoolwork, and the way they are dealing with their demons. This, I learned, was no accident. The school's dual mission is to challenge kids academically and build character. The Hagemans want to give their students the skills they will need to succeed both in school and society. Explains Ivan, "We're trying to develop children who are able to compete in the market-driven economy we live in but who make opportunities available to others who don't have opportunities-like we have done."

During a visit in late June, I looked on as two outside consultants wrapped up a four-week, all-school workshop on controlling emotions. You have some choice over how you feel, the consultants told the students, and you can choose to be happy.

For homework on this day, the students had written about what they were grateful for. They broke into groups and read and discussed their work. Hans led the 5th and 6th graders, who sat in a circle with notebooks open.

"I'm grateful for this school," one boy read. "I'm grateful for my father's rehabilitation from his drug addiction."

"I'm grateful for my mother," read another. "She's the person who I have always looked up to and the only person I have besides you two guys"-referring to Hans and Ivan.

One boy had written a lot: "I'm grateful for the fact that my mother is healthy and strong. She helps me when I need it, and I help her when she needs it. I'm grateful that there are numerous father figures in my life that replace the real one I don't have. I am grateful for my oldest sister who brings help when me and my mom need it. I'm grateful that my grandmother has always given me the love and the comfort that I always wanted. I'm grateful for living in a fairly good neighborhood where violence is not a problem. I'm grateful for my intelligence because without it I would be a different person. I am grateful for this school because all of my teachers love their jobs, and I am grateful that my mother cares about me and protects me from things that I fear . . ." It went on from there.

Hans stood off to one side, leaning on a cabinet and listening. He needled those who were unprepared, asked one student to repeat what he'd read more loudly, and offered some gentle comments to several others.

"I never saw my father until I was 10 years old," one boy said. "He does these bad things, and then he asks me to forgive him."

Hans, in a stern but compassionate voice, declared, "No one says you have to forgive him; it doesn't mean you have to."

To another, he suggested that forgiveness might be an appropriate next step.

The children listened attentively. They seemed to draw comfort from their classmates' stories. Only when the circle broke up and I could see the students' faces did it sink in that these were only 10- and 11-year-olds.

'We expect them to carry themselves with a whole lot of dignity.'

Ivan Hageman
East Harlem School

Several days later, I returned to watch the 8th graders present their final projects to the school community. They had spent several months studying intelligence, and in their readings they had explored such topics as whether intelligence is genetically or environmentally determined.

They chose to display what they'd learned in a TV talk-show format. Though the presentations were fun and entertaining, the topics they covered were meaty and grounded in their readings, which had ranged from The Bell Curve to Howard Gardner's intriguing theory about multiple intelligences.

During one segment, an "expert" defended Gardner's ideas, while another argued in favor of a more simplistic view of intelligence. The students then paused for "a commercial break" for Rogaine for the Brain-"Rub it in and you'll be smart"-and then returned for a fierce debate on social Darwinism. No one read from cue cards; they clearly knew their stuff.

After the presentations, which lasted well over an hour, members of the audience asked questions. Ivan and Hans launched a barrage. Many put the students on the spot, challenging some aspect of what they had said. The brothers also posed hypothetical situations and asked the students how the various ideas and theories they had studied would apply. Although a couple of the students seemed flustered, most were prepared for the assault and seemed to relish firing back.

This kind of grilling was nothing new for the 8th graders, humanities teacher Alfred told me. They'd had lots of practice, particularly in Ivan's critical-thinking class, where they'd read and discussed scholars and leaders from Plato and Pascal to Frederick Douglass and Lao tzu. "Ivan will often play devil's advocate to get students to see the other side," Alfred said. "Kids know they can't get away with a lot of ticky-tack answers."

"In my old school," 6th grader Michael Tyler said, "no one paid attention. The quietest kids seemed to be well-behaved in the teachers' point of view. Here, if you are quiet, you are not participating, you're passive, you're not showing effort. Here they teach you to be aggressive so you can get good jobs and get into good boarding schools."

Ivan launched the critical-thinking class because he'd begun to feel that the school was not pushing the students hard enough. He abandoned a Spanish class he'd been teaching and simply turned it into critical thinking. To some extent, this by-the-seat-of-the-pants flexibility is key to the school's success. When something isn't working, the faculty simply changes it. And when teachers decide discipline is needed, they set a rule: No earrings bigger than a quarter; no basketball for boys if there is "trash talking" on the court; if you don't have your homework on Monday, then you go to study hall on Saturday. In the early years, students only got teacher comments on their report cards; now they get letter grades, as well.

Ivan oversees this kind of tinkering with the school program. Hans, meanwhile, is trying to raise $2 million to restore an adjoining building that was donated to the school by the brothers' parents. They hope to use some of the extra space to offer a residential option to students.

Hans' fundraising expedition to the Arctic next year is timed to commemorate the 90th anniversary of black explorer Matthew Henson's trip to the North Pole. The trip will cover 130 miles in two weeks-without sled dogs. He works out every day and has already gone to the Arctic once in preparation. He intends to line up corporate sponsors as well as individual pledges.

It's a daring endeavor. But the brothers have put themselves at risk for the school before. When the East Harlem School first opened, Hans and Ivan confronted the drug dealers who were working the street. They wanted the drug trade off the block. It was a tense time. "My brother and I had to be prepared to meet violence," Hans told me. On the advice of the police, Hans and Ivan wore bulletproof vests until the dealers agreed to take their business elsewhere.

Why are they willing to take such risks for the school? "Survival guilt" may be one of the reasons, Ivan concedes. "We succeeded when people across the street didn't," he says. "We had wonderful, highly educated, literate parents to model language and behavior. It was patently unfair that we were given so much."

In a sense, Ivan and Hans Hageman are sharing their riches. They could be ensconced on Wall Street or in Washington or nearly anywhere else, making big money and living on easy street. Instead they've come home to East 103rd Street, to give kids from their old neighborhood some of the opportunities the two of them got.

Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 30-34

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