“Whose fault is it that Johnny can’t read? It isn’t Johnny’s fault,” Carol Reich says as we sit in a small conference room decorated with photos from a recent African Safari, snow piling up on Third Avenue 18 floors below us.
“The public education system in New York has lost its way,” her husband Joe says. “Teachers can’t make decisions, principals can’t make decisions. The average textbook is 19 years old. There are instances of leaking roofs that no one comes to look at for five or six years.”
Those are strong words, and the Reichs are just warming up. But they have also put their money, and their heart and soul and a whole lot of hard work, where their collective mouth is. While everyone else just talks about improving education, Joe and Carol Reich (pronounced “rich”) have created the Beginning with Children School. The school opened in September 1992 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, with one class each of kindergarten and first grade. Every year, two kindergarten classes are added. Now there are some two hundred kids attending, and there will eventually be 350 students in grades K through 6. Beginning with Children School is a public school open to Brooklyn students, with preference given to those living in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick. The first completely bilingual school in the system, it is run by a coalition of parents, the Board of Education, the United Federation of Teachers, the Pfizer Corporation, community leaders, and the Reichs’ own foundation.
So far, the school is an unqualified success and is showing every sign of becoming a model for public-private partnerships. In the meantime it is changing the lives, not just of the two hundred students who are now attending, but also of the entire community.
So who are Joe and Carol Reich? Getting them to talk about themselves is like trying to open oysters with a toothpick. They are so down-to-earth as to be positively subterranean, friendly and unassuming, with a genuine sense of humility. They’d rather talk about the school and everyone who helped them build it. It takes some convincing to get them to tell their own story.
Joe grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, and Carol is from Chicago. They met as undergraduates at Cornell. After Joe graduated, he took a commission in the Navy. They got married and bounced around the country a bit while Joe fulfilled his Navy duties and earned an M.B.A. from Stanford. In 1961 they moved to New York.
Like a lot of young people when they first move to New York, the Reichs had a hard time getting an apartment—it took them three months to find their first place—and they didn’t have much money. “We felt very poor,” Carol says. “We used to walk up and down the streets at night, because the shops were closed and it was okay to press your nose up against the glass. It was like being a little match girl.”
“But it was exciting,” Joe remembers, and his wife agrees.
Their three girls were raised in Brooklyn, attending private schools. Meanwhile, the city that the Reichs came to more than thirty years ago changed. “The casualty to children in this city is enormous,” Carol says.
Joe is realistically optimistic. “It’s more exciting right now. Some of the real problems that just kept getting worse are beginning to be addressed with fresh ideas.”
“We were raised and educated to think that anything is possible,” Carol says. She’s an attractive woman, with eyes whose fierce intelligence does not diminish her kindly aspect. Joe seems like a clean-cut banker type, until you notice what could be the makings of a respectable ponytail creeping down the back of his neck. Together they look younger than they must be.
Joe worked as an investment manager and his experience was entrepreneurial. Every business he got involved in was either a small company that grew big or one that he helped start himself. They were, in his words, “organizations that had no structure and could be changed or created.” Whenever a company he was working for got too big or bureaucratic, he’d start a new one.
Carol had done some interior design and was involved in volunteer work. But when her youngest daughter entered kindergarten, Carol went back to school herself, studying developmental psychology and specializing in the communication of knowledge. While doing research with the deaf, she worked with the Lexington School for the Deaf and eventually became president of the Lexington Center. She also worked at the Bank Street School of Education and in 1985 got her Ph.D. from CUNY in developmental psychology.
The couple hadn’t ever worked together professionally until 1987, when Reich and Tang, the investment management firm that Joe helped create, went public. The same day the firm went public, Joe started looking for a new line of work. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. But it seemed to me that in terms of priorities, we were neglecting our future. And that children and education were the future.”
Through Eugene Lang’s “I Have a Dream” program, the couple sponsored a class of sixth graders from Brooklyn, promising to pay for the college education of every student in the class who stayed in school. The Reichs quickly found they weren’t so much helping kids learn as operating a small social service agency.
The experience was a rude awakening. “It’s not about how many kids go to college, it’s about how many kids are alive,” Carol says of her Dreamers, “and all our kids are alive. I think that’s an accomplishment.” It also gave them firsthand experience in dealing with the New York City school system. They saw that the schools weren’t educating, just babysitting the students. After 18 frustrating months, Joe realized that his wife was right, they had to get to the children sooner. He suggested that they try to run a school themselves. A public school, that is.
In this case, Joe’s lack of institutional background was a plus. “I didn’t know what we would be up against,” he says. Carol had more experience dealing with the educational bureaucracy and knew it wouldn’t be easy. They met with educational leaders, both inside and outside of the system, including Joseph Shenker, the president of Bank Street College; Debbie Meier, the MacArthur Foundation genius of District 4; Sandra Feldman, the head of the United Federation of Teachers; then School Chancellor Joe Fernandez; and Sy Fliegel and Cole Genn of the Center for Educational Innovation, who helped guide the Reichs past many bureaucratic obstacles.
While everyone else supported the Reichs’ idea, Community School District 14, the same district in which Joe and Carol had sponsored their dreamers, proved an exception. “They did not want this school,” Carol says bluntly.
The district did not want a school with the broad participation (i.e., input from outside the bureaucracy) that the Reichs were projecting. They also were afraid that a new school would take per-head dollars away from the other schools in the district. But somehow, and the Reichs are not quite sure what went on behind the closed doors of the chancellor’s office, Joe Fernandez cut a deal that put the proposed school under his personal control rather than under the local school district.
At that point the Reichs still didn’t have a building for the school. So they got together with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, which has a manufacturing plant operating in Williamsburg and is in the process of a massive urban renewal project in the area. Pfizer took an early and significant role in helping create the Beginning with Children School—indeed, the Reichs say they couldn’t have done it without the company’s help. They met with Tom Kline, plant manager for Williamsburg, in an administration building that had once been the worldwide headquarters of the company and would become vacant when office personnel moved into the manufacturing plant across the street. The Reichs mentioned that they still needed a facility for the school, and Tom Kline put his hand down on the table and said, “Take this.”
“I thought he meant the conference table,” Carol remembers, “which was nice, so I said, ’Thank you.’ But he meant the whole building.”
In June 1990 the Reichs told Fernandez they were ready to start a school in one of the most underperforming districts in the city. They had $500,000 from their foundation and another $500,000 from Pfizer; and the company was willing to give them a facility.
“Can you open in September?” Fernandez asked.
They couldn’t open in September 1990. Nor in September 1991. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. You might think it would be relatively easy to donate a million dollars and a building to the City of New York to create a public school. And you might think that the East River is a river. But the byzantine and bizarre rules governing school structures, and the noodlehead bureaucrats who enforce them, made it almost impossible for the Reichs and Pfizer to give New York City a school.
At meeting after meeting, low-level bureaucrats kept erecting obstacles to the plan, using regulatory details like asbestos removal, how big a classroom should be, the number of windows per room, the number of bathrooms per floor, and the height of urinals. The bureaucrats figured that if they couldn’t keep the Reichs out of the school system by ordinary means, they might succeed in thwarting them with sheer tedium.
After about a year of the bureaucratic mambo, the Reichs realized they weren’t getting anywhere. In the middle of one of those endless, obfuscatory meetings, Joe stood up and said, “That’s it. I’m not doing this anymore. I’m not going into a meeting with any more than three people.” And he walked out of the room.
“And I was not embarrassed,” Carol adds, which is her way of saying she was proud of him.
Next, they went to the New York Times. Their story came out on the front page of the Metro section: how two successful New Yorkers were trying to put something back into the city that had been so good to them, and the city wouldn’t let them. An accompanying photo showed the couple standing across the street from the empty building that was waiting to become the Beginning with Children School.
Soon many of the impedimenta that had previously blocked their way were either removed, avoided, or ignored altogether. They worked hard preparing the school building, Carol overseeing much of the construction. Because the facility wasn’t yet ready for the beginning of the school year, they had to open in nearby Eastern District High School. Two weeks later, work on the old Pfizer building was completed, and the school was officially opened.
I visited the Beginning with Children School the day after one of the heaviest snowfalls of an already brutal winter. Even a blizzard can’t cover up the wreckage of Williamsburg. As we drove into the neighborhood, I saw acres of hollow buildings, miles of cyclone fencing topped with razor wire. The prostitutes were out strutting in their mukluks, and a few bad men were hanging out in front of one of those candy stores where you can get anything you want, except candy. Joe Reich points out the spot where a boy was gunned down near the Beginning with Children playground, right in front of the kids.
“Until we can guarantee the safety of children, I don’t know what we can do,” Carol says and then tells the story of a student who sleeps with his pillow over his head to drown out the sound of gunfire. Every kid knows someone who has been murdered.
But when you walk in the front door, past a bright, cheery sign, the school is alive with the bustle and commotion, and sometimes the chaos, of children who are learning—but who are also having a lot of fun. You get the sense that when the kids come to school they leave behind whatever troubles exist out on the street or possibly in their own homes.
The security guard has a child in the school, and she greets the Reichs warmly. We walk down the hall and into what the Board of Ed calls a multipurpose room but everyone here calls the family room. The walls are covered with large framed photos of every child in the school. Carol explains that although they keep trying to set the photos level, the kids always knock them askew, pointing their pictures out to their friends and to themselves, saying, “That’s me.”
Then into the science room, where the students keep their pet tarantula and arc observing mealworms turn into beetles. The teacher shows us the latest in computer software that the students can easily access, in Spanish or English, to learn more about animals and nature. The walls are cluttered with student projects and artwork. Against one wall, children are building a snowman out of packing foam. Carol tells the teacher that one of the students had a pet turtle that died, and she wants to make sure the child gets one of the school’s turtles to replace it.
In another classroom we walk into the gleeful pandemonium of activity time. One student is making a collage. Another is building a cardboard horse he can ride. Another is building a box for the newest additions to the class, a litter of gerbils expected any day now. A couple of students are captivated by their computers, creating artwork that is printed out by a laser printer. One of them presents an autographed original to a magazine writer. Many of the children arc wearing T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing the school’s name—while these are not officially a uniform, the kids sport them proudly. Carol and Joe seek out one student who has composed a book which he has handwritten and bound in construction paper. They ask him to read it aloud. He does so and then walks off with all the brainy swagger of a literary savant. In the writing workshops here, students write their own stories, and the teachers do not mar their work with red pencils. If there are misspellings, teachers gently encourage the student to look the word up in the dictionary. The emphasis here is on encouragement, not criticism; and the students respond. All of them are bright and eager, vying to show the Reichs (who visit the school several times a week and know all the students by name) their latest work.
The Reichs are involved in every level of the school’s operation, working closely with Sonia Ortiz-Gulardo, the immensely talented principal.
“We check accountability,” Carol says “We have the line for line budgets. If I see that there’s $10,000 for carpeting and there’s no carpeting, I’m going to ask a question.”
Although they are sticklers for accountability, the Reichs also believe in trust. Instead of getting book lists from the Board of Education, the teachers at Beginning with Children are given money to buy their own books. It ensures that the students have good, up-to-date materials, and it’s cost effective. Even basic materials are much cheaper and easier to procure from outside the bureaucratic process. Carol offers the example that a box of paper clips that costs 60 cents at the local office supply store would cost $2.80 from the Board of Ed. And it could take months to be delivered.
“Teachers need validation,” she says. And sometimes that validation can come in simple and obvious ways. Pfizer has given each Beginning with Children teacher a company ID, so they can use the cafeteria and company store. The Reichs have provided the teachers with business cards. These little things mean a lot.
The Reichs have tried to put telephones in the classrooms so the teachers could communicate directly with the parents. But they came up against the Board of Ed’s division of telephones, which required that they keep the telephones in locked boxes. A similar battle occurred over food service. Instead of having meals delivered from Central District High School, the Reichs would like to contract Pfizer’s food-service purveyor (or some other private concern) to provide lunches and snacks for their kids.
“Certain battles we just didn’t have the energy to fight,” Carol says. “We wanted to open the school.” The Reichs have to set priorities and determine what they want to go to the mat for and what must be postponed until they have sufficient political capital, not to mention stamina. These battles with the bureaucracy are often drawn-out wars of attrition, although sometimes the Reichs use unconventional methods.
“They call us urban guerrillas,” Carols says, and she clearly likes the tag. The Reichs often operate in the spirit of creative noncompliance, a phrase of Sy Fliegel’s that describes the tactic of circumventing or ignoring rules and procedures that either get in the way or are negative in effect. For example, the Board of Ed has decreed that school walls must be painted in one of four unappealing colors: pumpkin, gray, turquoise or putty. The Reichs went ahead and painted the interior of their school white with colorful racing stripes running along the corridors and huge letters and numbers emblazoned on the walls. And when they had been waiting for almost a year for cafeteria tables and chairs, one of the local contractors got some extra lumber and built them himself.
Everyone gets involved. Attendance at the regular parents’ meetings is over 80 percent. When some parents heard a rumor that the Board of Ed might try to shut down the school, they said they would march in the streets to keep their school open.
The possessive pronoun is often heard in reference to Beginning with Children. Everyone calls it “my school”—students, parents, teachers, others in the community. When the Reichs refer to “our kids,” odds are they’re talking about the schoolchildren and not their three grown daughters.
Parents are welcome to visit the school anytime, to sit in on classes, even to use the facilities themselves. There are computers in almost every classroom, and the Reichs are establishing a loan program so that the kids can take the computers home and teach their parents how to use them.
“The school is the logical center of life in a child’s community,” Joe says. “There’s no reason to close a school at three o’clock.” They’d like to keep the school open 18 hours a day, 12 months out of the year, accessible not just to students but also to parents and other members of the community. They want to reestablish curricula like art, music, and science that were diminished in the New York City schools by budget cuts. They’d like to institute an adult education program and a preschool. They want to extend the pediatric care they now offer into a full health-care program. And, most importantly, they’d like to use the school to attack the racial and ethnic hatred that seems to be bred into children before they get into kindergarten.
The Reichs hope their school will become a role model for other private-public partnerships in education. “The ingredients are there. There is a large pool of teachers who are well meaning and capable. The principals are basically fairly talented people,” Joe says. “There’s a great deal of goodwill among New York City corporations. A lot of people have been very successful here in the last 15 or 20 years, and most of them want to give something back, do something for children. They don’t know how to do it, and the school system doesn’t know how to handle it. The Board of Education has no organized way to get to those people.”
The Reichs have been contacted by educators from all over the country who are interested in their educational philosophy or governance structure and are trying to find out how they’ve succeeded where so many others have failed.
Saying that the school must grow beyond their resources, the Reichs are beginning to raise money from outside, using the foundation as a headquarters and money funnel. They are already raising funds from professional friends and business associates, but now they’re going to have to start asking foundations for support. This year the budget of the Reich’s foundation will be over $500,000, which so far has paid for the school’s physical plant and administration. Contributions go directly to programs.
In four years, the first class will graduate. As it now stands, those students will be pushed into the regular public school system, probably into their local intermediate schools. “Or else we’ll start a junior high school,” Joe says with trepidation as he considers the amount of work involved. But they’re committed, and although no one’s talking yet about graduation, I have a feeling the Reichs are going to stick with their kids.
Joe offers the following solution: “We’re hoping that, instead of us turning every stone, the system will come to us and say, ’Here’s a facility, do a junior high school.’”
Those who work with and for the Reichs—the people at Pfizer, the teachers and principal of Beginning with Children, their employees at the foundation, even the guy who drives their Lincoln Town Car—are a diverse bunch of folks, but they all share a common goal: they all love the children, and, not unimportantly, they all have a lively sense of humor. Do the Reichs attract a certain type of person, or do people who work with them become that way after prolonged contact? I don’t know how they do it, but it works.