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
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.