MAXWELL:  Harlem school helping children learn

9/5/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



While many other urban schools struggle or fail to educate their children, Harlem’s Children’s Storefront school succeeds against the odds and may be a national model for other private schools.

In three renovated brownstones, on E 129th Street, the tuition-free school provides a safe and challenging learning environment for 170 students from preschool through eighth grade.

Given the demographics of its neighborhood, the Storefront is a miracle. It is in one of Manhattan’s poorest school districts. The median income is $16,000, which explains why nearly 25 percent of the population receives public assistance. The district has the city’s highest concentration of homeless shelters and facilities for drug and alcohol treatment. All students qualify for free lunch and breakfast.

Only one-third of the district’s residents have high school diplomas, while only 10 percent hold college degrees. Public elementary and middle schools in the district are at 111 percent student capacity, and only 28 percent of these students score at or above the national average in reading.

Despite these dire numbers for the community, the Storefront gets positive results. Last year, 60 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above grade level in reading comprehension on the Stanford 9 Achievement Test, and 100 percent scored at or above grade level in mathematics. Ninety-three percent who complete eighth grade graduate from high school.

Poet Ned O’Gorman founded the school in 1966 as a place where a handful of toddlers could play safely. He believed that too many of Harlem’s children were being consumed by the crack epidemic and street violence that came with the industry. Now, the Storefront is a formal institution offering neighborhood families an alternative to public school. The campus, accredited by the New York Association of Independent Schools, has a waiting list of more than 500.

The Storefront requires no entrance exams and admits students only from low-income families in the immediate neighborhood. One powerful result of this practice is social capital. Listen to Ruth Adom, a Storefront mother: “My family has been with the Children’s Storefront in one way or another since the beginning. Both of my girls, LaMonique and Lenvenia, started here as preschoolers. I have cousins and nieces and nephews who have graduated from the school. I like the Storefront because it is like a family. When there are problems, people get together and work them out. The classes are small, and the faculty is very helpful.”

Indeed, parents have a personal stake in the school, and they do not hesitate to sign a school partnership contract. In the contract, the Storefront agrees to certain obligations, such as providing an environment where “every child is known and individual differences are appreciated.” Parents agree, for instance, to “read with my child every day for at least 15 minutes . . . and encourage good study habits and provide an environment that is conducive to learning at home.” This partnership succeeds because each side is committed to excellence. The Storefront’s mission statement encourages achievement. Here is one goal: The school’s 35 teachers and volunteers operate on the principle that “every child deserves the opportunity for an excellent education.” Another: Staff members “promote values of hard work, mutual respect and service to . . . society in a structured, joyful environment.”

Social Studies teacher Keisha Cleveland shares the secret of her classroom success: “Students know whether you believe in them, and their entire relationship with you is based on that perception.”

In addition to its competent, dedicated teachers who believe in their students, the Storefront offers a student-teacher ratio of 7 to 1, enabling the staff to meet the individual needs of the students. The preschool is Montessori-based, and the rest of the curriculum is traditional. Besides math and reading, the courses include writing, science, social studies, music and fine arts. After-school activities include homework help, computer lessons, dance, newspaper club, chess and resume-writing for parents.

Operating on an annual budget of $2.3-million, the Storefront plays another essential role by bringing together parents, residents and organizations. “As an institutional neighbor,” said board member Reginald Williams, who directs the Addicts Rehabilitation Center, “I know firsthand that the Storefront is an anchor for other properties and, as a result, has helped keep the community safe from drugs and other detrimental influences.”

Cathy Egmont, the academic dean of Storefront, describes the school-community dynamic like this: “The Storefront is part of the street, and the street is part of the Storefront. Together, we’re a close-knit family.”