Posted by: exiwp | October 6, 1988

Barbara Taylor: Her School, Her Views (1988)

New York Newsday, October 6, 1988

“I do not think we’re indoctrinating them to a political point of view,” Taylor says of the school. “We’re ‘indoctrinating’ them to be critical thinkers.”

On the first day of classes, the students of the Barbara Taylor School four small classrooms in an apartment in Harlem learned the rules of the school: No fighting, no running, listen to the teacher, respect one another, and … “Be political,” the students in Gayle Weintraub’s class yelled out in unison.”What does ‘being political’ mean?” Weintraub asked her eight students, all but one veterans of the school, all 9 and 10 years old.

“That’s a hard one,” she responded to the silence. She took another tack.”What does it mean to be racist?”

“Racism is like when you say to black people like in a restaurant, you say ‘Get out,'” said Shevanti Curtis, 9, in a neat and frilly pink dress.”Because you are … I don’t know.” She smiled shyly.”Racism is black people supposed to be all in the back,” said Shameka McCord, 10, who is wearing a button that says “World Freedom Begins When Apartheid Ends.”

“So being political is being aware of what’s going on in the world,” the teacher said.”Maybe what the media doesn’t talk about; the media is newspapers, radio and television. Being political means being aware of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and really taking a stand.”

The Barbara Taylor School, starting its third year of operation, bills itself as”a multi-racial, independent, radical teaching concept of education.” In some ways, it is not that much different from other secular private schools in the city, according to Barbara Taylor, its founder and principal.

With a day care center at 870 Riverside Drive, and a primary school at 3609 Broadway, it has about 90 students ranging in age from 2-1/2 to 13 years old, and 10 teachers. Its course of instruction, which includes basic math, science, reading, writing and social studies, follows the curriculum of the state Department of Education, Taylor says. Its tuition is $220 a month ($ 240 for day care). It gives tests and regular report cards. It hopes to get its students into good high schools: Its graduates have so far gone to several technical and religious schools that require entrance examinations

“There are some kids who could pass the exam for Bronx Science who would not thrive in that kind of academic setting,” Taylor says, “but we’re going to have them take the test, and the Catholic School exam. We start in seventh grade to see what high school would be best.”

How the Barbara Taylor School differs from a traditional private school maybe most evident in its class trips. Students went to Poughkeepsie to march in a demonstration in support of Tawana Brawley. They attended the Bernhard Goetz and Howard Beach trials, which were more than lessons in racism, Taylor says: They were lessons in discipline: “When you go to court, you really have to be quiet or they’ll throw you out.”

Students and some parents also went in busloads to a demonstration in Washington, D. C. , “memorializing those who suffered in the bombing of Libya.” This is one school where the students are not required to pledge allegiance to the flag.”It’s a rarity for a school to be politically based,” says Robin Willner, staff director of Educational Priorities Panel, a private watchdog agency.”I don’t know of any other in New York City focused on the political.”

As more parents in the city become convinced of the irreversible decline of the public schools, private schools become less the refuge solely of the white and wealthy. There are about 250 independent schools throughout the nation owned and operated by minorities, about 80 percent of them black, according to Joan Ratteray, president of the Institute for Independent Education. New York City has about 25 of these schools.”What makes them independent,” says Ratteray, “is some kind of social, cultural or, in this case, political context.”

Students go to the Barbara Taylor School, say its advocates, partly because of “the increased racism of the city schools. Some parents have asked how can a two year old know about racism,” says Mike Pellettiere, known to the children of the day care center as Mr. P. “They may not know the word, but they experience it. They talk about being ignored; they experience it from other children.”

“We’re happy with their academics as well as their social theory,” says Caroline Kresky, who works for CBS, and whose son Patrick, one of the small minority of white children in the school, had been in the pre-kindergarten daycare; now he had just finished asking his mother to stay with him for his first day in first grade.”They teach responsibility, leadership,” Kresky says.”They teach kids to be supportive of other kids.”

The school touts as its innovations a “school wide campaign against abusive and anti-social behavior of all kinds,” “social therapy groups” for children, an emphasis on writing, an experimental unit in economics, a teaching staff that is trained to respect the students, and be responsive to them.

Taylor herself, 65-years-old, dignified in carriage and dressed immaculately, is wont to apologize to visitors for what she considers her disheveled appearance: “It’s so children feel comfortable touching me,” she explains. Many of the parents in the school, she says, “are poor and working class,” relying on contributions from relatives and individual fund raising to meet the costs of tuition.

Cassandra Myrie, a housekeeper, has six children in the school.”I used to go to the same public school that my daughter went to. I noticed it’s deteriorated. Teachers didn’t take the time to explain the work, children were misbehaving. My second daughter was in a special ed program. I didn’t want her to be labeled; it was becoming more of a handicap rather than away to learn.” Myrie has trouble meeting the tuition, but, she says, “I’m from Jamaica, and we learned that the most important thing you can give your children after love is education.” And after that, Taylor seems to be saying, it is politics.

The Barbara Taylor School seems suffused not just with an unusual educational approach but with a specific political agenda. The school is part of a network of institutions aligned with the 9 year old New Alliance Party, which has its own candidate for president, Lenora Fulani. Fulani is a psychologist who says she guides her patients to embrace political activism as the path to mental health.

The Barbara Taylor School is run in part on Fulani’s philosophy. Barbara Taylor herself is the New Alliance Party’s candidate for Congress in the 16th District, where Charles Rangel is the incumbent “The two party system really operates as one,” Taylor says.”The Republicans have never made any bones about what they represent. The Democrats make this hype about working for minorities, but they don’t.”

As to her opponent, “I’m not badmouthing him,” Taylor says of Rangel.

“He’s limited no matter what he wants to do by membership in the Democratic Party. Even if he wanted to stop the drugs, it’s profitable to keep it going.” (“I consider that a sad statement,” replies Rangel, “that anyone would think people in the U.S. would want to continue this serious crisis, and especially me.” Bob Weiner, a Rangel employee on the House Narcotics Committee, is less diplomatic: “She’s off the wall on this,” he says. Rangel is “leading the fight against drugs.”)

The school’s politics become clear before a visitor even enters the classroom: At the day care center in Washington Heights, numerous leaflets posted on the door promote New Alliance Party activities (“Dump the Duke”); on the wall just inside, a mural depicts southern police hosing down civil rights workers in the ’60s. At the elementary school 12 blocks south in Harlem, a poster for the school hangs up near the buzzers in the building’s lobby. “Growing Up, Out and Powerful,” it says. “Want your child to be progressive? Register your children for The Barbara Taylor School.”

While the curriculum for social studies is “adapted” from a traditional seventh and eighth grade syllabus established by the Board of Education, there is a noticeable twist.

“The basic foundation of the curriculum is the perspective of historical materialism,” the introduction begins.”It is not the history of great men; it is the history of the organization of production. It is a working class history of the U.S.” For the American Revolution, students do not learn that George Washington chopped down the cherry tree; instead they examine “the causes of the American Revolution as intimately linked to the privileged rights of the middle classes to own property …” and even the “role of the media in organizing for the war.”

“Discuss the history of the Democratic Party as a reform party,” the syllabus advises the teachers in the unit on the Depression. “Discuss the need for independent politics due to the Democratic Party having reached its limit.”

Racism is the subject of the first unit, where the syllabus includes such”basic concepts” as “Growing up in America means growing up racist” and “The Barbara Taylor School is a tool in this fight [against racism] its goal being the development of its students as leaders.”

Among the recommended educational activities: “Class would be introduced to 1988 presidential campaign of Dr. Lenora Fulani and taught how they can participate and become producers of social change.”

“They are teaching history from a particular point of view,” says Norman Wade, acting director of the Bureau of Social Studies Education of the New York State Education Department, after hearing excerpts from the syllabus. Although he is reluctant to label the point of view, he does say “The phraseology derives from Marxist philosophy … That’s an unusual perspective for a seventh and eighth grade class.”

“They dwell on the politics now, but they don’t emphasize it when they’re enrolling your kid,” says Sheila Curtis, mother of Shevanti, the shyly smiling 9 year old in the pink dress. Curtis, an insurance investigator, discovered the school from a leaflet handed out by a group of the school’s teachers and students on a jazz cruise one night in the Hudson. (“There was nothing about the New Alliance Party in their literature,” she says). She had withdrawn her daughter from public school because it taught her nothing, she says.”She was learning only what I taught her. Wherever I would leave off, that’s as far as she knew. If I needed a babysitter, I would have hired one.”

At first, Sheila Curtis was reluctant to enroll Shevanti in the Barbara Taylor School because of its politics. “I changed my mind because I had no choice. I had to take my kid out of public school. Wherever I put her was going to be either religious or political. I don’t want her railroaded into a particular religion or ideology. I don’t like the New Alliance Party.”

But she has now put her daughter back in the school for a second year; she believes that her daughter has been learning more. “I also like that Barbara Taylor is herself black, a role model for my daughter. Her teacher is white, but the boss is black.” She makes sure she hears from her daughter what they are teaching politically so as to minimize what she sees as damage. “It’s easier to fight political [indoctrination] than it would be religious,” Sheila Curtis says.

“I do not think we’re indoctrinating them to a political point of view,” Barbara Taylor replies. “We’re ‘indoctrinating’ them to be critical thinkers …” Most of the teachers, Taylor says, are not members of the New Alliance Party (and neither are most of the parents).

Jane Bolgatz, a recent Columbia University graduate with a degree in history but no teaching certificate, is the teacher for the lower grades. Bolgatz says she had tried to become a teacher in the public schools but “the bureaucracy was such a pain. Also, I really like the philosophy of this school; it’s a good place to learn to teach.”

“I definitely have a political viewpoint,” says Barbara Taylor. “What people fail to understand is that the public schools also have a political point of view. The politics here is to develop children as leaders, to be builders in this society, producers in this society. The politics in the public school, it seems to me, is to make the majority of the students in the schools who are poor and minority to make them feel as if they’re inferior and so they lose respect for themselves.”

She cites as examples: “They constantly label students’ special ed’ who just don’t fit into their mold. Two years ago, they left off the name of Lenora Fulani from a mock election the public school system held for the 1986 gubernatorial election, letting the kids think that a black woman candidate was not important.”

Some people would say ‘you’re teaching communism.’ I’m not hung up on terms. I think kids have to be useful to one another, respectful, they should believe in decent education, decent housing, health care, jobs. They can call it anything they want to.”

Taylor has been involved in education in Harlem for two decades, when she came from the Philadelphia public school system to work at the St. Thomas the Apostle parochial school in Harlem as a reading supervisor. Within a month, she was assistant principal; after two years, the principal.

The school, originally funded by the Archdiocese of New York, engaged in a three year experiment with parents actively involved, some becoming para-professionals and gaining high school diplomas and even college degrees.

Admission became first come, first served, irrespective of race, academic ability or religion. Taylor made Catholicism an extracurricular, non-graded subject. At the end of three years, says Taylor, “the diocese wanted it to go back to a regular parochial school.”

Instead, the school permanently broke away from the church, changing its name to St. Thomas Community School and becoming parent run and independent, with Barbara Taylor at the helm. She had been with St. Thomas 13 years when she first joined the New Alliance Party.

“I had been a registered Democrat since I was eligible to vote, because I thought it was the party of minorities,” Taylor says. Within a few years, she had a new direction for the school.”People have to move with history,” she says.

“Barbara is an excellent educator,” says Adrianne Wilson, the present administrator of St. Thomas Community School. “We wouldn’t have lasted this long without her.” Taylor left St. Thomas three years ago, Wilson says, after the parents voted to keep the school independent.

“We didn’t want to be aligned with the New Alliance Party,” Wilson says. Taylor’s political involvement, Wilson says, “tended to affect our curriculum, leaning a little bit more than we wanted to one side. We want the students to learn about every side, whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, Baptists, Moslems.”

“One of the things I found in working with children,” says Taylor, “I couldn’t just put academic facts into their heads, if their parents were not working, they lived in crowded quarters, there was no decent place to study.” Education officials seem to take a relaxed if not indifferent view of the Barbara Taylor School’s activities.

“There are a lot of schools that have a lot of educational approaches,” said Rachel Smith, of the state Department of Education’s Bureau of Non Public School Services. “The important thing is if they’re getting an education.” As to whether they are in fact getting an education, Smith says “we consider it a recognized school,” meaning the school has filled out a form “basically telling us that they’re there.”

In order to be a recognized school, Smith said, the state also requires all schools to conduct certain standardized tests and submit the results. Asked to check, Smith telephoned the next day to report that no test results have ever been submitted by the Barbara Taylor School.

“That’s not unusual for a new school,” Smith said. “I just talked to Barbara Taylor and she said she’s been giving the tests; she just hasn’t submitted them to the state yet.”

“We didn’t have the money to correct them by computer,” Taylor says. “We had to hand score them.”

That’s quite a [time consuming] job.” The state also technically requires that the school be “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools in the district in which the children live. However, Smith added and here is where a classic example of bureaucratic buck passing began the state does not “monitor or register elementary school. Responsibility rests with the local school district.”

The deputy superintendent for local school district 5 said the Barbara Taylor School, which she had never heard of, was in school district 6. The assistant superintendent for school district 6 said the school, which he had never heard of, was in school district 5. They both suggested that the responsibility may not lie with the independent school districts, but with the central Board of Education.

A spokeswoman for the central Board of Education said, “Morally we are responsible for the education of all children in the city of New York. However, we take our authority from the state Department of Education. We don’t actually monitor actively.”

If government seems to be paying little attention to the public school alternatives, that may be because, as one educator put it, “It’s not as necessary. If parents don’t like the school, they can just take them out.”

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