Morning breaks, and yellow school buses pull up outside the Corinthian portico of the Tweed Courthouse, the city Department of Education’s stately repurposed office building. For four-plus years, charter schools have been Chancellor Joel Klein’s most pampered pet cause. And now, after considerable hoo-ha in the press, a unique and controversial example of the genre had unpacked itself in his own ground floor.
Even for a charter school, the Ross Global Academy has an unusual—even loopy—vision: a Metropolitan Museum ambience wreathed with the joss-stick smoke of the New Age movement. “Educating the whole child for the whole world” is how the school frames its quest to turn its charges into global citizens of the 21st century. Ross Global’s recruitment material woos inner-city parents with talk of ancient civilizations, prophetic movements, and Ayurvedic nutrition. The curriculum is accessorized in the classroom with reproduction art: a discus thrower frozen in alabaster at the exact moment of achieving rhythmos in one corner, the lopped stone head of a Cambodian deity up on a shelf with the textbooks. A Ross Global student might read the Popol Vuh of the Jaguar Priests in English class, explore ancient Sumer via cuneiform tablets. A Ross Global student should not only ace the standardized tests blindfolded but also be able to compare Greek theater with Chinese opera. The children blog about organic produce. Instead of gym, there’s wellness.
That is the idea, anyway, as sold to the city by Ross Global’s birth mother, Courtney Ross, the former gallery girl, documentary filmmaker, and interior decorator who is the latest edupreneur aiming to crack the urban-education conundrum. Mrs. Ross (as she prefers to be called) is the widow of Steve Ross, a man who dreamed globally, balloon-twisting a family funeral-parlor business into the Time Warner empire. A beloved boss, generous to distraction, he died in 1992 of prostate cancer, just as his wife had started homeschooling their only daughter, Nicole, an experience stretched to almost comic overadequacy by field trips to history-book locations all over the globe, instruction in the various social graces, and ad hoc seminars on art appreciation at her Park Avenue apartment. It wasn’t long before Mrs. Ross realized that schools could elevate her to a larger cultural governance. Sixteen years later, her East Hampton–based enterprise, now called the Ross School, has expanded into something of a Taliesin East, with a carefully pruned student body that has now graduated more than 200, some to schools like Brown and Yale.
But caring for a squalling-baby New York City public school like Ross Global Academy—its students essentially picked out of a hat—is a very different kind of challenge. By all accounts, it’s been a difficult gestation, made more so by what some might call the imperious ways of the institution’s own high priestess. Mrs. Ross has occasionally flashed her vengeful Kali side, wearing a garland of severed heads and holding a bloodied sword. By this past November, both the principal and the president at Mrs. Ross’s charter school had quietly vanished. In February, another principal went up in a puff of smoke after just a couple of weeks bobbing around the premises. The “ ‘chaos’ of a school evolving around its students helps them become poised for a world of constant change” is a tenet of Mrs. Ross’s philosophy.
Certainly, these were not the best of omens. But amid the chaos of Ross Global’s first months, Mrs. Ross was forging ahead. Out in the Hamptons, the very bosom of Mrs. Ross’s enterprise, the moms and dads of the East End gathered in December in the Ross School’s Center for Well Being, where her fourth annual Starlight Ball was just starting to jam. Flashbulb pops signaled that Mrs. Ross, their Texas-bred founder, the benefactor, as they often call her in conversation, was inside the perimeter.
The Ross School on the South Fork is the prototype Mrs. Ross hopes to photocopy into something of an empire. Out here, Ross is the only game in town, as far as private high school goes, for those who don’t want to go parochial or—Lordy mercy—public. Over the years, the Ross School has become the subject of obsessive Hamptons gossip. Some observed what was happening on East Hampton’s Goodfriend Drive and saw the cult of the Goddess! All shuffling about in those dress-code Japanese slippers! And in a sense, it was true—the Goddess has been at the core of Ross’s curriculum. Any Ross fifth-grader could tell you about the cult of the Goddess, identify the shift from the patriarchal society back to the matristic—it’s all there in the spinach-dip dialect of the course catalogue. Goddesses of all races, colors, and creeds were leading characters in the school’s mesmerizing spiral of cultural history, an innovative curriculum purporting to teach what was worth knowing—in order—since creation. On Charlie Rose one night, explaining her academy, Mrs. Ross thunked down a model of the spiral. It looked like something on the shelf in a gynecologist’s office. She called it “an artifact from our evolution.”