The children do seem influenced by their surroundings—to the extent that vandalism is rare: Nobody’s drawn a bubble bath in the koi pond yet, and there’s a level of respect not seen at the average cinderblock high school.
In the kitchen, Ann Cooper, now applying her talents to Berkeley, California’s school system, hired restaurant sous-chefs, forged connections with local farms, and showed how any school could almost entirely eliminate all the processed gunk. (She was then asked to help overhaul New York City’s lunch program.) Jay McInerney says his twins, who attend the school, are lecturing him on organic produce, the benefits of better eating clearly filtering upward.
At the school and at home, Mrs. Ross’s staff would ebb and flow, often depending on the state of her personal liquidity—or mood. Mary Rozell was the director of Mrs. Ross’s personal art collection. Her lawsuit against Mrs. Ross is a keyhole glimpse of this politeia’s administration. Rozell claims she was fired after accusing Neil Pirozzi, the CFO of Mrs. Ross’s back-office operations, of sexual harassment. Informed that Pirozzi made provocative comments to her pregnant employee, Mrs. Ross allegedly said, “You never know, Mary, some men get off on that.” Rozell maintains Mrs. Ross cracked sex jokes before wrapping the meeting with, “What do you want me to do about it?” (Ross, through her lawyers, vigorously disputes the allegations in the suit.)
Soon after, Mrs. Ross decided it was time to “restructure” the three-person art department, and Rozell was let go. In the suit, Rozell accuses a Ross employee of improperly hacking into her personal AOL account by supplying AOL with her Social Security number and her mother’s maiden name, allegedly allowing Mrs. Ross to read her e-mails. One of Ross’s executives maintains that the account was not a personal one but was paid for by Ross. Ross teachers often suspected their e-mail was being read. Asked in a deposition if she authorized employees to access e-mail accounts, Ross responded, “Not unless it had to do with the school … The school owns the e-mail.”
“If you weren’t loyal, you were gone,” says a former teacher there. “She was the Goddess. You had to obey, and if you disagreed, you were sent away.” Teachers who started out in the fall sometimes didn’t last through the spring. Students called this Mrs. Ross’s “spring cleaning.”
In the early days, Mrs. Ross would request meetings in the middle of the night, and call Nicole’s teachers on the phone during class, says former head administrator Marc Anthony Meyer. “I am a 24/7 person, and most people who work for me are 24/7 people,” Mrs. Ross explained in a deposition in the Rozell suit. Her duplex office, where she presided over meetings at Steve Ross’s old conference table, was completely finished when she changed her plans; everything was torn out and thrown in a Dumpster, says another ex-teacher. “That school ripped souls out of people,” says one former employee. “She’s a very difficult woman to be around.” (Still, Meyer calls her a visionary, crediting her with changing his ideas about education.)
In the city, Mrs. Ross appeared no less mercurial, flipping out when she discovered her art staff didn’t have an exact count of all her china, the Rozell action claims.
The curriculum on display at her new charter school has several parents. In 1991, Mrs. Ross went straight to the top of the pyramid—Harvard—hoping she might induce its legendary edu-school hierophant, Howard Gardner, to involve himself in her drawing-board project.
Gardner does not dispute the use of the word visionary in relation to Mrs. Ross. “People in Hollywood and people who are in these large multinational corporations think very big,” says Gardner. “Scholars are more afraid of making mistakes. We let our visions be clipped. She’s much bolder than that.” Gardner’s celebrated theory of multiple intelligences—if a child struggling with reading is really musical, there is surely a way to improve his reading by using music—has left its thumbprint on the school.
According to one of her closest curriculum advisers, Mrs. Ross’s quest to find a slick new curriculum for her school gained momentum when she saw the New Age magazine Yoga Journal sitting on the desk of a Hollywood friend. Inside was a piece about Ralph Abraham, one of Santa Cruz’s voguish chaos-theory collective, a Berkeley-affiliated mathematician who for several years lived in a cave in India and slept on the streets of Europe, nourishing his cortex with psychedelics. She got in touch with Abraham, who turned her on to William Irwin Thompson, the founder of the Lindisfarne Association, a kind of gorp-fueled think tank. Thompson was living in a log cabin on a remote Zen monastery in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and Abraham and Ross set out on a G4 to try to persuade him to climb aboard.