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The Continuing Education of Mrs. Ross

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Mrs. Ross at times seemed to be spitting nails at Terry Cook, her chief of staff of a single month. And after the school moved into the Tweed Courthouse, the school’s avuncular black president, Dr. Mark English, a man who’d taught at West Point and the National War College—the former commandant of West Point Prep, whose responsibilities included hiring faculty—was informed that his presence wasn’t wanted in the building. He was now to conduct all business from Mrs. Ross’s Soho offices.

Mrs. Ross was always deciding she knew best, suggesting they start up a summer school before the location was even finalized. And for a time, she decreed that the fifth- and sixth-grade teachers instead of the students be the ones to pack up all their things and move from room to room at the end of each period. English lost the fight over the uniforms Mrs. Ross was demanding—including shoes and extra shirts that could cost students as much as $200 (25 percent–off gift certificates were eventually distributed). English disappeared the first week of November; not long before, he’d arranged for a photo to be taken of Chancellor Klein with the children when Mrs. Ross was out of the country, and some wondered if the two events were connected. (“If you don’t get the right person, you make the change,” board member Marty Payson explains.) In its first few months, Ross Global lost art, music, and Chinese teachers, a kindergarten teacher, and two sixth-grade instructors. A Ross spokesman maintains that the turnover has only strengthened the school’s programs.

In December, ready to call a public board meeting to order, Mrs. Ross slipped a priestessy, serapelike vestment over her shoulders and introduced Frank Marchese, a brand-new principal who’d started an impressive charter school once upon a time in Ontario. He seemed jittery. Later, after about two weeks full-time on the premises, he would find himself replaced by the woman on his right, Dr. Stephanie Clagnaz, now being introduced as the new assistant principal. “I feel totally secure,” said Clagnaz last week. “Members of the board have given me free rein and autonomy.”

What was transpiring below stairs at the chancellor’s office seemed only to validate teachers-union president and Klein critic Randi Weingarten’s most painterly nightmares about charter schools. Mrs. Ross had always insisted that the after-school and Saturday programs be free of charge. Money was somehow found to conduct them anyway. Mrs. Ross has already picked up the tab on a number of extras, including the decorating job, says Payson.

In August, before the doors opened, Mrs. Ross learned that 18 to 20 percent of the students were identified as having some sort of special need, an extraordinarily high figure. Mrs. Ross rose to the challenge, insisting on taking every child no matter the disability. Ross Global is having a time of it providing these services, and of course that affects what happens in the classroom. Some children have been disruptive and prone to violence.

A lot of baby schools wouldn’t have gone down this road. NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education dean and Ross Global board member Mary Brabeck cites the phone calls she gets from Mrs. Ross at night, the e-mails. “This is really hard work, and it’s so bloody punishing for people whose job it is to do it,” says Brabeck, applauding Mrs. Ross’s resolve. “But I think she gets great joy from seeing ideas come to reality in ways that make the life chances of kids better.” The Goddess has revealed herself here too, in the fifth grade’s study of the epic poem “Gilgamesh,” dramatizing the rise of the heroic male challenging the goddess of life to escape death, and in sixth-grade readings on the clash between a culture favored by Aphrodite, the ancient Near Eastern goddess of love, and a warrior society championed by the helmeted Athena, the new daughter of the patriarchy—otherwise known as the Trojan War.

“One thing that’s unwavering is Courtney’s commitment,” said Ross Global parent Elias Rodriguez. “Ultimately, this endeavor—from my perspective—is about helping two Puerto Rican kids from the Lower East Side.

“I usually don’t take lunch at twelve, but every once in a while I do,” continued Rodriguez, who works nearby at the Environmental Protection Agency. “There was one day in the fall—I was on the other side of the gate—and sure enough, both kindergarten classes were running around having fun. Courtney was out in the yard, just mingling with the kindergartners, out in the yard.”

“Jesus says, you tell a tree by the fruit it bears” is what the Reverend Jesse Jackson is reminded of when he thinks of Mrs. Ross. There she was, out in some yard behind a cafeteria, engulfed by a shrieking, giggling swarm of kindergartners. A Ross-school educator would call this one of Piaget’s meaningful contextual situations. Mrs. Ross didn’t have to be here: She could have been floating around on a yacht somewhere.


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