When Mary Ann David, the principal of Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities in Chelsea, learned two winters ago that Robert C. Wright, the president of NBC, and his wife, Suzanne, would be coming to visit, she must have figured it would translate into a grand tour, a lunch, and maybe a modest little check. A few months later, NBC technicians had set up a satellite link for the Today show on the public school’s roof, and Matt Lauer showed up to chat with students on the air. Over the summer, painters and electricians went to work on the school’s dilapidated auditorium. And last month, Bayard Rustin opened a fully renovated, state-of-the-art theater space, bankrolled by the network. The school can rent the place out, creating a cash cow that can be milked for years to come. “It was amazing to see how fast the corporate sector works,” marvels David, who was handed her school’s dreams on a silver platter.
Lauer and the Wrights found Bayard Rustin through Principal for a Day, a program that, for the fifth year in a row this Thursday, helps movers and shakers start up relationships with public schools. Bill Cosby, Jane Pauley, and John F. Kennedy Jr. have all served as honorary principals – though Lisa Belzberg, the event’s kinetic, relentlessly plucky organizer, prefers to mention the people from the corporate world, the courthouse, the clergy, and colleges. This year, the event has more honorary principals than the city’s 1,100 schools, and Belzberg will ask some to double up. The mayor, Senator Charles Schumer, Mary Wilson, Suzanne Vega, Kenneth Cole, and Diane von Furstenberg all vied for spots. “When else do all sorts of people in this stupid city come together and spend time with each other?” Belzberg says, poking at a salad. “I tell you, it’s magical.”
She can get these folks to commit because she moves so freely among them. The rail-thin, blonde 36-year-old is the Canadian-born daughter of corporate raider Samuel Belzberg; her marriage to Matthew Bronfman is a union of two Jewish Canadian dynasties (Edgar is her father-in-law; Edgar Jr., her husband’s brother). Since taking over Principal for a Day from then-chancellor Ray Cortines in 1995, she’s used her contacts and résumé (a producer for The Charlie Rose Show, a lackey for David Garth) to bring boldfaced names into the event and onto its board, including Mort Zuckerman and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. As an Orthodox Jew, she’ll send her own kids to Jewish day schools. But Belzberg’s mission for Principal for a Day is more than an Adopt-a-Highway program for schoolkids; it’s a Trojan horse for something bigger – a way to reroute Wall Street wealth and attention into impoverished schools by exposing moguls to public education.
She acknowledges that the budget will always be a problem and that parents will always be too busy to supervise schools alone; the only way to raise quality, she says, is to raise exposure: “By now, we have 5,000 people who’ve said, ‘I loved what was going on in my school, and I want to be part of making those human beings’ lives better.’ “
When honorary principals show an interest in getting more involved, Belzberg’s nonprofit group, pencil (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning), plays matchmaker between givers and the schools in a way the Board of Ed has never done. “Lisa can fill a room with people of influence who with one phone call can make something happen,” says Showtime chairman Matthew Blank, who with pencil sponsored an annual kids’ video festival after being principal for a day. (This year’s festival drew involvement from NYU’s Tisch School courtesy of pencil board member Andrew Tisch.) “She has such a pure, organic understanding of what it means to send someone from the corporate world into the schools,” says Blank. “They’re places you never go into except to vote. The experience is so moving – you understand what the city looks like.”
Her agenda – to let the schools speak for themselves while facilitating any offer that comes along – is deceivingly passive. Though Donald Trump created a P.R. nightmare at a Bronx school two years ago by handing out vouchers for Nike sneakers (one 11-year-old girl asked him why he wasn’t giving out scholarships), others have quietly made year-round commitments. Gap CEO Mickey Drexler has helped Harlem students start a store of their own to raise money for scholarships. Weil, Gotshal & Manges partner Stephen Jacobs got his law firm to adopt the Upper East Side Urban Academy for at-risk kids, raising $135,000 to rebuild the school’s library. Family Court Judge Susan Larabee recruited her staff and other judges to tutor nearby students once a week. Toys ‘R’ Us chairman Michael Goldstein set up a foundation, spending $35,000 to make P.S. 107 in Queens handicapped-accessible. If anything, Belzberg considers Principal for a Day a recruiting event for programs like these.
With a nudge from Belzberg, VH1’s Save the Music, the education program partially funded by those Divas Live concerts, bloomed from network president John Sykes’s turn as principal for a day at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn. “I walked into that school expecting to see asbestos hanging from the ceiling and metal detectors,” Sykes says. “Instead, I saw the fifth-grade orchestra playing Beethoven. But when I looked closer at the instruments, I noticed they were falling apart or being held together with gaffer’s tape.” So, with Belzberg’s help, Sykes engineered Save the Music’s debut in New York. “I went back to Lisa, and she brought me to Rudy Crew. She said, ‘These people have an idea, and I support it.’ And he loves her. So through her, we were able to get a hold of the biggest school system in the country.”
For systemwide efforts, pencil becomes a full partner with donors. The Daily News and NBC have helped pencil run the Resource Bank, an online service linking supplies to schools; a German company called veba recently celebrated its IPO by donating $50,000 in art supplies. As de-Kremlinized as Crew’s Board of Ed has become, Belzberg’s group is still the only organization that articulates schools’ needs to people with resources – the best way to bring the bull market into the schools.
Of course, pencil will never build thousands of new classrooms. It won’t fix every roof and boiler, and it may never tackle any of the other big-ticket issues plaguing the schools. But Belzberg’s agenda is, in the end, not just about private investment, but about politics. “I wouldn’t have said this to you a year or two years ago, but we’re at a point where we’re starting to create a constituency for public education – a group of people who can turn to the mayor, if they know him, or to a community group or editorial writer, and say, ‘Look at what’s happening at my school’ – and they always say my school, I love that – ‘They were having class in the bathroom. I don’t want them to have to do that.’ “
Last week, Ted Forstmann, the leveraged-buyout master and friend of Newt Gingrich, awarded the first 40,000 grants from the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a $170 million charity that pays private-school tuition for public-school students. Asked about Forstmann’s program, Belzberg pauses before saying, “I’m very pro-anything anybody does to get involved in public education. But I’m a huge believer that there are great public schools in this city.”
What she doesn’t say is that pencil is that program’s exact opposite – that, under the guise of fair competition, Forstmann is abandoning public education. “Ultimately,” says United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, “if you believe in democracy and want to create equal opportunity for all children, you need to have a public school system. And by having a group like pencil make connections with business people, it’s absolutely what we need to create confidence in the system.”
A few weeks ago in Morningside Heights, as his daughter-in-law’s guest, Bronfman the elder stepped inside a public school for the very first time. It was what the Board of Ed calls a surr school – on the endangered list because of its subterranean test scores. “It’s a tough situation,” Belzberg says. “The neighborhood is far below the poverty line. There’s not a lot of parental involvement.” When they arrived, they talked to the school’s new, energetic principal and also some kids. One little girl asked her, “Who are you?” – which Belzberg translated to mean, Why is somebody from the outside here paying attention to me and making me feel valuable?
For Belzberg, the impact on her father-in-law is just as important as the effect on the girl. “He has not stopped talking about his visit,” she says. “He has not stopped talking about the beauty of what he saw.”
And now, Edgar Bronfman Sr. is sitting down with Rudy Crew to talk about how best to help the schools.