February 8, 2008

A school in the Bronx

I love reading stories like these, where someone has finally figured out that to create a good learning environment and nourish young minds, you have to do things differently. Respect the students. Give them choices. Show them the world, bring people in to talk to them. Don't expect anyone to want to sit at a desk all day and do math workbooks. How on earth can anyone think that's the right way to do things? If our public schools were like this, I'd considering sending them in high school. Mr. Waronker should be commended for his work.

These days, the congress gathers in Mr. Waronker’s office for leadership lessons. One recent afternoon, two dozen students listened intently as Mr. Waronker played President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, then opened a discussion on leadership and responsibility.

When an etiquette expert, Lyudmila Bloch, first approached principals about training sessions she runs at a Manhattan restaurant, most declined to send students. Mr. Waronker, who happened to be reading her book, “The Golden Rules of Etiquette at the Plaza,” to his own children (he has six), has since dispatched most of the school for training at a cost of $40 a head.

Flipper Bautista, 10, loved the trip, saying, “It’s this place where you go and eat, and they teach you how to be first-class.”

In a school where many children lack basic reading and math skills, though, such programs are not universally applauded. When Mr. Waronker spent $8,000 in school money to give students a copy of “The Code: The 5 Secrets of Teen Success” and to invite the writer to give a motivational speech, it outraged Marietta Synodis, a teacher who has since left.

“My kids could much better benefit from math workbooks,” Ms. Synodis said.

Mr. Waronker counters that key elements of his leadership are dreaming big and offering children a taste of worlds beyond their own. “Those experiences can be life-transforming,” he said.

So when Emmanuel Bruntson, 14, a cut-up in whom Mr. Waronker saw potential, started getting into fights, he met with him daily and gave him a copy of Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

“I wanted to get him out of his environment so he could see a different world,” Mr. Waronker said.

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