Manhattan Country School was founded in 1966, at the peak of a period remembered largely for its social ideals. Today, the school continues to reflect that vision, and that of the school’s founders, who sought to emphasize diversity, equality, social justice and the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I think we find in society, there is an unequal distribution of power and privilege—being on the border of the Upper East Side and East Harlem makes that very apparent,” said Michèle Solá, the school’s director. “We have to acknowledge that our students live in that world, but we try to approximate a community in which there is no racial majority, there is no cultural majority.”
Indeed, Manhattan Country School, which is situated in a former townhouse on East 96th Street, has no dominant racial group among its 200 students. The school also attracts a student body that is socio-economically diverse, and sets its tuition on a sliding scale based on each family’s financial resources. In the same way that there is no dominant racial group, the school tries to avoid obvious class divides as well.
“We purposely don’t call it scholarship or financial aid. Our sliding-scale tuition system is one of the hallmarks of our diversity,” Solá said.
In addition to its top-notch academic core, Manhattan Country School emphasizes teachings of diversity and equality. The curriculum incorporates the urban environment as a way to illustrate its principles. Spanish classes walk to East Harlem to practice the language and learn about the community there. During units on water access and water systems, students visit the American Museum of Natural History to see the miniature model of New York City’s water system. But probably the most important lessons are learned on the school’s farm in the Catskills, which older students visit for a week at a time, three times a year.
Cynthia Rogers, the school’s director of high school placement, described work on the farm. “They all have to work together,” Rogers said. “No matter who you are, no matter how much your parents are paying, you still have to shovel manure, you still have to sweep the floor.”
Solá echoes her. “You are carrying the wood to the wood stove because the buildings need heating. Everything has a real purpose and if somebody doesn’t do their job, then everyone is cold, everyone is hungry,” she said. “That makes a big impression. [The students] tell many stories about how that kind of experience makes it easier to study math together or to debate very sticky subjects.”
Back at school in the city, students have jobs as well. First graders are the attendance takers, 4th graders the recyclers, 5th graders run the school newspaper and 8th graders serve as tour guides. Rogers credits these chores with instilling not only a sense of responsibility and interdependence but also an ingrained gravitation toward service.
“They’re already doing community service from a very young age. So by the time they’re in the older grades, they’re really ready to be more active about it,” she said.
This leads to community-service projects, which students “propose to the whole community, and then we all act on it,” Rogers said. Past projects include a rally in the park against hate crimes, a trip to the Gulf Coast to help Katrina victims and volunteer work at Camp Sunshine in Maine, which caters to children with life-threatening illnesses. And each year for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, 8th graders collaborate on a project designed to provoke thinking in the community about King’s principles.
The school aims to spread its mission to the larger community in other ways. Rogers heads up an annual award called the Living the Dream Book Award, in which students from Manhattan Country School and two public schools select a children’s book that effectively illustrates King’s ideals. And two schools modeled on Manhattan Country School, and founded by former students, have recently opened: one in the Bronx, and one in Tallahassee, Fla.
Solá is happy to see this. “You can be kind of a lovely little model,” she said. “But if you never replicate yourself, there can be a lot of questions about whether what you’re doing is precious.”
“We call ourselves a private school with a public mission,” Rogers said. “We came into being way before things like charter schools were in existence. I wonder, if the founders were trying to start today, whether we would be a public school.”
Manhattan Country School
7 E. 96th St.
New York, N.Y. 10128
Michèle Solá, Director
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