Multi-Cultural Manhattan School Teaches Youths the Value of Inclusiveness, Democracy, Justice & Freedom

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Ideal School of Manhattan administrators (l-r) Angela Bergeson, Head of School; David Byrnes, director of institutional equity, and Michelle Smith, school co-founder watch second-graders at work on a Civil Rights Museum project

A Civil Rights museum like no other is going to pop up in Manhattan later this week.  This one is meant to change the future.  Students at the Ideal School of Manhattan were busy constructing exhibits for the museum, a yearly event at the seven-year-old, independent K-to-eighth grade school.

Head of School Angela Bergeson said the museum started out as a yearly school assembly on civil rights, but became so popular that “we decided to devote the whole morning to the museum so that families could go room to room and see all the curriculum pieces, the writing, readings and plays.”

Each grade in the school is assigned an iconic figure from the Civil Rights or non-violence movements, along with an associated word around which the students create exhibits.

First-graders, for instance, are creating exhibits around Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old African-American child who, in 1960, became the first black student to attend a previously whites-only school in New Orleans, and the word “integration.”

“They’re studying Ruby Bridges, who was a first-grader like them,” Bergeson said. “They’re on fire about that, about how brave she had to be.”

Second-graders have the word “transportation” and Rosa Parks, whose 1954 refusal to give up her seat on a city bus sparked the desegregation of the Montgomery, Ala., transit system.

Other pairings include Nobel Peace Prize winner Mahatma Ghandi and “non-violence”; the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and “justice,” and Underground Railroad guide Sojourner Truth and “freedom.”  All of the exhibits reflect the school’s mission to prepare students to deal with the diverse, often unfair world.

“This school is a movement,” Bergeson said. “When our students leave, they will know that it takes courage to face the world. They will know what a social action is, and how to do it. They’ll understand democracy, justice and freedom, and will see when any of those things are not in place and know what to do about it.”


Real estate of the Ideal School run by David Byrnes, director of institutional equity, Angela Bergeson, Head of School and Michelle Smith, school co-founder pose inside a 2nd grade class and students at the (Mark Bonifacio/New York Daily News)

Co-founded by Michelle Smith, Audra Zuckerman, her husband Mitch Rubin, Julia Harquail and her husband John Hackett, the Ideal School is racially and economically inclusive and even “neuro-diverse,” Smith said.  The three women, whom Smith called “moms on a mission,” have young children with Down syndrome and were appalled to find so few options for their children to attend classes with normally learning kids.

“Manhattan is a diverse place, but diversity needed to include ability, not just gender and race,” Smith said. “It struck us that this diverse city — supposedly the most diverse city in the world — had few inclusive options. We decided we would look into starting a school, and we thought it was the right thing to do.”

Among the Ideal School’s 104 students, 30% are white, 30% are African-American and 20% are Latino, said David Byrnes, the school’s director of communication. Nearly one-third of the students have disabilities such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy or attention-deficit disorder.

But in following the school’s “non-negotiable” dedication to inclusion, students in each grade are taught together, something that’s accomplished through small class size (none larger than 18 students) and assigning at least two of the school’s 52 teachers and staff members to each room.

“Students are taught in the same classroom regardless of physical and learning disabilities,” Byrnes said. “The special-needs students get the same curriculum and program, only they get some extra support. The mission of the school is to include those students fully, without any separation from their peers.”

Added Bergeson: “The important thing about inclusion is that many children with special needs learn best from their typically developing peers; we call it neuro-diversity. Many programs in public schools are special-needs only, so they will have a market for only one range of student.”

The school is also committed to maintaining economic diversity among students. Its budget has money set aside for tuition assistance.

“It’s not an inexpensive education and we don’t want this to be just a rich kids’ school,” said Smith, who is senior managing director of family wealth management at Alexandra & James Advisory Services.

“That is really important to us,” he added. “We do a lot around scholarship fund-raising, so we can make sure this socioeconomic diversity stays in place.”

See for more on the Ideal School of Manhattan.

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