After a Fire, Pastor Charles Eatman Sr. Keeps a Harlem School Going From His Brownstone

The 25 students of Mount Pleasant Christian Academy have been going to school at a pastor’s Harlem brownstone since a December fire at their school. (DAVID GONZALEZ / THE NEW YORK TIMES)

The sounds of children once again fill the ground floor of the Eatmans’ brownstone on West 119th Street. This was not exactly the plan the Harlem couple had envisioned after raising four of their own children. But as the Rev. Charles Eatman Sr. knows, few things — other than the Ten Commandments — are written in stone.

In December, a fire caused serious damage to the Mount Pleasant Christian Academy, which Mr. Eatman started in 1982 to provide an education that mixed religion, a sense of the world and pride in African-American culture. Without much delay after the fire, Mr. Eatman and his wife, Lorraine, took in the students, turning the ground floor of their nearby home into a makeshift schoolhouse for prekindergarten through 12th grade.

Despite the tight quarters, nobody is complaining.

“A school is not just about the brick and mortar,” Mr. Eatman said. “It’s not about a building. It’s about nurturing. And part of what we do is teach flexibility. You can’t just fall apart because something went wrong.”

Of course, as a preacher, he does not fail to invoke a favorite biblical verse from Ecclesiastes. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your might,” he recited. “In practical terms, I’ve been given some special gifts and I have to make the most of them. So, there was a fire. What next?”

In some ways, his insistence on not letting anything stop him, or his 25 students, dates to his childhood in Harlem and the Bronx, at schools where the curriculum was neither interesting nor challenging. He managed to go on to college, where he was so scared of being called upon by the professor that he prayed it would not happen. Despite his fears, one teacher put him at ease, and that set him on his path to becoming a public-school teacher in Queens.

In the early 1980s, he became pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, making his after-work commute from Queens a problem. He quit his teaching job and became a full-time pastor. Then, in 1982, he persuaded the congregation to let him open a small school. He relocated the school about 12 years ago to a better space inside two brownstones on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.

His philosophy is direct: Ground students in the basics — in both faith and scholarship — and give them a sense of their identity through classes in black history and service trips overseas to places like Benin and the Dominican Republic. In everything the school does, he said, it treats the students as individuals.

“I want to provide our children with exposure to opportunities they do not find everywhere, especially for young people in the inner city,” he said. “People sometimes have this idea that they can’t handle it, or deserve it. But we give opportunities to every child. They do not compete against anyone except themselves. The question is, how far do you want to go?”

That kind of philosophy appeals to Brian Adjo, whose two daughters attend the school. An accountant, he was headed to see a client a few winters ago when he met two students in the cold selling hot chocolate and cookies to raise money for a water project in Benin. He was struck by their poise. His curiosity led him to Mr. Eatman, who happened to be reading the same book about black Indians that he had just finished. Mr. Adjo was impressed.

“Too many schools just teach for the tests, and don’t expose students to black history,” he said. “This is grounded in an understanding of the community and infused with the expectation of achievement by teaching you about others who have achieved.”

Tyreif Ferrell, a 12th grader, realized that when he arrived after an unpleasant and unproductive time at another school. Meeting teachers like Hemsley Jackson, a retired educator whom Mr. Eatman persuaded to return to the classroom, was a revelation.

“You don’t see too many black faces in education,” Tyreif said. “But they had a zeal for the kids. I was inspired by that.”

Mr. Eatman hopes to reopen the school in September, once he is able to settle with his insurance company and rebuild the damaged space, replace thousands of waterlogged books and acquire new computers and a smart board. And if not? Well, they will just keep on going: His plans to open a similar school in Georgia are still on track.

“It hasn’t been hard,” said Janai White, a 12th grader. “You just learn to adapt. You have to go with the flow. If you stop for every little thing, you won’t get anything done.”

article by David Gonzalez via nytimes.com

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