Monday, October 13, 2008
The Reincarnation of Exodus House: East Harlem School
On a formerly downtrodden stretch of East 103rd Street next to 2nd Avenue, the Arcs construction crew hastily finished sidewalk digging for fiber optic cables and hauling off chunks of concrete. An irate blond driver of a shiny Lexus SUV several vehicles into the queue yelled, “Come on, man. Let us through.”
The motorist’s view was blocked by another SUV in front of her, so she could not see the futuristic phoenix that has risen from the site of the erstwhile Exodus House drug rehab clinic.
The current avatar, East Harlem School at Exodus House, will provide similarly beneficent services to the blighted neighborhood, upon relocation in under a month.
These are the last days that the 106-pupil school will spend at St. Lucy’s Church, one block from its nearly complete new digs at East 103rd Street.
Co-founder and Principal Ivan Hageman’s family history will have come full circle when his school moves back to the Exodus House site. He was born and raised in the rehab clinic, which his parents Lynn and Leola Hageman founded in 1963.
The Exodus House became an after-school program in 1984 and subsequently a school in 1993.
While his upbringing and professional success may not be typical for a neighborhood of ubiquitous public housing and fast-food eateries, Hageman was always exposed to the substance abuse and indigence that plague East Harlem.
“It’s been a pleasure to build for Ivan and his group of kids, who will truly appreciate this,” said Marc Gee, the construction manager for Arcs. The company did a design-build with architect Peter Gluck, who has done non-profits such as Harlem RBI and Bronx Charter Prep, in addition to projects in Westchester County and Aspen, Colo.
“Most of these nonprofits are just getting by. They still think they’ll just be bringing the old building’s furniture over,” said Gee. “So this project hits home.”
While the East Harlem School’s new building was expected to open at the start of this school year, administrators had to settle for a November grand opening, the exact date of which has not yet been announced.
Gee said that the city was dragging its feet in issuing permits, due to backlog in the aftermath of several crane accidents.
In the meantime, the school is readying for an October 28th benefit at Chelsea Piers, which will attempt to generate the final $700,000 of the $12 million capital campaign that began over 10 years ago to raise funds for the school’s new home.
Around the corner in the well-worn stairwell of the school’s temporary home, a stern Grace Eagar said, “You all are never going to do that again,” as she scolds her humanities class for having broken a cardinal class rule.
Eagar, like most of the über-attentive staff, has multiple roles in ensuring that the strict academic and disciplinary policies are enforced. As the development director and a teacher, she said that the last days at the St. Lucy’s building have been hectic.
“Yet, I’m not shocked that people say this is a great school. Students are always our top priority, and the average class size is just 15 students,” she said.
In a city where 84% of minority high-school students attend dropout factories, Exodus House has a stellar record of graduates matriculating in some of the city’s best private high schools.
“The East Harlem School’s new building is beautiful for the area,” said 61-year-old Esther Rodriguez Hill, who lives in the St. Lucy’s Apartments next door. Hill’s mother was a community organizer who worked with Principal Hageman’s father.
“I have four cousins who went to the old Exodus House. Although the center really helped them, two died from heroin overdose and the other two from AIDS,” she added.
“You see those Exodus House kids walking in straight lines? That shows the progress of our neighborhood,” said Hill, after she scolded one-year-old Skyla Boldon, for whom she babysits.
“I’ve seen the Exodus House built, knocked down, and rebuilt. Ivan better send me an invitation for the grand opening!” she declared.
The new four-story avant-garde structure with Ikea-inspired 1960’s minimalism contrasts with the tenements nearby. With black, white, and grey rectangular trespa panels, the façade looks more Malmö tech park than East Harlem middle school.
Locals stroll by toting their laundry in handcarts and clutching 32 oz. Styrofoam cups of watered-down Mug root beer from the JFK Fried Chicken restaurant on the corner. Though incredulous about the new structure, they seem to betray a sense of delight in its visual novelty.
“The new facility is pretty much like a regular school, except for the front,” said 8th grader Daniel Lucero, who recounts the full-sized gym, science labs, smart boards, and spaciousness.
The building is consistent with the educational philosophy that some parents described as “New Age,” including vegetarian food and an annual spring poetry slam. Yet, passing the high-demand school’s entrance test places applicants, who must live nearby, into a competitive lottery system.
In the neighborhood, criticism of the school was scant, but Marisa Steffers, a resident of 1199 1st Ave., said that the mandatory summer classes and over-emphasis on test preparation were not ideal for her 11-year-old son Jude, who attends P.S. 3 in the West Village.
Fausto Lopez recently moved from a building down the street from Exodus House to the Bronx because of rent increases. Yet he feels blessed that his 6th grade son Richard can still attend the East Harlem School.
“This school has the highest standard, no negatives, and is so far so good. We want to send him to a New England boarding school later,” said Lopez.
“This is a huge step up for kids who used to have torn textbooks,” said Karen Ayala, 35, whom Hageman taught at University Heights Secondary School in the early 1990’s.
“Before he was my homeroom teacher, I was a hot mess. Look where I am now,” said Ayala, a teacher at the Head Start across 2nd Avenue from Exodus House.
“The school and its new building are not the norm for this neighborhood,” said Ayala. “But they try to show the children that there is something better. An opportunity of this magnitude is a beautiful thing.”
“If Ivan’s gonna do it, then he’s gonna do it big.”