Ned O’Gorman: A Ray of Hope

From The New York Daily News


“Forty years ago, when he was thirty five years old, a man I know pretty well came to this neighborhood and built a school,” Ned O’Gorman said recently to a roomful of his preschool students in Harlem. “He’s a very interesting fellow, this guy. He’s 76 years old. Would you like to meet him?”

Cries of “Yes!” erupt from the children, who sit clustered around him.

After describing the man for several minutes, O’Gorman leaves the room, then returns. Hands in the air, he cries, “Here he is. It’s me!”

“What–?”cries a tiny girl with pigtails. “You’re the one who created a school?”

“Yes, yes!” he cries. “I created a school!”

For the past 40 years, O’Gorman’s self-appointed mission has been to provide quality, tuition-free early education to inner city children. At present, he does so as the founder and principal of The Ricardo O’Gorman Garden and School, located in a brownstone at 23 West 129th Street.

As principal, O’Gorman employs a program that respects students’ individuality and draws upon the ideas of Maria Montessori, the Italian educator and physician who believed in the child-centered classroom.

“I love the ideas behind Maria Montessori’s way of looking at children,” he says. “They are very beautiful and lodged in their ecstatic spirituality, usually in a state of something near ecstasy all the time.

“We try to make childhood a sacred dwelling place.”

The school, like its founder, is fiercely independent, and survives on a shoestring budget.

“It’s connected with no church, no political party—a politician has never crossed our threshold,” he says. “We get no money from the government. Basically, we’re a little liberation camp in the middle of a city of failed schools.”

The school serves 25 children from pre-school through second grade. Most of the students come from Harlem; typically, their parents hear of it by word of mouth—sometimes from O’Gorman, who often sits on the front stoop and chats with passersby.

“People get to know who you are and they come with their kids and if we have space we take them,” he says, adding that they have a long waiting list for next fall.

Things were even less structured back in 1966 when O’Gorman founded his original school, The Children’s Storefront School.

He went to Harlem to work as a teacher for Head Start, the federal program to provide academic preparation to preschoolers, when a local priest posed him an unusual challenge.

“He said I was just a frivolous rich guy who went to London to get his clothes made, and I would do nothing with my life but be a dilettante,” O’Gorman recalled. “He said, ‘I challenge you: There’s a storefront on Madison Avenue and 129th Street, and if you want to do something with it, you can have it.’

After a summer of traveling, O’Gorman returned to Harlem and opened a free after-school program, the forerunner to The Children’s Storefront School.

In 1966, long before the Ricardo O’Gorman Garden and School existed, he founded his original school, The Children’s Storefront School, which grew into a prestigious institution where he served as headmaster for 34 years. That school continues to operate, serving 170 children in grades K-8.

In 1998, that school’s Board of Trustees ousted O’Gorman, feeling that having a younger principal would be more advantageous to fundraising.

Initially devastated, O’Gorman now speaks about that time like a happily married man recalling a former sweetheart. Today, it is The Ricardo O’Gorman Garden and School that consumes his energy.

Named for his son Ricky, who died in 1996 at the age of 26, he founded it around the corner from The Children’s Storefront School in 1998.

His duty to the children drives him.

“I figure the Lord has a task for me, and I want to do it, however sloppily I manage to,” he says.

A poet who has published several books of verse and a memoir, “The Other Side of Loneliness: A Spiritual Journey,” (Arcade Publications) set for release in June, as well as three books about The Children’s Storefront School, O’Gorman puts much that he values—such as hard work, creativity, and joy—into the children’s curriculum.

“They don’t just do show and tell,” he says of the preschoolers. “They work very hard.”

Their day includes the usual academic subjects like reading and math, and also yoga, Latin, Italian, and French.

They go to the park and play in the sandbox, but they also spend rainy days watching “good films” such as French director Jean Cocteau’s ‘La Belle et la Bete’ [Beauty and the Beast] and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s film version of Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute.”

They have gone on to attend some of the most prestigious private and parochial schools in New York, such as The Caedmon School, The Buckley School, The Rudolf Steiner School, and the Bank Street School–on full or partial scholarship.

“We view it as one of our tasks to find appropriate schools for the children when they leave us,” he says.

Parents say O’Gorman gives their kids a strong academic foundation, and leadership skills to boot.

“In this school, you speak your mind and you got a right, and the day didn’t start till you came, and all the children are together,” said Wanda Hull, 38, a clerk whose daughter, Tijuana, 8, attends the school. “Ned [respects] a child[’s] personality, which is a plus.” Hull says her daughters are “leaders” at least in part due to O’Gorman’s influence. (Her older daughter, Sharonda, now 19, went from The Children’s Storefront School to a boarding school in Connecticut, and now attends Virginia State University.)

The kids themselves sing the praises of their principal, whom they and their teachers call “Neddie boy.”

What’s so special about him?

“Love,” says Willow, 4.

“I love Neddie boy,” seconds Emmy, 4.

“He has a funny hat, and he doesn’t like TV,” says Steven, 4.

Because he is aware that in the eyes of foundations from which the school is seeking support, his age is likely to be viewed as a drawback, O’Gorman plans to step down as head of school next year. He has found a successor whom he trusts, he says, but she has wisely declined to accept the position until he raises the funds to insure the school’s continuity.

“It’s been a wonderful 40 years,” he says. “I shall miss it terribly.”

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