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Kids That City Schools Fail Learn They Can Succeed with Trailblazer John Simon

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All of us have the right to dissipate our energies and talent as we desire. But those who are serious about the future have the obligation to direct those energies and talents toward concrete objectives consistent with the ideals they profess.—Robert F. Kennedy, speaking to university students in 1966

At another time, in another setting, in less elegant language, that same challenge was once put to John Simon. It was the winter of 1973, and Simon, an ex-campus rebel on the perilous threshold of turning 30, had been haranguing a New York City educator on the shortcomings of urban public schools. The educator listened, then asked bluntly, “Can you do better?” Simon replied, “Of course.” The challenge was then inevitable: “Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?”

As an unemployed youth worker, Simon could easily have shrugged off the question; he didn’t have any money at all. But forging ahead with more courage than credentials (he didn’t have a teaching certificate either), Simon put together what he called an “educational collective” in an Upper West Side Manhattan church basement. From a neighborhood junior high school, he remembers, “I took five youngsters—one with a serious drug problem, another involved in trafficking and a lot of violence, two who were very volatile and basically considered ‘crazy’ by the school, and the last a very angry kid. For two weeks we painted walls and cleaned floors. Then the youngsters asked me, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I was hoping you’d have some ideas. What do you want to learn?’ ”

From those tentative beginnings evolved the DOME project, a pioneering educational experiment in a nondescript block on West 80th Street. The full range of DOME’S activities is broad and imaginative. Physically, the project consists of a combination one-room schoolhouse, youth center, auditorium, gymnasium, locker room, library, study hall and office, all operated in the style of an extended family commune. For more than 250 kids from some of New York’s grimmest neighborhoods, it is the most important address in town.

The day at DOME begins by 8 a.m. and continues until 7 p.m. or later—whenever the last staff member on the premises finally decides that enough is enough. Mornings are reserved for 15 students whom the public school system regards as problems. At DOME’S fully accredited alternative junior high (Simon is now duly certified) they are given individual attention and the opportunity to learn at their own pace. Afternoons, older teenagers wander in after class at their own schools, congregating elbow to elbow, doing homework, playing board games, kibitzing, horsing around. In a small gym upstairs, basketball alternates with ballet lessons.

The normal decibel level suggests chaos, but those who know the school understand differently. “It is the single most impressive operation I have come across,” social critic Nat Hentoff has noted. “First, because the kids, some of them seemingly wholly ‘uneducable’ at first, do learn. Second, because the whole ambience is free of rhetoric and euphemism. Failures are not glossed over and successes are real.” DOME now has eight full-time staff members, plus several part-timers and volunteers. Its $120,000 annual budget comes from a variety of public and private sources, including the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. “John Simon,” says Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, “is a wonder. He exemplifies my husband’s belief that one person can make a difference.”

During the first summer of his church basement project, Simon and four colleagues had an ambitious dream: the construction of a geodesic dome 19½ feet tall and 32 feet in diameter. “We felt the idea combined the most important qualities we wanted in a youth program,” he explains. “It involved cooperation and sharing, plus certain cognitive learning tasks like measurement, computation, geometry and the ability to read and follow instructions.” The group came up with plans and building materials, got permission to build in the Catskills, rounded up two dozen neighborhood kids and headed off to the mountains.

“If we had known how difficult it would turn out,” says Simon, “we probably would never have undertaken it. We compounded our problem by trying to build the dome on top of a hill requiring a quarter mile of steep climbing. We had to carry in food, water, railroad ties, plywood—all with 14-and 15-year-old youngsters. It rained all the time. The soil was rocky. We had fights, hassles, almost a murder.” Despite their miscalculations, they got the dome up, though, because of a dispute with the landowners, the project eventually lapsed. Back in Manhattan, however, the group was known admiringly as “the people who were building the dome”—and the name stuck. Later Simon created a grandiose acronym for DOME—Development of Opportunities through Meaningful Education—that now makes him wince with embarrassment. “I never use it unless somebody asks me,” he admits.

Nothing characterizes Simon so accurately as his penchant for experimentation and a willingness to learn from mistakes. The son of a businessman, he was born in Richmond, Va. and raised in Pleasantville, a New York City suburb. As a child he was small (“The girls could all eat off my head”), unathletic and nervous. “I was the sort of kid who waved his hand in the teacher’s face to get recognition,” he recalls. “I always wanted to have some control over my own life.”

Bookish as a boy, he went to Hamilton College to major in literature and spent his junior year at the Sorbonne in Paris. After graduation in 1965, he returned to Europe to work on his doctorate but found the continent blessed with distractions. “I went to Rome to read Dante, to Paris for Proust and Flaubert, to Dublin to read Joyce,” he says. “I had the time of my life.” For the first time, also, he felt the stirrings of a social consciousness. “In my last years at Hamilton the civil rights movement was under way,” he says. “I was sympathetic, but never got off my behind to do anything.” Then, in 1968, he took part in the wild Paris rioting against the de Gaulle government. “I was arrested and spent a night with machine guns pointed at me,” Simon recalls. “And I saw police break the arms and legs of one African demonstrator.” Irrevocably he was led to conclude that “the world wasn’t what I thought it was, and things were not the way they ought to be.”

Abandoning his studies, Simon returned to New York in 1970 and wound up as director of a privately run Manhattan youth center. Soon he discovered the city’s notorious welfare hotels, where the poor are dumped and left to fend for themselves. “I found hundreds of kids sitting in locked rooms with vermin and broken windows in the middle of winter. People were afraid to go into the halls because there were junkies lying in wait,” he recalls. “We led the movement to bust up those hotels, occupying buildings and offices, organizing a mock funeral procession past City Hall. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was operating on sheer energy on things that were way over my head.”

As an administrator, too, Simon was learning by trial and error. His youth center staff ballooned bureaucratically from four to 35 (“We all shared in the hiring; nobody wanted to share in the firing”), and rhetoric outstripped the center’s accomplishments. “We jumped too far ahead,” says Simon. “I wanted to build something where the first two bricks go down before the third goes on top. I didn’t want to be in a position where I was shooting my mouth off and not following through.” Temporarily discouraged, he quit. Then he talked with Luther Seabrook, a principal credited with turning a West Side intermediate school (grades six through eight) from one of the city’s toughest into one of its best. It was Sea-brook who challenged him to put up or shut up, and helped him to start the new program. Among DOME’S early ground rules: Enrollment in the project would be purely voluntary; Simon would have a free hand and would assume full responsibility for student progress as reflected in standard tests. On his own, Simon arranged to use the facilities at All Angels’ (Episcopal) Church.

After seven years as director of DOME, Simon holds out no illusions to incoming students. “I’m interested in people helping themselves,” he says, “not in babysitting their vices. If youngsters aren’t willing to make some effort, then we really have nothing for them.” Many students, he says, arrive with an ingrained sense of failure, having been told repeatedly, in ways direct and subtle, that they are either stupid or beyond the reach of education. “What we try very hard to work on,” he says, “is to get the kids to accept some responsibility for themselves, to get excited about what they’re doing, to develop their readiness to learn.” Simon can cite success stories, such as David, once an indifferent student, who is now a prep school senior and headed for college. Simon does not deny the failures, including another boy in David’s class who is now in prison. “They responded differently,” he admits. “I can’t say why.”

He is convinced, however, that students respond when adults care deeply. To demonstrate their concern, he and his overworked colleagues function as teachers, advisers, coaches, therapists, role models and, most of all, friends. “John runs this place like a family,” says 16-year-old Chris, once a chronic truant and drug dealer. “If he only had five dollars, and you needed money, he’d still let you have $2.50.” Is such dedication too good to be true? “The one criticism I’ve ever heard about DOME—and it’s really a compliment,” says David Hackett, executive director of the Kennedy Memorial, “is that there aren’t enough John Simons—people with his dedication—to expand this program. I don’t think John accepts that.”

Indeed he does not. In New York City alone, he points out, there are three new programs loosely modeled on his, and two years ago, when he collapsed from exhaustion and was sentenced to five weeks of bed rest, his staff carried on admirably. At 36, Simon has no desire to pose as a superman, and admits that his dedication to DOME has been hard on his family. His Finnish-born wife, Hannele, whom he met during his European student days and who is studying for a degree in early childhood education, has been especially tolerant, he says. Fortunately their two-bedroom apartment is only two blocks from DOME, and Simon is often able to steal a few moments to romp with his two young children in Riverside Park. He devotes what little spare time he has left to writing a book about the project that is his cause and obsession.

“For all my railing against the things like racism and repression that cause me to do this work,” he reflects, “I don’t know of another country where somebody can build from scratch and find the resources to make something like this grow. I do it because I enjoy it and go home at night feeling good. Some youngsters who came to DOME may not have gotten a lot, but I doubt we could find anyone who would say he was hurt by being here. Lots and lots feel they came out better for it.” He pauses for a moment, and nods. “I think that’s nice,” he says. “That’s nice.”