February 28, 2000 12:00 PM

It’s a chilly morning, but when Ivan Hageman booms, “Warrior Walk!” 62 boys and girls eagerly line up for their trek to Manhattan’s Central Park. Along the way, the principal of East Harlem School and his students greet a homeless man foraging in a trash can. “We remind the kids,” says Hageman, 40, “that there but for the grace of God go a lot of us.”

And there but for the tenacity of Ivan and his brother Hans, 41, goes many a child. The Hagemans gave up fast-track career possibilities to create a school that gives at-risk black and Hispanic kids a fair shot at a future. The school wins educators’ accolades and support from the likes of Tom Brokaw, Paul Newman and Linda Fiorentino. “The Hagemans are the real thing,” says The View’s Star Jones. “Their passion is contagious.”

It hasn’t been a walk in the park. When the Hagemans founded the academy in 1993, they were greeted with death threats from drug dealers determined to drive them off the block. The brothers donned bullet-proof vests. “[The dealers] knew,” says Hans, “they’d have to kill us to stop our work.”

To the kids, many of whom have endured homelessness or the loss of a parent to AIDS or the streets, the Hagemans are heroes, if demanding ones. The academic year lasts 11 months, with three hours of homework daily and no TV on school nights. Tardiness earns a detention and a lecture. “You don’t want to get Ivan mad,” says Shelby Simpson, 12. “When it comes to homework or disrespecting the class, he’s serious.”

The Hagemans have their own criteria for admission: “We’re looking for a spark,” says Hans. To date, all 33 graduates from the school’s eighth grade have gone on to top high schools. “The odds are against them, so to compete successfully they need to be tough physically, emotionally and academically,” says Hans, who handles the endless fund-raising to meet a $650,000 annual budget and to help parents with the $1,100 yearly tuition. An early supporter of their dream was John F. Kennedy Jr., a schoolmate of the Hagemans at the tony Collegiate School in Manhattan. He called on fellow board members at the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity of corporate leaders, to open their wallets—which they have done to the tune of $320,000 so far. At the foundation’s Heroes Breakfast in December 1998, Kennedy lauded the Hagemans, saying, “We all knew they were destined to do something important.”

It was a mission instilled by their late parents. Lynn Hageman, a white Methodist minister, was denied his own Nebraska parish for refusing to end his relationship with Leola, a black woman. In 1959 the couple moved to Harlem and started Exodus House, a residential treatment center for drug addicts. The family—including daughter Erika Robinson, 43, now a high school English teacher in New Jersey—lived in the building. The kids shot hoops and shared holidays with the residents. “It was like having a bunch of older brothers who had a whole lot of profound experience on the streets, in prison, in the Vietnam War,” recalls Ivan.

It was at Collegiate—where they were among the first black students—that the Hagemans “first realized there was such a thing as country homes,” says Hans, who was a year ahead of Ivan. Both graduated with distinction, in 1976 and 1977. Hans went on to earn degrees from Princeton and Columbia Law. After a stint as an assistant D.A. in Manhattan (with JFK Jr.), he worked as a high-ranking legal aide in the U.S. Senate. But in 1990 he turned down a lucrative lobbying post to return to Harlem. “The money was nice,” he says, “but it all felt empty.”

By then Ivan had graduated magna cum laude from Harvard (where he later returned to earn a master’s degree in education). He taught in New York City public schools until 1989, when he was tapped to head minority recruiting at Collegiate. In the early 1990s, both brothers felt a yearning to help kids in their community. They opened the school in the former Exodus House building, where Hans still lives. Ivan has an orchid-filled apartment a few blocks away. The school’s demands have taken a toll—Ivan is divorced, and Hans is separated, though he cherishes the time he spends with his daughter Jamila, 9. Both brothers unwind with martial arts, which they also teach the kids. “Sometimes it feels like I don’t have any room to breathe,” says Hans. “But I wouldn’t trade it.”

Christina Cheakalos

Elizabeth McNeil in New York City

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