School for Change

By Beth Schwartzapfel '01 / May/June 2013
April 25th, 2013

When Gus ’56 and Marty ’57 Trowbridge started the Manhattan Country School (MCS) in New York City in 1966, they wanted to educate a new generation of kids about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Instruction was hands-on, with as much emphasis placed on learning about social justice as on mastering math.

The school was racially integrated and, soon after its founding, tuition was set on a sliding scale so no one would be stigmatized as a “scholarship student.” The Trowbridges also soon opened a 180-acre working farm in upstate New York where the students helped run the operations. “A private school with a public mission,” is how Manhattan Country described itself. Today, MCS is more than three times its original size, with 200 students ranging from preschoolers to eighth graders.

When Gus Trowbridge arrived at Brown, he was already politically liberal. Back then, he says, Brown was not. “The University,” he recalls, “really didn’t stand out as being a real promoter of change.” In his 2005 memoir, Begin With a Dream, Gus says he chose Brown because he wanted to put his progressive views to “the test in a more traditional setting.” Still, he found political kinship with the liberal-leaning Episcopal chaplain Samuel Wylie and groups like Students for Democratic Action. Marty, a flautist and a music major (Gus studied English and American literature), arrived on campus a year after Gus did. The pair had known each other while attending the progressive Putney School in Vermont.

It’s one thing to found an innovative school like MCS; it’s another to actually run it. Building a “little utopia,” as the school has been called, was not easy. Parents at times mistrusted families from other races and economic classes. Committees circulated petitions, made demands, and argued late into the night about issues ranging from staff diversity and financial disclosure to whether the curriculum adequately focused on black and Puerto Rican history. Board of trustee meetings at times dissolved into name-calling and door-slamming. Eventually things did calm down, and by the time the Trowbridges retired in 1997, MCS’s progressive vision had become a model for other schools.

About 43 percent of MCS’s 200 students are white, and 31 percent black, so in keeping with Trowbridge’s goal, no single racial group forms a majority. Seventy-five percent of students pay sliding-scale tuition, which means that each family pays tuition in the same proportion to its financial resources, up to a maximum of $38,000 in the upper school.

Maiya Jackson ’99, who runs the upper school at MCS, first walked into the place in 2004 as a young student teacher and “fell in love with the mission,” she says. “The students there will go on to be advocates for social justice—and that’s exactly the impact I want to have on the world.” Jackson studied English literature at Brown and was inspired to pursue teaching by her volunteering experiences at the Swearer Center and by working at Summerbridge, which pairs low-income kids with student teachers for summer enrichment classes. (It is now known as the Breakthrough Collaborative.)

MCS students, Jackson says, feel empowered. “As young people they’re given so much room to formulate their own opinions, to speak out. Even as young people they have access to those political channels to make change.”

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May/June 2013