For his first act as Principal for a Day at Public School 70 in the Bronx, Donald J. Trump — the Trump of the high-rolling hotels and chandelier-encrusted casinos — gave a speech to an auditorium full of fifth graders.
Make the speech inspiring, he was asked, something to encourage a group of children whose universe is one of New York City’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods and whose school is so impoverished that it has been scratching and scrimping for enough money to take its championship chess team to the national competition in Tennessee this spring.
Mr. Trump glided to the microphone.
”First of all, who likes Nike sneakers?” he asked. All 300 fifth graders raised their hands. Mr. Trump leaned in to drop the bombshell. ”If everybody puts their name on a piece of paper right now, I will pick 15 people and I’ll take you to the new Nike store that I just opened at Trump Tower.”
The fifth graders erupted in frenzied excitement at the promise of a trip to what Mr. Trump described as the ”inner city called 57th and Fifth.” But a little while later, 11-year-old Andres Rodriguez had a question.
”Why,” asked Andres, whose father is dead and whose mother cannot work because of a bad leg, ”did you offer us sneakers if you could give us scholarships?”
It was a split second that split the distance wide open between the world of P.S. 70 and the celebrity constellation of Mr. Trump, who did not go to public school and whose children do not either.
The awkward give-and-take was not a typical encounter for the increasingly popular and highly regarded Principal for a Day program. Nonetheless, it seemed to underline why the program was created in the first place: many of the people with the most wealth and influence, and the greatest potential to help, have little personal connection to inner-city schools these days. Many are products of the public schools, but have chosen not to send their children there. So educators create programs to draw them in, even for a few hours, in the hope that they will develop a more permanent relationship.
”Thirty, 40 years ago, you wouldn’t have had to do this,” said Sylvia Simon, the principal of P.S. 70, referring to the inherent uneasiness that comes when someone so rich and famous descends briefly into a school where 97 percent of the children are poor enough to qualify for free school lunches. ”It is a little ironic, a little disheartening, because if there were more middle-class people here, you wouldn’t have to do this.” That is a main reason for programs like Principal for a Day, run by an organization called Public Education Needs Civil Involvement in Learning, or Pencil.
”It’s to bring in people who should see the schools and who wouldn’t otherwise,” said Lisa Belzberg, president of Pencil, who persuaded about 1,000 successful people to spend a day as acting principal in nearly all of the city’s schools. That number, the highest since the program began in 1994, included Johnnie Cochran, Tipper Gore, Bill Cosby, Norma Kamali, Jane Pauley and Richard W. Riley, the United States Secretary of Education. In many cases, they become involved with the school and help set up a program, volunteer time, raise money or donate needed supplies.
”It’s to build a community in New York City for public education,” Ms. Belzberg said. ”To have people who say ‘I’ve seen it. I get it. Now let’s do something about it.’ ”
Of course, most principals for a day, she noted, are not Donald Trumps, and when the visitor is not someone of such distracting celebrity, ”there’s real substance that goes on,” Ms. Belzberg pointed out.
Yesterday, for instance, Ivan Seidenberg, chairman of Nynex, pledged $25,000 to Intermediate School 113 in the Bronx, which was also his alma mater. Stephen E. Jacobs, a senior partner at the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, promised to raise $100,000 to outfit the library at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan. Jack Rudin, a real estate developer, pledged $25,000 for a computer lab at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx. And Elaine Taylor-Gordon, an associate at the Kenzer Corporation, an executive recruiting company, will arrange to publish a book of the poems written by the children at P.S. 86 in the Bronx and allow the school to sell the book to raise money.
Past years have produced other generous commitments, some of them nurtured from year to year. John Sykes, president of VH1 television, for example, started a program called Save the Music, to raise money for music programs in the schools. Norma Kamali has been helping Washington Irving High School students design and sell T-shirts. And Beverly Chell, vice chairwoman of K-III Communications, got a group of publishers to donate one book for each of the city’s 1.1 million public-school children.
”If you show them what’s going on, then they can put their talents to work with it,” Ms. Belzberg said. As for Mr. Trump, she said, ”Look, I hope that he gives jobs. I hope he really takes a hard look at the needs of this school and brings a business head to doing it. Maybe he could say, ‘Here’s an accounting thing I know.’ ”
Mr. Trump did not quite get to that level during his two and a half hours at P.S. 70. ”Is there anyone here that doesn’t want to live in a big beautiful mansion?,” he asked the fifth graders. ”You know what you have to do to live in a big beautiful mansion?”
”You have to be rich,” one student offered.
”That’s right,” said Mr. Trump, who took over his father’s real-estate business. ”You have to work hard, get through school. You have to go out and get a great job, make a lot of money, and you live the American dream. And you’re going to have fun doing it. It’s a lot of fun.”
Mr. Trump’s sneaker lottery caused no small measure of havoc yesterday at P.S. 70, in Tremont in the Bronx. After he picked 20 students from the fifth-grade assembly, one girl who didn’t make the cut told Ms. Simon that she was upset.
Natalie Blackwell, a fifth-grade teacher, was consoling her entire class of nonwinners — ”I don’t want them to think that everything in life is going to go their way,” she said — when Mr. Trump got wind of the disappointment and decided that that class could get sneakers, too. Later, he extended the offer to 30 special education students.
The whole thing was a bit awkward for Ms. Simon, a popular principal who tends to concentrate on problems like the crowding of 1,700 students into classrooms built for 1,400 and how to get more than 40 percent of her third graders to read on grade level. Instead, she found herself telling fifth graders to be pleased that Mr. Trump has ”brought enough beautiful, psychedelic Trump Tower hats for every child.”
Later, she said: ”I have a reading test next Tuesday. That’s more important than this.”
To be fair, the awkwardness of the day was not lost on Mr. Trump. ”Somebody asked me, ‘Did you consider sending your kids to public school?’ ” he said. ”I said: ‘I’m going to give the politically incorrect answer: I never even thought about it.’ That’s one of the advantages to wealth.”
And, Mr. Trump did keep his promise to spend time at the school, which teachers and organizers of the program said was a benefit in and of itself because it sent the children a message that important people cared about them.
In what was apparently the only glitch in yesterday’s Principal for a Day program, there was profound disappointment at Public School 316 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the children were thrilled that Darryl Dawkins, the former professional basketball center, had agreed to be principal for a day.
The day before, said the school’s principal, Carmen Gloria Olmedo, an agent for Mr. Dawkins had called to say he could not come unless he received his standard stipend of a few hundred dollars, which the school could not afford. Mr. Dawkins did not show up, nor did anyone else come to take his place because he canceled so late. Efforts to reach Mr. Dawkins for comment by telephone through the school, the program and several basketball associations were unsuccessful.
Back at P.S. 70, Mr. Trump had, by the end of the morning, read a story called ”I Can’t Get My Turtle to Move” to a first-grade class, and faced questions from well-briefed fifth graders, who asked him everything from how he made his money to how many times he had been married to his favorite food (pasta). To the student who wanted to know why he had not donated money for scholarships, he said: ”Truth? I don’t know the answer to that question.”
He allowed himself to be photographed before a campy sculpture of Trump’s Castle made from casino slot-machine cups by the art teacher, Cheryl Berman, who said she compensates for a gutted arts budget by using discarded eyeglass lenses, compact disc cases, coffee cans and film canisters.
Before he stepped into his limousine, Mr. Trump gave a fake million-dollar bill — and then $200 in real cash — to the bake sale that parents were running to raise money for the chess team trip.
And he left the students with this message.
”Money does not buy happiness,” he told the fifth grade assembly, ”but it helps. Always remember that.”
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