By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The anti-Kaplan camp found an unofficial leader in Evelyn Mahmud, a black assistant principal who started out as a teacher in the humanities magnet and over the years became increasingly identified with black dissatisfaction. (She did not return repeated phone calls or respond to faxed questions for this story. Neither would anyone in the coalition agree to be photographed.) According to colleagues and parents, Mahmud was philosophically against magnet schools, which she regarded as havens for white students, and came to regard Kaplan as a standard-bearer of what was wrong with them. She remarked to more than one teacher that she thought Kaplan was racist, and that she didn't approve of his dating black women. Eventually she became allied with the parents who would form AAPCEE, and last May sided with them over the the issue of renewing funding for the school's gospel choir. The choir was funded annually by the Student Improvement Committee, a democratic body consisting of parents, teachers and students that divvied up money for everything from security guards to music-magnet aides. A straw poll indicated that the choir might lose some or all of its $13,000. When the parents got wind of the poll, they stood up at the committee meeting and loudly decried anyone who opposed the gospel choir, an entirely black group and a symbol of main school ethnic pride, as racist; if moneys were not approved, they said, they would call out the NAACP. One black student on the committee said she felt so physically threatened by the choir faction that she abstained from voting altogether. Funding for the choir passed by a landslide.
The following day, as Kaplan was teaching his political-action lesson based on the choir-funding vote, Mahmud walked unannounced into his classroom to observe; not 45 minutes later she walked out. The subsequent complaints she made to principal David Winter about the lesson precipitated the formation of AAPCEE and a full frontal attack on Hamilton's inequities. The coalition sent out a three-page letter detailing its grievances, which consisted mainly of charges against Kaplan and a short paragraph about low minority-student achievement and college-prep tracking. The charges against Kaplan ranged from the general to the gossipy to the frankly loony: he "demeans children"; he "tells students and faculty that he can't teach non-magnet students"; he often "talks about his private life in class and his preference for dating black women"; he "refers to himself with gang names such as 'Mule-Dawg' . . . All African-American and Latino students are not in gangs. Is this what he should be teaching in school?" The letter was sent to school-district and elected officials and every black activist group in the city -- including the NAACP, the Brotherhood Crusade and the Urban League -- though not to Kaplan himself. (Interestingly, AAPCEE's contention that Kaplan denigrated the gospel choir by calling it a "social impact group" is self-referencing: On the last funding request form that Mahmud submitted, she wrote that the chief beneficiaries of the choir are "students at risk.") The letter prompted two separate investigations of the charges, which went on for months and were ultimately dismissed as groundless.
Undaunted, the coalition mailed out another letter last November, this time to the entire Hamilton faculty. It praised the mostly responsible teachers, but warned against the few who "seek to use race and religious intolerance to isolate teachers from students and parents of color . . . These misguided teachers give good teachers a bad name." The letter concluded by urging teachers to join AAPCEE's cause of educational and racial equality.
The day after the April protest, before a scheduled gospel choir performance on campus, director Fred Martin alluded to it by exulting in the fact that Beytin was being punished and that the humanities magnet was finally getting its due. Those in the audience later complained to â school officials about what they perceived as blatantly partisan and wildly inappropriate remarks; they demanded disciplinary action against Martin, as action had been taken against Beytin, but nothing happened. Meanwhile, AAPCEE continues to agitate for Kaplan's ouster.
"It's pure McCarthyism, a witch hunt," says one black source close to the investigations who asked not to be named. "The parents probably have very viable concerns here, but their real agenda is so polluted, [the concerns] get lost. They represent the misdirection of black-power energy that strips the real issues of all credibility."
III. The Learning Curve
Kaplan and Beytin's supporters, not surprisingly, agree. But one irony among many is that they also agree with AAPCEE about the urgent need to address educational inequality at Hamilton and elsewhere -- and they credit the embattled teachers with ensuring they learned that. Nor does anyone believe that Beytin should nothave been disciplined for losing his temper in class, but they say that labeling the incident racist, and proof that the school is racist, was either sloppy thinking or pure opportunism. As it turns out, Beytin never threw a chair, he blew up at a white Jewish student, and principal David Winter, after discussing the incident with Beytin and others, determined that race was not a factor. Beytin was in fact instrumental in helping to restructure the main school in recent years, establishing distinct courses of study -- Communications Arts, Global Studies -- as a way of giving it a magnetlike identity and setting a tenor of reform.