Manhattan Country School opened on September 21, 1966, in the heaviest rainfall of the century. Gus and Marty Trowbridge, parents of three young children, had given up the security of Gus’ job teaching English and history at The Dalton School to start a new school from nothing: no building, no money, no students, no books, no blocks, no clear idea of what would happen. They had a vision of a fully integrated school—one where children from a range of races, ethnicities and socioeconomic circumstances would learn together.
At the time, such a school was news: first the Saturday Review and then Time, Life, Barbara Walters, and many newspapers covered the experiment, speculating on its academic standards, unsure how long such a radically integrated institution would survive. Fifty years later, MCS is going strong, still drawing life from the diversity and democracy of its classrooms and from direct study of the goals and history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Gus and Marty’s efforts began in a tiny office in the basement of 1165 Park Avenue in the fall of 1965. From this office, within a year, they assembled the necessary elements to open their school: a Board of Trustees and certification as a 501(c)(3), funding to provide a faculty and classrooms, and a group of students that was 30 percent nonwhite, at that time an unparalleled percentage, but one that would soon, by 1971, be increased so that no incoming class had any racial majority.
Robert Coles, Katharine Taylor and John Verdery, strong proponents of the potential role of private schools in the force for integration, were direct influences on their formulation of the admissions policy. From the start MCS was also by design economically and socially diverse. In its first years, it included affluent families as well as a large number of white children and children of color on scholarship. (Today, MCS has a student body with broad socioeconomic diversity and no racial majority. Tuition is set on a sliding scale ensuring that the cost of children’s education is in proportion to their families’ means.)
The founding faculty of seasoned professionals consisted primarily of idealist “defectors” from Dalton, including Martha Norris, one of Dalton’s first black teachers; Sally Kallem; and Ruth Emerson Cooke, descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson and former wife of Alistair Cooke. The inspiration for the school’s educational model came from Gus and Marty’s respective good experiences at progressive schools with farms and emphasis on personal responsibility in a working community (Putney, City and Country, and Camp Treetops).
Among the first families to enroll, there was a spirit of adventure and a desire to find something better, something really new, for their children. But no one could have predicted how, once the cast of characters was assembled, the school would grow. New curricula were born from the honest responses of children and teachers to their experiences in a pluralistic community. Barriers were broken, and a unique institution blossomed.
MCS has become a powerful model of education—under the leadership of Gus, until his retirement from his position as director in 1997, and then Michèle Solá. In Michèle’s 20 years as director of MCS, she has built on the formidable foundation set by Gus. She has strengthened the school’s academic program by expanding Spanish, science and math offerings. Under her guidance, activism has become an integral component of students’ coursework. And she has worked to build stronger curricular connections between learning at the MCS Farm and what takes place in our New York City classrooms.
Michèle is committed to supporting MCS faculty and staff and raising the visibility of the school as a leader in progressive education. By securing funds from various foundations and private donors, she has ensured that teachers and administrators have opportunities to build their professional skills and share the MCS approach to education at conferences.
Working in partnership with the Board of Trustees, Michéle is playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of MCS. She is executing a strategic plan rooted in the school’s founding mission and values and designed to sustain our sliding-scale tuition model, improve our facilities, increase teacher compensation and expand our impact.
More than 1,500 students have attended MCS since it first opened its doors on that rainy day in 1966. They are making an impact in education, social services, finance, government, media, law, medicine, the arts and a host of other fields. While the roads they have traveled since their days at MCS are varied, they all carry with them the shared values of critical thinking, curiosity, individuality and compassion.
To learn more about Manhattan Country School's history, view our interactive timeline.