02/11/2015 09:34 am ET Updated Apr 11, 2015

How a Student from the Non-College Track Became a Founder of Schools

The majority of American children in public schools are now classified to be in poverty.

So if we truly believe in equality, we need to admit that our educational system has failed to respect the unique potentials of most American children.

I reached this conclusion over 50 years ago as the admissions director of a prep school. The admissions committee had turned down candidates based solely on their academic records. I finally rebelled, choosing to interview and then accepting two of these supposedly very unqualified rejected candidates, ones I found to be "street smart" kids, but who would need scholarships. They turned out to be real challenges to our faculty, but today both have PhDs, one as a college professor and the other as a family psychologist.

I myself was a poor student in public school, with my class clown antics getting me dropped from the "college" to the "general" track. This was fine with me, since it would make my work easier.

However when I entered the general English class, I could feel the students' hostility--I was the only one from the wealthier "cliff estates." All others from my neighborhood were either in the college group or in private schools. (Actually, my parents tried to send me to a military school--as they had sent my older brother, Tom.)

Making new friends in the general track helped me bridge the hostility while understanding its roots. Academically, I was in the same position they were in, but it had no meaning to me. To them, it was meaningful because education could open doors in life for them. My presence reminded them of their lower status to wealthier students.

After graduation, WWII was not over, so I joined the Navy. Upon discharge, I didn't know what I was going to do. My older brother Tom was working hard at a prep school to get into college so I decided to follow him.

Thanks to a relentless lesson in geometry from my stepfather, and an extraordinary English teacher in prep school, I succeeded in a Summer School trial at Bowdoin College, which got me accepted there in the fall.

I barely graduated from Bowdoin, a combination of poor study habits and mediocre academic ability. But once I found my calling in teaching, I sought a master's degree in mathematics with a new ferocity; I needed to inspire my students. (I was pleased to recently have one of my former students devote his book Hacker's Delight, to me "...for sparking in me a joy for the simple things in mathematics.")

I'm telling my story because I believe my so-so academic ability and lack of achievement in school didn't affect my future because I was from the privileged class. I shudder to think of what happens in our educational system to others like me who don't have financial or other advantages of the privileged class.

We Americans believe in equality; therefore we believe each of us has a unique potential waiting to be realized. But only some of us excel in academics, just as some of us excel in athletics, performing arts, salesmanship and so on.

This heavy emphasis on academic achievement in American education unfairly favors academic talent, which in turn denigrates virtually all other talents and potentials. Today I am immersed in many academic endeavors, but the greatest source of my effectiveness is rooted in my people skills, not something addressed in school.

However, the ticket that allowed me to develop and express all my potentials was a college education, as unstellar as it was. It scares the hell out of me to think of what would have happened to me if I were unlucky enough to be one of those 51% of American kids in public schools today who are born into poverty.

What kind of life would I have had?