Andrew Trees: Case of terminated Horace Mann teacher still causing waves

Historians in the News

IT was an “O captain! My captain!” moment.

Andrew Trees had been informed that his contract at the Horace Mann School, one of the nation’s most academically respected high schools, would not be renewed, and this May he was in his final days. A history teacher who had taught at the private school for six years, Mr. Trees had written a satirical novel, “Academy X,” about an elite school where students and parents resort to bribery and blackmail to ensure Ivy League college admission.

Like Robin Williams’s character in “Dead Poets Society,” Mr. Trees was admired by some of his students despite the school administration’s disapproval, and a week before the end of classes they were showing it.

In the movie, the students at a conservative boarding school stand on desks, saluting their departing teacher by quoting the Walt Whitman poetry he’d taught them, providing a sense of hope that their spirits would not be broken. In real life, a former student of Mr. Trees who had moved on to another history class, this one studying civil disobedience, rallied his classmates to march toward Mr. Trees’s classroom. Along the way, they picked up another class of students, studying the rise of Bolshevism.

More than 30-strong, they walked into Mr. Trees’s class, overlooking the school’s central lawn, and, along with his current students, began offering testimonials.

“Dr. Trees is the best teacher I ever had,” said one, according to Danielle McGuire, the teacher of the class studying civil disobedience. It is the practice at Horace Mann for students to address their teachers with Ph.D.s by the title “Doctor.”

The march was a rare flicker of disobedience at one of New York City’s most prestigious schools, but the departure of Mr. Trees has continued to roil the Riverdale campus. In the last year, the controversy has led to the censorship of the school newspaper, the resignations of all the members of a teachers’ grievance committee and, this month, a breach-of-contract and defamation lawsuit against the school filed by Mr. Trees.

The 120-year-old academy in the Bronx, which charges about $30,000 a year in tuition for high school, has a sterling reputation, sending a third of its roughly 170 graduates each year to the Ivy League and counting among its alumni William Carlos Williams, Eliot Spitzer and the historian Robert Caro, many of whom still strongly support the way the institution is run. “The school was great when I was there,” said Jeffrey Brosk, a sculptor who graduated in 1965 and is a member of the alumni council. “And the people who are running it seem really great to me now.”

Horace Mann officials, including Head of School Thomas M. Kelly, declined to comment for this article. Many parents of current students, members of the alumni council and current teachers did not return phone calls requesting interviews about the dispute stirred by Mr. Trees.

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