Losing Battle: Lessons From Pine Crest School Founder Mae McMillan
It is a universal condition among the alumni of private schools and colleges, perhaps more prevalent among those whose families have invested substantial time, money, and faith in the school, that everything that happens after the moment one graduates appears misguided, tragic, and symbolic of the institution's unstoppable decline.
But recently, Pine Crest alumni could be forgiven for thinking their school was actually on the fast track to destruction. Even if Hank Battle, who appears in this week's feature, was making wise choices when he decided to terminate veteran teachers and plan a risky new special-needs education center, even if taking kids on a trip to Washington, D.C., and allegedly asking them which teachers to fire was cool, not creepy... the atmosphere of rumor and despair among parents and teachers that grew out of his tenure would be toxic at any school, no matter how beautiful the campus.
In times like these, a little nostalgia and hero worship are in order.
And Pine Crest has its hero, Mae McMillan. Commonly pictured as a benevolent little old lady, she's known as a strong educator, an upstanding citizen, a curator of the attention to detail and nurturing spirit that still compels people to spend $20,000 a year to send their children to Pine Crest. She was, at the beginning, a solitary teacher, offering tutoring to vacationing kids from up North so they wouldn't be behind when they headed back to their usual schools. Soon local families got interested, and Pine Crest School got its start on East Broward Boulevard.
As the ceiling fell in earlier this year, angry parents flocked to the comments section of a Sun-Sentinel article about age-discrimination claims from the teachers Battle let go. They invoked McMillan as the doyenne of a lost era to be mourned, if not reclaimed. One parent wrote, "The new president does not carry the same ideals in mind that Mae McMillan and [previous president] Lourdes Cowgill carried with them."
For a glimpse of some of those ideals, let's turn to a book McMillan wrote when she was 80 years old, called My Life, Plus a Hundred Years. "Students First!" she proclaimed, addressing them directly: "Because the school was started for you, and justifies its existence only through you, I shall be talking directly to you throughout this little volume."
So, a few excerpts and lessons to be learned:
"It was because you [students] needed inspiring, competent teachers and facilities for instruction in beautiful surroundings, that we struggled with fund raising drives to insure adequate salaries and a new, constantly enlarged campus to be painstakingly filled with more classrooms, gymnasium, athletic fields, and facilities for teaching the Fine Arts and even citizenship."
Citizenship classes, wow. This could just as easily be read off an annual report circa 2010. Just how hard this "fund raising" is is another question. Battle reportedly touted his fundraising skill and his legacy of increasing his previous school's endowment tenfold. But how will alumni donations weather the storm of discontent after his departure?
"Meanwhile, the school still being 'family owned,' there was no question of 'nepotism,' when I employed my children."
The McMillan family, and many others, have been closely tied to Pine Crest. And that's something parents and students, themselves with family history at Pine Crest, seemed not to mind. But when a new president allegedly tried to hire a couple of his old associates? They went hog-wild. The key issue: This guy wasn't one of them. He was an outsider. This, to a community as self-entwined as Pine Crest, was frightening.
On "The Builders," in the early days: "Brilliant young students now gathered at Pine Crest... and the school attracted outstanding teachers who gave them inspiration and training for the next thirty years.
Teachers. Students. All the teachers and parents contacted for this article said these were the two most important things at Pine Crest, capital campaigns and public image aside.
In reply to a student-written editorial regarding smoking on campus: "If the solution to cigarette smoking on campus were simply to provide a lounge for it, then why not solve all the other problems in American high schools, such as use of drugs and alcohol, by providing separate club quarters for each?"
Now that's just awesome.
Talking about meeting Albert McMillan, her future husband, while studying at the University of Chicago: "From this experience, I always advise young girls: 'When you see him, the man you can truly love, you'll know he's the right one. He'll be honest and dependable, this man who will take responsibility for you and the children; he won't be destroying his health with drugs or alcohol, or hot-rodding on the highways, or wasting his chance for a good education."
With all the salacious and dubious rumors surrounding Battle, his past, and his pursuits in Fort Lauderdale, a little old-fashioned wholesomeness could go a long way. Thanks, Mae.
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