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Building the Next Dalton

There are more private schools starting in New York than at any time since the twenties. Why are so many of them struggling? New York parents.

Every private school begins as a dream, a little Utopia. Stanley Bosworth had a vision of students engaged in a world of ideas rather than grades and started Saint Ann’s in some spare space in an Episcopal church. Iconoclastic educator Helen Parkhurst believed the teaching methods of the early twentieth century were too rigid, and so, in 1919, Dalton was born. Michael Steinhardt, the legendary hedge-fund manager, has had his own private-school dream for a decade, but he’s found it harder than he imagined to make it real.

“Founding a school in New York entails multiple challenges, from the money to finding space to getting support from the community you want to serve,” says Steinhardt, sitting in his office overlooking Central Park. “It’s damn hard.”

Steinhardt’s particular vision is a Jewish-inflected high school that would educate nonreligious Jews in their culture and heritage, but whose intellectual rigor would appeal to non-Jewish families as well. Hebrew would be taught, in the same way Latin is taught at schools like Dalton, “as a classical language to better understand history and literature,” he says. The student body would be one-quarter non-Jewish, possibly more.

Back in 1995, Steinhardt closed his hedge fund to devote himself to philanthropy, although he still pauses in conversation to compulsively check the trading screen on his desk, then apologizes, “It’s an old habit.” His pet project was the school, and he spent more than a million dollars just in planning costs. “We put together committees made up of some of the finest Jewish and non-Jewish educators in the world: Joel Fleishman from Duke; Gardner Dunnan, who was at Dalton at the time; Leon Botstein, the president of Bard … ”

But the school became mired in debates over its mission—would putting Jewish and non-Jewish teenagers together lead to more interfaith marriages?—and eventually Steinhardt’s co-backer, who was planning to match Steinhardt’s contribution of more than $10 million, withdrew his financial support.

“It would have been a very special school,” Steinhardt says. “I deeply regret that I didn’t do enough to make it happen.”

Now he’s back to the drawing board. But the dream of starting a new school is very much alive. And Steinhardt is not alone.

The New York private-school market has a supply-and-demand problem. Elite schools like Dalton, Collegiate, Horace Mann, and Riverdale turn away more than 90 percent of applicants to their kindergarten-through-eighth-grade programs, and even second-tier private elementary schools have become so sought-after that they have enough applicants to fill their classes three times over.

The private-school shortage is, in part, a function of demographics. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, there was an 8 percent increase in the population of small children citywide between 2000 and 2004; in Manhattan alone, the rise was 26 percent. The borough’s preschool population is now brushing up against 100,000, the highest since the sixties. And more of those preschoolers have parents who can afford—and will only consider—private school; the same Census data showed that 16.4 percent of Manhattan families earned more than $200,000 a year in 2004, up from 13.7 percent in 2000.

“The situation is very difficult now. It’s just getting harder every year to find placements for my students, and it’s clearly a function of how many more families are applying to private schools,” says Jean Rosenberg, director of the Chelsea Day School, a popular downtown pre-K.

The shortage has produced a ferment of new activity in the city’s private-education world. Three years ago, Columbia University started an elementary school with space for 650 students. About the same time, the George Jackson Academy, founded by former De La Salle headmaster Brian Carty, began educating boys in the East Village. Last year, education entrepreneur Michael Koffler opened Claremont Preparatory School, a traditional K-through-eighth-grade school with space for 1,000 students, across the street from the stock exchange. And this fall, two new elementary schools opened their doors. The ideal School, on West 76th Street, aims to serve an audience of both special-needs and typically developing children. The British International School, at 25th Street on the East River, is a for-profit venture directed at New York’s burgeoning expatriate community. Add smaller schools like the Harlem Academy, the Brooklyn Free School, and the Brooklyn Waldorf School, each with space for about 50 students, and several other schools on the drawing board, and what takes shape is the outline of a private-school boomlet.

“You’d really have to go back to around 1920 to find a comparable blast of new schools in New York City,” says Fred Calder, director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools. “There was a push in the late sixties, with schools like Saint Ann’s and Manhattan Country School, but not as big as we’re seeing now.”