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Building the Next Dalton

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Clockwise from top left, the British International School, Harlem Academy, the Brooklyn Waldorf School, and Claremont Preparatory School.  

Given the demographic demand, it would seem to be an opportune time to bring a private school to the market. But not one among this hopeful crop of start-ups (with the possible exception of the School at Columbia) can be said to be a sure thing. This is because, in many ways, starting a school in this city is exponentially more difficult than starting a business.

In fact, the current flowering comes after a rash of private-school closings in the eighties and early nineties, a shakeout during which long-established schools like Baldwin, Fleming, Walden, Lenox (which was folded into Birch Wathen), and McBurney closed their doors.

The simple answer to why some schools survive while others fall by the wayside is money. “Schools require transfusions of cash to see them through the start-up phase,” says Calder. “After that, it’s a matter of building a constituency of current families and alumni who will support you.” But there is also the issue of whether a school’s mission fits with the pedagogical preferences of its time. Nontraditional schools like Walden and New Lincoln may have failed because they lost enrollment as more-traditional pedagogies came back into vogue in the eighties.

“You can have success with a range of missions, from a Dalton Plan or Saint Ann’s, with its arts-oriented education, to a more structured curriculum like Horace Mann,” says former Dalton head Gardner Dunnan, who was also instrumental in launching the School at Columbia. “But it comes down to whether the marketplace sees what you’re offering as valuable.”

Claremont founder Mike Koffler understands the schools marketplace like few others. The president and CEO of MetSchools has made a highly profitable business out of owning and operating nursery schools in the city. Now he is sitting in the principal’s office of his latest endeavor, a grade school in a grand space in the restored Bank of America International building at 41 Broad Street.

The idea of starting a grade school was inspired by the parents of children in his nursery schools. “Our parents were looking at us and saying, ‘Where do we go?’ I wanted to provide the next step to remove that anxiety,” says Koffler.

Koffler pooled $40 million in start-up capital. Most of that money went into the long-term lease and construction of the 125,000-square-foot building, but he also poured $800,000 into building a pool in the basement, $1 million for a gym and rooftop recreation area the Reebok Sports Club would love to have, and $1 million carving a high-end cafeteria out of the building’s bank vault. There was also $2 million for curriculum development, $1 million for a state-of-the-art computer system and wireless network, another $350,000 for the library, $120,000 for laboratories, and $25,000 for a woodworking room.

This is more than the typical start-up school costs, but Koffler is trying to occupy a niche at the premium end of the food chain. “I wanted to make sure that we could offer kids a platinum experience,” he says. “That’s why we’ve got a full-time nutritionist and three chefs trained at culinary academies, our music teacher’s a professional recording artist, we have a pool and running track, and we’re the only private school that offers Mandarin before the eighth grade.”

Despite all these amenities, Claremont has only 110 students so far, and it won’t be operating at a profitable level, according to Koffler, until it reaches one third or even half of its 1,000-student capacity, which he believes could happen as early as next year. “There are easier ways,” he says, “to turn a profit than investing $40 million in a new school in downtown Manhattan.”

Koffler and Steinhardt agree on the biggest obstacle to starting new schools in the city. “New York parents,” Steinhardt says, shaking his head. “Getting into the right grade school becomes the most important decision in their life. The focus on ‘I’ve gotta get into the very best nursery school so my kid can go to the Ivies’ is a very New York neurosis, and it makes it uniquely difficult to start a new school.”

“To get families to look here is a struggle,” says Claremont’s admissions director, Dana Haddad. “We’ve got an incredible teacher-student ratio, the best facilities of any school in Manhattan, and it’s like we’re invisible.” To get the word out, Haddad has done everything from walking the streets in a wolverine costume (the school’s mascot) to persuading the neighborhood’s new residential condos to give the school’s brochure to potential buyers. Claremont also offers what Haddad calls “significantly” more financial assistance to families than the 15 to 20 percent of tuition typical of the city’s private schools.

Koffler believes that the demographics of Claremont’s neighborhood are going to pay off in increasing enrollment. “The city’s population is growing 2 percent per year,” he says. “Downtown is going to have 10,000 more residential units over the next few years.”


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