Of course, it’s not just a matter of attracting enough students—it’s a matter of attracting enough of the right students. Haddad says that she’s been selective in admitting students despite the desire to increase enrollment. “If you want to develop the reputation for excellence, you can’t accept kids who aren’t a good fit,” she says.
But getting the most elite students is difficult without a track record. And as Haddad acknowledges, “Families won’t be able to look at our placement record in high schools for several more years, and colleges until 2013. How we’re going to overcome that I don’t know.”
During the last private-school boom, in the twenties, conditions were much the same as they are today: New money was flooding the city, the population of school-age children surged after World War I, and the question of how to educate these children was very much on the minds of New York parents.
“The city’s upper-middle-class population was soaring,” says Stephan Brumberg, professor of the history of urban education at Brooklyn College. “And like today, people who could afford it wanted that stepping-stone to the next level for their kids, a good school that was considered a pathway to success.”
At the same time, the concept of a “good school” was changing. This was the tail end of the progressive era, and “the whole culture was in the midst of a revolution in child-rearing practices. ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ was giving way to more-progressive practices of nurturing children,” says New York University professor Floyd Hammack. The new practices stood in stark contrast to the dominant educational philosophy of the time, which emphasized memorization, rigid adherence to set curricula and standards, and plenty of testing to ensure that those standards were being met.
“Education reform emerged as a focal point for the same circle of women who were behind the founding of the city’s greatest cultural institutions,” says Hammack, who wrote a history of the Little Red School House, a successful progressive experiment. They were known as the New York Salon Women, reform-minded wives of wealthy industrialists and financiers who put their families’ wealth to work supporting social causes.
Dalton founder Helen Parkhurst—along with Elizabeth Irwin at Little Red School House, Caroline Pratt at City and Country, and Lucy Sprague Mitchell at Bank Street—took her cues from developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and education reformers such as John Dewey and Horace Mann, producing a progressive education philosophy emphasizing the development of the “whole” child.
The Dalton Plan, as Parkhurst’s pedagogy eventually became known, has gone on to influence scores of schools throughout the country. But when it started, Dalton was a tiny outsider of a school, with just 23 students. Even with the original backing of Mrs. Murray Crane, of the stationery Cranes, and the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, Dalton was having financial problems as late as 1942. According to Susan Semel, a professor at City College who studies the history of progressive education, it wasn’t until Parkhurst’s successors “transformed Dalton into more of a traditional college-prep school that it gained acceptance in New York’s elite independent-school Establishment.”
The biggest difference between then and now—and the reason, perhaps, small schools in the twenties were able to take root despite low enrollment—is the price of doing private-school business. Consider that in 1919, when Crane footed the bill for Dalton’s first home on West 74th Street, brownstones like the one in which the school started were selling for about $35,000. Adjusted for inflation, that still amounts to only about $420,000 in today’s dollars, about what the basement apartment of a West 74th Street brownstone might cost now. And real estate isn’t the only thing that makes starting even a modest school an expensive endeavor today. Typical private-school tuition then ranged from $1,000 to $1,500, which works out to a little more than half—adjusting for inflation—of the current average of about $26,500, but schools’ operating expenses have far more than doubled. Teacher salaries, which account for as much as three-quarters of a school’s budget, topped out at $2,700 (an inflation-adjusted $27,300) for the most-senior teachers in 1925. Today’s public-school starting salary is about $42,000, with veteran teachers commanding salaries of $100,000 or more in private schools.
“How many millions of dollars do you have?” That was the first question independent-school consultant Susan Wallace asked the founders of the ideal School after they laid out their plans. “We knew we’d have to come up with a lot of money to start the school,” says ideal’s Julia Harquail, “but it wasn’t until we sat down with her that we understood the magnitude of the expense.”
Neither Harquail nor her co-founders, Audra Zuckerman and Michelle Smith, had any background in education administration or teaching. What they had was a need. All three women had children with Down syndrome who were thriving in “inclusive” preschools, classrooms that welcomed and worked with children of different learning abilities. “There wasn’t anything like that at the elementary level in the city,” says Zuckerman.
They weren’t interested in starting a school just for special-needs kids: “We saw a real need for a school with an inclusionary model, for all children,” she says, pointing out that ideal reserves 75 percent of its classroom space for kids without disabilities.