“We spent a year getting together for coffee, complaining about the lack of options, and worrying about having to move out of the city,” says Zuckerman. The kvetching evolved into a serious discussion about creating a school that focused on each child’s unique social, academic, and emotional needs.
Starting with little more than a how-to book they found on Amazon, the women created the ideal School in eighteen months. Early on, the founders invited a group of twenty educational administrators, teachers, and psychologists to help them devise a pedagogy and curriculum. What they came up with is a plan to provide individualized instruction for each student according to his specific learning style. Creating a “learning profile” for each student is not dissimilar from the approach at the School at Columbia, or even Collegiate, except that in this case the students have a broader range of abilities. Research shows that typically developing children benefit from the small class sizes and one- on-one instruction of inclusionary programs such as this one—and as Zuckerman points out, many parents of “normal” students seek special help for their kids in the form of speech or occupational therapy and reading or math tutoring.
Still, it’s a tough sell to parents. The ideal School attracted more than 100 applicants in its first year, but most of them were special-needs kids. The founders didn’t want to compromise their vision for a 75-25 split, so they started with only eleven children in kindergarten and six in the first and second grades. “I think some families get a little freaked out by how up-front and transparent we are about inclusion,” says Zuckerman.
Launching the ideal School cost $1.5 million, with an additional $1.5 million for first-year operating expenses. It could cost up to $5 million to run the school for the first three years. “There have been so many unanticipated costs,” says Harquail, “like having to install a $2,000 air-circulation system for the library. When you spend $15,000 on books, you don’t want them to warp.” The five-year plan is to expand to K through fifth grade, with two classrooms of 16 kids per grade—a total enrollment of 96. Depending on their success over the next couple of years, they may eventually grow to K through eighth grade.
Staffing is by far the biggest component of a school budget, accounting for up to 75 percent of operating expenses. A head of school will cost between $150,000 to $250,000. An assistant head or academic dean runs $70,000 to $125,000. An experienced teacher from a school like Trinity commands a salary of $50,000 to $100,000, while pay for assistant teachers is in the mid-$30,000 range.
It can be worth it for a new school to splurge on a few high-profile hires. The School at Columbia gained instant credibility when it hired former Dalton headmaster Dunnan and Brearley’s assistant head Anne Burns. But Claremont’s Koffler ran into problems when he started his school under the direction of Shari Silverstein, an assistant head at one of MetSchools’ pre-Ks with no elementary-school experience, and installed similarly unknown quantities in other leadership positions. Before the end of Claremont’s first year, he had changed course, firing Silverstein and recruiting Irwin Shlachter, the well-known headmaster at the Rodeph Sholom Day School, to run the school. Koffler has also replaced his green admissions director with Dana Haddad, the former head of pre-K admissions for Horace Mann.
The moves have caught the attention of prominent pre-K directors like Wendy Levey, the director of the Upper East Side’s Epiphany Community Nursery School. “Having Irwin Shlachter and Dana onboard certainly makes me more comfortable that Claremont is on the right track and is a school I can recommend to my families,” she says.
“To get families to look here is a struggle,” says Claremont’s admissions director. To get the word out, she’s been walking the streets in a wolverine costume.
With $40 million in start-up capital and a first-year operating budget of $7 million, Claremont could afford to devote significant resources to staffing. On the other end of the spectrum, Harlem Academy’s start-up costs were just $500,000.
Founded by Vincent Dotoli, former middle-school director at Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, the Harlem Academy seeks to provide the academic rigor and small class size of a private school at an affordable tuition. “I want to prepare these kids to succeed at the top secondary schools and universities. Maybe that’s a given at Collegiate, but for an inner-city kid of modest means, that’s significant,” says Dotoli, who has a waiting list of 60 students and plans to reach an enrollment of 130 K-through-eighth-graders in five years.
Harlem Academy uses the sliding-scale tuition model developed by the Manhattan Country School, charging between $500 to $12,000 per year, depending on a family’s income level. The goal is to have tuition income account for half the school’s operating budget. (Currently, tuition covers 10 percent of the budget.) Eventually, Dotoli thinks Harlem Academy’s high academic quality will attract students able to afford full private-school tuition. “The ideal mix would be a diversity of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds,” he says.
In the meantime, Harlem Academy is trying to keep staffing costs down by blurring the line between administration and teachers. “We only have one employee who does not have a regular role with students,” notes Dotoli, who often answers the main phone line at the school. That contrasts with a nonteaching staff of 25 at Claremont.