Dotoli’s school spent $19,000 per student last year. “But just by growing from 26 students in the first year to 44 students in September, we have been able to put together a budget at about $16,000 per student for this year,” he says. He’d like to see economies of scale continue to bring that number down. But within the next two years, Harlem Academy will outgrow its current space, and the cost of a new facility will eat up those savings, and then some.
The real-estate boom is proving to be one of the most difficult barriers for people trying to start or expand a school. “We were planning on expanding into elementary-school grades,” says Bridie Gauthier, the head of the Montessori School of Manhattan. “Once we started looking for a new space, it seemed like it would cost us $10 million.”
David Lebenstein, who heads the not-for-profit real-estate division at Colliers ABR, Inc., says finding space for a school is his toughest assignment. “There’s a severe dearth of properties with the criteria you need for a school,” he says. First, the building must be in a location with the right zoning. Then there’s the matter of how much money it will cost to bring the building up to the many codes mandated for schools by the city’s Department of Health and the Fire Department. “The reason we didn’t start with a kindergarten,” says Harlem Academy’s Dotoli, “is that there are twenty different requirements for bathroom facilities and fixtures for 5-year-olds. You must have a toilet accessible for those students only.”
Finding a landlord willing to rent to a school is no easy matter, either. “Most building owners just don’t want to deal with the added headaches that come with a school, and for a new school you have to add in the issue of financial viability, which tends to be pretty shaky from a business standpoint,” says Lebenstein.
Faith Hope Consolo, head of Prudential Elliman’s retail operation in the city, says new residential developments offer some opportunities to new schools. “They see the benefit,” she says, “especially now that inventory’s building up and having something extra to offer buyers is becoming important.” The British International School’s yearlong search for space brought it to Waterside Plaza, a development of 1,500 apartments along the East River. “We’re thrilled to have them,” says developer Dick Ravitch. “The school adds to the sense of community and commercial activity we want here.”
Beyond just finding a space that works, school founders have to think about location in a traditional real-estate sense as well: The ideal spot is both prestigious and convenient. As Collegiate middle-school head Mark Tashjian points out, “There’s not a single tuition-driven school north of 96th Street on the East Side, and on the West Side, there’s nothing north of 114th until you hit Riverdale.” Tashjian says he would love to start a Collegiate of the north on, say, East 132nd Street. “But would it draw people from south of 96th? That’s the big question.” Epiphany’s Wendy Levey agrees that location is “a huge consideration. I’ve got plenty of parents who won’t consider the ‘Hill’ schools”—Riverdale, Fieldston, and Horace Mann—“because they’re so far away.”
The issue of where to locate their school was one of the few points of contention among the ideal School’s founders. “Finding a location almost killed us. There were a lot of arguments,” says Michelle Smith. They called “every priest in the city” and spoke with developers too, but couldn’t find anything that would be ready in time.
The dispute erupted over whether to take a space downtown. Two founders were interested, says Smith, “but one said, no, we should stick to the Upper West Side.” By last summer, that stubbornness seemed like a mistake. The ads for the school were attracting some interest, but “we couldn’t even tell parents what neighborhood we’d be in,” says Smith.
About a month before their self-imposed deadline of September 2005, ideal’s Harquail put in a call to the 4th Universalist Society church, which owns a three-story building on West 76th Street, the onetime home of now-defunct Winston Prep. “They had a tenant signed for 2007. But I called again out of desperation, and, lo and behold, that school had backed out.”
Michael Steinhardt’s dream has been downsized, but not extinguished. Instead of launching a high school, he is now pursuing the less ambitious plan of piggybacking an elementary school on an existing nursery school. Steinhardt approached the 92nd Street Y with the idea; it seemed like a perfect fit—an organization that bills itself as a New York cultural and community center first, an association created by and for Jews second. But Steinhardt says his vision was “too Jewish” for them. He was worried that the Jewish Community Center would be hesitant to commit for the opposite reason: because his school would be primarily secular. But discussions with the JCC are progressing, and if they are able to come to an agreement, it would allow Steinhardt to start his school with a significantly smaller financial burden.
“If the school starts as an outgrowth of the JCC’s nursery school, and we begin with a kindergarten and a first and second grade and slowly grow it from there, it would not be an overwhelming cost, perhaps a couple million to start,” he estimates. “But, if I were to go the route of building a whole day school, a K-through-eight right from the get-go, then it’s very, very expensive. Maybe too expensive.”
Still, the question remains: Even if he builds it, will the people come? “The economics go way beyond real estate, tuition, and salaries,” says Steinhardt. “You can’t try to start a school without accounting for the difficulty of convincing New York parents to go to a new school.”
Part of the problem is that new schools are not just competing with other private schools, they’re competing in a cost-benefit analysis with public schools as well. “The attitude is ‘If I’m going to spend $30,000, I want prestige,’ ” says Epiphany’s Levey. “It’s hard enough to talk parents into applying to the schools that are ‘only’ near the very top, but to convince them to consider a new school, no matter how strongly I recommend it—they would rather go to a public school in their district.”
With its massive funding and pricey amenities, Claremont would seem to be the school with the best chance of attracting picky New York parents. But admissions consultant Amanda Uhry says that of the nearly 1,000 families she worked with last year, “only one applied to Claremont, as much as I try to talk up Claremont as a good place to apply. It’s all about reputation and track record. None of my clients wants to choose a school that’s one year old.”
These same reservations ran through Sarah Lee’s mind when she and her husband decided to send their four kids, ages 7 through 10, to Claremont last year. “In retrospect, it was a great move,” she says. “I love the school now, but at the time I absolutely had a lot of doubts. But they had this great facility, and one teacher for every seven or eight kids, so I asked myself, ‘How bad can it be?’ ”