Building the Next Dalton

Photo: Jennifer Karady; set design by Justin McIntosh

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.”

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

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.”

Photo: Jennifer Karady; set design by Justin McIntosh

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.

“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.

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?’ ”

Crib Sheet
Starting a private school, by the numbers.

Claremont School, 110 students: $7 million

Harlem Academy, 44 students: $700,000
Tuition: $500–$12,000

IDEAL School, 17 students: $1.5 million
Tuition: $25,560

Harlem Academy’s 3,000-square-foot space on 111th Street and Fifth Avenue:$40,000/year

Bottom three floors of a residential building in Chelsea zoned for a school, listed by Anita Grossberg at Corcoran: $5 million

For 44 children in 3,000 square feet at Harlem Academy: $10,000

For 108 children in 125,000 square feet at Claremont: $60,000

Harlem Academy’s renovation bill (including $50,000 for new HVAC and $20,000 for two toilets built for children): $180,000

Claremont School’s renovation bill: $25 million

Cost of building a pool in Claremont’s basement: $800,000

Cost of building a typical kitchen and cafeteria for 500 kids: $250,000

Service contract for a daily cleaning of Manhattan Country School’s 15,000- square-foot building: $45,000

Teacher’s assistant: $30,000

Entry-level teacher with master’s degree: $45,000

Head teacher with private-school experience: $95,000

Fund-raiser: $75,000–$90,000

Gym teacher: $60,000

Top-echelon head of school: $400,000

Salary of an entry-level cleaning/maintenance/security person: $35,000

45 hours of training per teacher, plus ongoing support via e-mail from Schools Attuned (used by schools like Trinity, Friends, and Fieldston): $1,500

A week of professional-development training for staff at ideal: $1,000

Schoolwide wireless computer network, software and hardware, including laptops for 100 students: $1 million

75-inch erasable whiteboard: $500

77-inch interactive Smart Board with projector and computer: $5,000

A year’s worth of top-quality art supplies at Claremont: $65,000

A year’s worth of classroom supplies, per classroom: $15,000

9,000-book library with computerized filing system: $500,000

2,000-book library with computerized filing system: $20,000

Yearly subscription to InfoCentre Library Management software: $500

New science lab including heat-generating equipment, chemical-disposal devices, microscopes, and twenty stations for students: $30,000

Wood shop with table saws, sanders, and hand tools: $25,000

A year of lunches for 195 students at Manhattan Country School:$200,000

Average school-bus rental for a field trip, including driver: $650

Approximate cost of ten field trips for 45 students to various museums and zoos: $8,800

A year’s worth of snacks for 44 students at Harlem Academy (students bring their own lunch): $5,000

Starting a Private School, by the Numbers

Additional reporting by Ariel Brewster.

Building the Next Dalton