Overflowing with classroom space, private school seeks students

By Skye H. McFarlane

Living in Battery Park City, Terry Lautin always saw herself as a public school parent. Her daughter, Olivia, spent her elementary years happily at one of the city’s top-ranked neighborhood schools and Lautin hopes that Olivia will someday qualify for one of the city’s specialty public high schools. But as Olivia prepared to graduate from P.S. 89 in the spring of 2005, Lautin felt her daughter’s options shrinking.

The city’s gifted and talented middle school programs were overcrowded and hard to get into. The standard middle schools didn’t seem to offer the qualiity education that Olivia had enjoyed at P.S. 89. Lautin envisioned spending thousands of dollars on after-school tutoring. But still, the private school option was appealing.

"I wasn’t willing to do the Uptown private school lifestyle," Lautin said. "We live Downtown for a reason. We wanted to stay Downtown."

Then Lautin found Claremont Preparatory School, a new K-8 independent school that was preparing to open its doors at 41 Broad St. in the fall of 2005. As the first non-denominational private school south of Canal St., Claremont offered small class sizes, a challenging curriculum and a convenient location.

Now 12 years old, Olivia is in her second year at Claremont. She loves the school, but her mother wishes that there were more than four students in Olivia’s seventh-grade class.

“The only downside is that more kids didn’t join,” Lautin said. “Both academically and socially, more kids would be better.”

Claremont first opened its nine-story, 1,000-seat facility with just 54 students. Now in its second year, the fledgling Financial District institution has a new administration, a new mission statement and a student body of 110 — a marked improvement, but still far short of corporate projections from parent company Metropolitan Preschools, Inc, which last year said that the school would be full to capacity by 2007.

In one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city, where the residential population is booming and the local public schools are bursting at the seams, it is surprising that more Downtown parents haven’t joined Lautin and looked into Claremont. In addition to top-flight facilities, an indoor swimming pool and a mandatory Mandarin curriculum, the school employs a no-expenses-spared staff that includes a certified dietician, three gourmet chefs, a professional jazz musician and a trained yoga instructor.

Yet, as the new director of admissions Dana Haddad can attest, Claremont is fighting to win over not one but two populations of hesitant parents — the citywide private education crowd that looks to brand names and track records in selecting a school and a Downtown set that is fiercely dedicated to its high-scoring public schools.

“The biggest struggle is just to have people know that we’re here,” said Haddad, who was hired on Aug. 1. “I talk about the school when I’m in line at Starbucks. I have literally gone up to parents in the park in Battery Park City. Nothing is beneath me in getting the word out.”

In Haddad’s office, cuckoo clocks and colorful tissue cozies make it hard to tell that the dark, wood-paneled space was once a bank office.

Throughout the 97-year-old building, there is a similar juxtaposition of whimsy and history. Original metal vault doors separate a green and yellow cafeteria from a kitchen where students select from a variety of health-conscious lunch foods like whole wheat pasta and granola-crusted baked chicken. In the bank’s old main hall, students practice drama against the backdrop of a fully restored maritime mural, painted by Griffith Baily Coale in 1929.

Haddad has experienced both economic extremes of New York City education. Before working at the prestigious Horace Mann School, Haddad taught a class of homeless first-graders in the public school system. While the two jobs were wildly different, each was characterized by a slow-moving bureaucracy (the Board of Education and a Board of Trustees) that Haddad was happy to escape at Claremont.

“That’s what drew me here and it’s what drew Irwin [Shlachter, the school’s new headmaster] here — the opportunity to build a school from scratch,” Haddad said. “Here if we want a kindergarten chess club, we don’t have to ask anyone for permission. As long as there’s interest from the kids, we just go out and do it.”

The addition of Haddad and Shlachter, who replaced former school head Shari D. Silverstein, is one reason why current Claremont parents feel confident about their school’s future. Although no one would say exactly what went wrong with the old administration, parents made vague references to inexperience and disorganization, adding that they were happy about the change.

“I like Irwin a lot. He really knows what he’s doing,” said Rachel Iverson, a Murray St. resident whose son, Quinlan, is a first-grader at Claremont. “You can just tell when you talk to him… There’s a sense of direction that he brings.”

That sense of direction has led the new administration to do away with corporate timetables for enrollment, focusing instead on growing the school selectively from the bottom up. Many private schools in the city start out with a K-3 program and add grades year by year as their students get older. Haddad said that if it had been up to her, Claremont would have waited to open its middle school until it had built up a student base. The current eighth grade has just two pupils.

She also said that Claremont will not actively seek out older students until it opens a ninth grade curriculum in 2009. From there, Haddad plans to build a high school year by year, until the school’s current sixth-graders become Claremont’s first graduating class in 2013. For some parents, the adjusted approach to growth is comforting.

“I think it’s more practical,” said Christine Faldetta, whose daughters Jacqueline and Nicolette travel from 54th St. to attend Claremont each day. “I never thought that this year we would have 700 kids. Nor would I want that. It’s better for the children if we gradually grow.”

According to Lautin, the majority of Claremont’s students are like the Faldettas — commuters from outside the area. But to continue growing, Claremont will likely have to attract more of the local Downtown market. As several interviewees pointed out, however, one of the main reasons that families move Downtown is so that their children can attend the area’s public schools — P.S. 89, P.S. 234 and P.S. 150 — all of which consistently out-perform city averages for standardized tests, attendance and other important factors.

At the two larger schools, 89 and 234, deep-seated Parent Teacher Associations create a culture of public schooling in the neighborhood that parents hesitate to venture out of, especially if the new territory they plan to enter is relatively uncharted. And even for well-off parents, Claremont’s $26,000 per year tuition (standard for area independent schools) is no small sum.

“Everybody and their brother moved down here to be a part of the schools and they still have that reputation,” said public school parent Tom Goodkind. “All the public school kids know one another. They do events together.”

At the Downtown Little School at 15 Dutch St., co-director Kate Delacorte said that the majority of her pre-school parents leave the Little School looking for a public education. Yet, Delacorte sees positive signs for Claremont as well. With strong academics, a casual attitude and a commute that doesn’t require bridges or tunnels, Claremont fills an educational niche.

“It gives parents another option,” Delacorte said, adding that for parents of young children, school location is often a big concern. “A lot of parents are happy to have any alternative at all in this world of competitive programs.”