Parents push for private high school Downtown



Imagine an independent, co-ed high school that thinks outside of the typical classroom box. A high school that partners with The New School, local museums and other cultural institutions to provide its students with additional learning and mentoring opportunities that make the entire city their classroom. A school where students can take truly interdisciplinary classes, interconnecting such seemingly disparate subjects as biology, history and English, taught by the head of school. A school that gives educators the freedom to consider what they teach, how they teach it and why. A school that encourages students to take risks — and even fail! — in a supportive environment.

That school doesn’t exist in New York City now, but it will next fall.

Greenwich Village High School, the city’s first co-educational, nondenominational, independent, stand-alone high school, will start accepting applications this October for roughly 45 slots in its inaugural ninth-grade class. As that class moves up each grade toward graduation, more underclassmen will come in behind them. The school expects to be fully enrolled with 360 students by 2013.

Basic tuition for students in the 2009-’10 class is $34,720, but some families will pay as little as $1,000 based on a sliding scale. Friends of Greenwich Village High School board member Pamela Bell said once the school is up and running, the long-term goal is to make it free for anyone who qualifies, “which is no small task. We’ll need to raise several $100 million.”

Board members have already donated $3 million toward startup costs to get the school off the ground. Bell said the school is committed to social, economic and racial diversity, because, as she put it, “We think that by having diverse perspectives, the learning is much more rich than having everyone come from the same background.” Her daughter Elenore, currently an eighth-grader at Grace Church School, will apply to G.V.H.S. along with a handful of other schools this fall. “She wants to see them all,” Bell said.

Two women with children attending Village private schools came up with the idea for G.V.H.S. independently of each other two years ago. Co-founder Aimee Bell (no relation to Pamela), deputy editor of Vanity Fair, whose two children, Lily, 12, and Henry, 9, attend Grace Church School, said she mentioned the idea at a dinner party, telling her guests there needed to be more opportunities for Village kids to attend high school in the neighborhood as Downtown continued to grow after 9/11. Several fellow parents at Grace Church School agreed.

Meanwhile, Sara Goodman, the other G.V.H.S. co-founder, had been discussing the same idea at nearby Village Community School, where she has two children, Georgia, 9, and Lily, 6. The grapevine brought Aimee Bell and Goodman together, uniting the two groups of parents to form a seven-member founding committee. Along with co-leaders Goodman and Bell, Laurie Roth, who chairs the performing arts department at Trevor Day School, was selected as the board’s vice president.

Aimee Bell describes the school taking shape with the input of 18 board members, many friends and advisers, including Bob Kerrey, president of The New School and former U.S. senator; Jim Best, associate head of the Dalton School; Brother Brian Carty, founder of De La Salle Academy and George Jackson Academy; Josie Holford, head of Poughkeepsie Day School; John Leguizamo, the actor and writer; and Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair.

“The community really inspired the school,” said Aimee Bell. And by “community,” she wasn’t just referring to a group of people, but to the Village itself.

Jill Hanekamp, an attorney who is another G.V.H.S. board member, said, “The whole concept originally sprung from living in and loving Greenwich Village and wanting my children to go to school in the Village.” As the project developed, she said, “It became not about us anymore. It became about a community in which we live.” Hanekamp’s ninth-grader, Maggie, is commuting to Trinity School on the Upper West Side. Her son Dugan is in seventh-grade at Village Community School and she hopes he will consider attending G.V.H.S.

Surprisingly, for all their efforts in creating the new school, its board members say their children don’t have to attend the new school — that it’s their choice.

Board member Jonathan Marvel said his daughter, Isabel, in the eighth grade at Grace Church, might not end up going to Greenwich Village High School, but that’s O.K. with him. She is considering following in her brother Pablo’s footsteps and attending St. Ann’s in Brooklyn. Marvel, who is an architect, stressed that he didn’t join the board for his children.

“Even if I didn’t have children, I’d love to participate in making a high school from scratch,” he said. “That’s the opportunity for me.”

As head of the board’s facilities committee, Marvel said his main focus right now is “helping the school find a location for the first five to 10 years of its life. We’ve been seeing a lot of different sites,” he said. Greenwich Village High School might be allotted space in the new Pier 40 redevelopment, in the Hudson River Park at W. Houston St.; three public high schools are also being planned for the pier. But, Marvel said of Pier 40, “That’s more of a long-term solution.” The board is currently negotiating to lease a commercial building, but the school’s co-founders were mum about its whereabouts since they are still in negotiations.

G.V.H.S. could eventually share space with The New School, Caroline Oyama, the university’s director of communications, said. G.V.H.S. would have access to unused New School space, while the university might be able to use G.V.H.S. classrooms in the evening, she said.

Oyama said the university is also in talks with G.V.H.S. to allow the high students access to some of The New School’s classes and possibly have university faculty help develop the G.V.H.S. curriculum. The New School already partners with public schools in programs seeking to bridge the high school-to-college gap, but this is the first time The New School is partnering with an independent school, Oyama said. Not only is New School President Kerrey on the high school’s advisory board, but his wife, Sarah Paley, is on its board of directors.

G.V.H.S. board members hired Head of School David Liebmann, formerly director of programs at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, and Academic Dean David Clarke, formerly academic dean at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols in Cambridge, Mass., a year ahead of time to prepare for the school’s opening.

Liebmann said he applied for the job because educators are so seldom afforded the opportunity to carefully consider what they teach, how they teach it and why in a society where schools as a cultural institution are some of the slowest things to change. Clarke said he felt drawn by the school’s motto: “Work hard. Be kind. Take risks.”

“It’s everything I’ve wanted to do, if I really think about it, in my own classroom,” he said.

“It’s a school that has the luxury to be able to say, what does this generation of kids need,” Clarke said.

Clarke wasn’t the only one affected by the school’s motto.

“I’ve noticed myself changing in reaction to the motto, wanting to live up to the motto,” co-founder Goodman said. “Am I really being kind? Am I really working as hard as I can? Am I taking a risk where I need to be?”

Liebmann said the school will be hiring a team of six to eight teachers for next year and between 45 to 50 when the school is at capacity. He is looking specifically for teachers who are excited about interdisciplinary learning and can teach more than one subject.

At Shady Side Academy, Liebmann taught a class dealing with poetry and the science of birds.

Clarke added that the school will help students figure out who they are by giving them the opportunity to fail in a safe and supportive environment. If they do fail, they’ll learn that it’s a part of life and use it as a positive learning experience, he said.

The school is considering offering two or three languages for the first school year, definitely Spanish and Mandarin and possibly Arabic. Liebmann said Spanish was chosen for its practicality. Mandarin and Arabic “to expand a kid’s sense of the culture and the world at large.… We don’t expect to graduate fluent Arabic speakers,” he said. “But I’d like kids, in a time where we misunderstand other parts of the world, to really start to be able to understand, and understand through people right here.”

Aimee Bell added that The New School offers 14 language courses, plus a course in sign language, which G.V.H.S. upperclassman will likely be able to enroll in.

Students also will have the opportunity to participate in interscholastic athletics and possibly take nontraditional classes, such as sailing, hiking, indoor rock climbing, tai chi or yoga.

Board member Sheila Davidson said she feels Uptown schools aren’t quite right for her children, joining a K-12 school midstream isn’t ideal and Brooklyn schools seem too far away.

Davidson said G.V.H.S. also seeks to preserve an opportunity for quality education for the middle class Downtown. It wasn’t until Liebmann was interviewed for the job as school head that the project “gelled for me,” she said. “After 15 minutes I thought, Oh, I would like to entrust my kids’ education to him.”

Board member Jodi Sweetbaum hopes her eighth-grade son, Taeo, will be in the school’s inaugural class, but there is no guarantee board members’ children will make the cut. Aimee Bell said board members won’t have a leg up and that if her daughter Lily does decide to apply next year, “Who knows? Maybe they’ll reject her.”

Sweetbaum, a public school graduate who has a child enrolled in a public middle school, the Salk School of Science, is not the typical private school advocate. But she decided last year to join the new school’s board because she believed in its mission and felt the city had offered few viable high school options for her oldest child. Her daughter, Tess, 16, is now an 11th-grader at Concord Academy in Massachusetts.

“You really want schools to see your children for who they are and help them become who they are,” Sweetbaum said. “We just didn’t feel there were schools that were really nurturing high school students in that way. In their competitiveness, they’ve become a lot of the same.”

“There’s a huge need Downtown” for more schools, said Ronnie Moskowitz, head of the Washington Market School. Moskowitz founded the Tribeca preschool, kindergarten and after-school center in 1976. Last year, the school gave a record number of 538 tours for families interested in applying to the 340-seat school. Moskowitz raised the minimum admission age that year from 18 months to 2 years old after 72 siblings applied the year before — children the school had to accommodate since it is committed to educating siblings. Even with the age increase, only 18 fewer siblings applied last year.

While Downtown Manhattan does count two perennially popular high schools among its ranks — Friends Seminary and Elisabeth Irwin High School — other sought-after high schools are clustered in the Bronx and Brooklyn and on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side. In addition to Greenwich Village High School opening next year, two other private schools are on the Downtown’s horizon. Claremont Preparatory School, which opened four years ago as a K-8 school in the Financial District, next year will expand to include high school students; a ninth-grade class will be housed in its current Broad St. building for one year, while the school builds a separate high school, to open in September 2010.

Grace Church School, currently a K-8 school, is also considering expanding. Head of School, George Davison, said ideally, the high school would open in fall 2012, but given the financial world’s current flux, it could be later.

“There’s enough room down here for two more high schools, for three more even,” he said. Grace Church graduates roughly 40 eighth-graders a year, he said, of which “roughly 39” end up going to high schools outside the Village. Davison feels Friends and Elizabeth Irwin are wonderful schools, but “more on the progressive side.” A Grace Church High School would offer a more traditional option to Downtown parents.

The next Greenwich Village High School admissions information evening will take place Thurs., Oct. 2, from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 12 W. 12th St. at Fifth Ave., second floor, Parlor Room. R.S.V.P. to admissions@gvhsnyc.org.