The private school arms race Expansion

| 04 Dec 2015 | 05:07

At a time when private schools in Manhattan are outspending one other with glitzier lobbies and fancier gyms, how does a small school in a 136-year-old Catholic church compete?

The Cademon School, a private school on the Upper East Side, was founded in 1961 as the first Montessori school in the city, and is in a space that once housed a parochial school for St. Monica’s Catholic Church next door on E. 80th Street.

While the church long ago vacated the building, its physical legacy-- high cielings, arched glass, warren-like hallways -- has stayed with Caedmon. For more than a dozen years now, the school -- which is tiny by New York standards, with an enrollment of 265 students -- has been renovating and updating its building, partly in an effort to compete in a New York private school market where new building projects have become a sort of arms race to attract students.

“It helps that we know who we are,” said Matthew Stuart, the head of school, who joined Caedmon in 2012, which also was the school’s 50th anniversary. “You have to know what it is that makes you unique.”

Clearly, Caedmon is not for that slice of Manhattan parent who wants a showplace for their five-year-old. Instead, the school emphasizes its Montessori roots, its intimate feel, and a culture that prizes diversity and community involvement.

But even Stuart admits that the school can’t ignore what’s happening around it, if it wants to stay competitive. On the Upper East Side alone:

* Chapin School is adding three floors, including a glass-encased gym

* Brearley School is selling $50 million in bonds to finance an expansion to its all-girl campus

* Manhattan Country School is leaving the neighborhood entirely, and moving to the Upper West Side as it seeks to double its enrollment over the next five years

It is in that context that Caedmon has spent the last few years spiffing up its space.

This summer, it completed a $1.15 million project that updated all of its classrooms, art studio, dining hall and children’s bathrooms. The work was part of a rolling renovation effort that began, most recently, in 2003, with a $1 million retrofit.

The result is a modern, airy, welcoming set of spaces that feels surprisingly sophisticated for pre-schoolers and their older colleagues. No primary colors or Spongebob posters here.

Stuart says the work was aimed less at keeping up with the competition and more a giving Caedmon students a modern, more workable space. “We don’t talk down to people,” he said.

But the school’s modernization is well-timed. Next year, a new Montessori school will open in the neighborhood, literally one block away.