Volume 20 Issue 16 | Aug. 31 - Sept. 6, 2007

Back To School

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Dana Haddad, Claremont Prep’s director, above, and Sergio Alato, head of the Lower School, which goes to fourth grade. The Lower School is adding a pre-K program next week.

With public school crowds up Downtown, private school grows

By Jennifer Milne

The classroom calendar is already set to September, with bright yellow construction paper leaves marking each day of the month. Children’s names are written on the window in brightly colored glass chalk to welcome them back to school. For now, the halls and common areas of Claremont Preparatory School at 41 Broad St. in Lower Manhattan are quiet. But soon a few hundred kids, grades pre-kindergarten to eight, will come pouring in to start the private school’s third year.

Claremont Prep, which first opened in the fall of 2005, is Downtown’s only non-religious private school below Canal St. With the addition of a new director last summer, Dana Haddad, and a pre-K program starting this year, the school has more than doubled last year’s enrollment of 110 students to almost 300.

Haddad, who has taught pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade classes for five years, signed on last year as Claremont’s admissions director. She said she finds that more and more Downtown parents are looking to private schools to provide the individualized instruction the area’s public schools can’t.

“I’ve met families that originally moved Downtown because of the public schools, but were disappointed with the increasing class size and decreasing facilities and programs,” Haddad said. “We’re an alternative for those families that want to make sure they get a customized education based on their child’s needs.”

Claremont doesn’t follow one particular educational theory, said Sergio Alato, head of the Lower School, which is composed of grades pre-K through fourth. Instead, the school teaches to each individual child’s needs.

“It’s a synthesis of different approaches,” said Alato, who taught pre-K for seven years. “We’re not doing the extreme of any one [educational theory]. We really try to incorporate cultural celebrations into the classroom, and partner older classrooms with a younger classroom.”

The pre-K children will have a range of activities already available to those children in both the Upper and Lower Schools, including swim classes for physical education, drama, art, music and introduction to French and Spanish.

Haddad said that because the class sizes are small — the Lower School averages 15 children per class while the Upper School, grades five through eight, averages 18 per class — children can receive one-on-one instruction.

“Each child needs to learn something differently from the person to their left and to their right,” Haddad said.

The smallest grade is eighth, with three students. Those students will look for a new school at the end of the year, because Claremont is delaying the beginning of its high school program a year, when it is likely to have more students.

Claremont is housed in a distinctive facility: a 98-year-old former Bank of America building, right in the heart of the Financial District. The building features a 25-meter swimming pool, darkroom and gym with treadmills and a heavy bag for boxing. The school’s cafeteria in the basement even has the original thick metal bank vault doors, which makes for an interesting lunchtime view.

Another feature is a rooftop garden in which the entire school will collaborate with a playground architect to shape the space how they want it to be. Haddad envisions a sort of “mini-Downtown,” with a recreation of Federal Hall and some playground equipment for the younger children as well. Alato said that the school’s proximity to Downtown’s historical sites makes it a “premiere” area to study history.

“There’s such great history down here,” Alato said. “We utilize this area a lot for social studies. We’re looking to create partnerships [with local businesses and museums].”

Because Claremont is right across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, security in the area is heightened. School buses and parents’ cars are allowed to pass through the traffic barriers one at a time, and there is always the presence of police officers out in front of the building. Alato said the kids understand why the building and the area needs extra security, though, and they even do their part to make the officers more comfortable.

“We had a ‘Cookies for Cops’ program where the kids baked cookies and went out and handed them out to the police outside the school,” Alato said. “The security that’s outside is very approachable.”

Perhaps the 125,000-square foot school’s most unique feature is its auditorium, which was once the bank’s entrance hall. With massive 29-foot ceilings and a 225-foot painted maritime-themed mural by Griffith Baily Coale called “A Pageantry of the History of Commerce by Sea,” the students are surrounded by beautiful examples of both art and architecture.

“They’ve done an amazing job transforming the building,” Haddad said, referring to the nearly two years of construction required to transform the space from a financial building to an educational building.

Haddad said in addition to the two new pre-K classes, with 33 students total, Claremont plans to add a preschool program for 3-year-olds in the fall of 2008 — its parent company is Metropolitan Preschools — and will use the current 18 seventh graders to begin seeding a high school that will graduate its first class in 2013.

Currently, annual tuition for pre-K classes, which run from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., is $25,500. Tuition for all the other grades is $27,800.

P.D. Cagliastro, a spokesperson for Metropolitan Preschools, said her 7-year-old daughter Mahgdalen loves Claremont. Mahgdalen will be entering third grade in the fall.

“She has never been happier,” Cagliastro said. “The school has really stepped up and met all of her academic needs. She needs to be challenged and she’s doing great.”

As for Haddad, school hasn’t even started and she’s already excited about the rooftop playground project, which she hopes will teach the kids why they’re learning subjects like math, reading and social studies in school.

“We give the kids the ability to learn, but we also tell them why they’re learning it,” she said. “We give them a practical use for what they’re learning.”

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