Magazine article State Legislatures

A Public Kind of Private School: Columbia University Has Launched a Private School That Also Enrolls Neighborhood Kids by Lottery. It's Every Teacher's Dream School. Educators Are Watching to See If It Works

Magazine article State Legislatures

A Public Kind of Private School: Columbia University Has Launched a Private School That Also Enrolls Neighborhood Kids by Lottery. It's Every Teacher's Dream School. Educators Are Watching to See If It Works

Article excerpt

Columbia University in New York City opened the doors last fall to a new elementary school that is in many ways a hybrid between the worlds of private and public education.

Like only a few public schools, The School at Columbia has tremendous resources, enjoys a faculty of well-paid all-stars, and offers a nearly ideal version of what a model school could look like. Housed in a gleaming new building constructed specifically for education, the school is awash in classroom technology. It features extremely small classes and a progressive, "integrated" curriculum in which topics and skills are not taught separately, but are woven together throughout the school day.

AN EDUCATIONAL MODEL

Unlike most private schools, however, The School accepts students without an entrance exam and provides substantial scholarships to nearly every student enrolled. Half the students come from the neighborhood, by random lottery, and many pay little or no tuition. The school has a diverse group of faculty and neighborhood children. It aims to be a model for public and private schools around the country.

"I don't see why all this couldn't be replicated anywhere," says kindergarten teacher Amy Liebov, who came to the school from a renowned gifted and talented program. "What we're doing here is really using a philosophy of how teachers can work together."

Others are not so sure about the replicability of what's going on at the school or its relevance to public schools. Creation of the school was a drawn-out and contentious process. Thus far, its long-term success remains uncertain, both in terms of the programs it is developing and the relationship it has with the community.

This gold-plated new school didn't start out as an altruistic experiment. In fact, it came to be largely as the result of the faculty recruitment wars being waged by elite universities like Columbia.

For many years, the university has been facing the challenge of attracting and retaining highly coveted faculty members, given New York City's notoriously tight housing market and equally scarce quality education options.

The university had long provided subsidies to faculty members for their children to attend private schools, but could not guarantee that all of them would be accepted. Many public neighborhood schools are not considered adequate. Those that are--as well as the many private schools that dot the city--have long waiting lists or very high admissions standards.

So the university did something novel: It built its own 650-student school, at a reported cost of $40 million, and added 27 apartments reserved for Columbia faculty on the upper floors.

Located just south of the main Columbia University campus, the school currently has just under 200 students in grades K-4. (Other grades will be added over the next few years.) The school has 49 teachers and staff and an annual budget of more than $15 million, including scholarships and amortization costs.

That kind of money gets you the best of the best. The school has an impressive faculty selected from more than 1,700 applicants that includes staff from some of the nation's best-known private and public schools and universities; 20 percent have Ph.Ds. Teachers make as much as $100,000, not including benefits, according to Gardner Dunnan, who heads the school. Public school teacher salaries in the city average just over $50,000. Teachers can have half of their children's college education paid for by the university, including Ivy League universities besides Columbia.

A TEACHER'S SCHOOL

The faculty have had the chance to develop a new school from the ground up and help govern its development as it grows. Several of them started a year ahead of time and had a strong hand in developing the curriculum.

"I loved the idea of being part of this new venture," says Liebov, who helped plan the kindergarten curriculum. …

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