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Starting Your Own Private School in New York City

Let’s be clear: starting a new private school in New York City is a difficult endeavor.

Many people (non-New Yorkers and New Yorkers alike) think that the market is over-saturated, given that there are over 800 Firm Schools across the five boroughs, and it would be absurd to consider starting a new school. But as recent census data illustrate, the number of young families that are choosing to remain in certain parts of the city continue to rise. In addition, the number of spots at the “elite” Firm Schools continue to shrink as siblings, legacy candidates, and faculty children are given preference. Many qualified children/families remain “shut out” or waitlisted at the end of every application cycle and many more families have children split across multiple schools.

If you are thinking of starting a private school in NYC, one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is who are your clientele? Who are you trying to serve? Are you trying to meet a need that is currently unfilled by the marketplace? Is it a particular part of the city (e.g., East Side above 96th but below the “Hill” schools), or a particular population (e.g., special needs, gifted, or families interested in bilingual education)?

Would your school be for-profit or nonprofit? While this may not seem an important question for some, for others, particularly given the recent proliferation of for-profit NYC Firm Schools, it is the first question.

Is your private school designed for elementary-age children or high school children, or both? Do you want to admit preschool or nursery school students only, or is it geared more toward college preparation? Do you want it to be focused on a particular religious sect or denomination? How about socioeconomic status? Is your school primarily for “wealthy” families or is there an emphasis on economic diversity?

These are all very important considerations, but they aren’t the only ones. You’ll also want to consider the educational philosophy/model you intend to incorporate. Here are a few types/models of schools that others have started before:

  • Waldorf
  • Montessori
  • Bank Street
  • Progressive
  • Classical Christian
  • Reggio Emilia

Some Firm Schools incorporate more than one philosophy/approach into their educational model. Some use established curricula (e.g., International Primary Curriculum (IPC) or International Baccalaureate (IB)), some are part of an established franchise (e.g., The Goddard School), some create their own curriculum from scratch, and others use a combination of approaches.

Another thing to consider is your own qualifications. Many private school founders with education backgrounds started their own schools out of a desire to help others learn and those schools have gone on to great success. You do not necessarily have to have an established background in education though to start a private school. Many parents, families, or investors have started their own schools, but then hire a more experienced education team to run the school/design curricula. For some of those schools, one, two, or multiple “super star” educators/administrators are recruited for the team to attract applicants and garner “the respect” of the established NYC Firm Schools. Relationships with established schools are critical for a new private school’s admissions and/or exmissions processes.

Another thing to consider is location/real estate. Will you use temporary space, an established space, or build from scratch? As shifts in the NYC private school education market occur (e.g, religious schools closing due to low enrollment), prime spaces that these schools used to occupy are being considered by private school entrepreneurs.

Whatever your desire for starting a private school, know that it is hard work. It can be done, and if you have a vision that can be executed well, you could go down in history as a person who has left an indelible mark on generations (e.g., Elizabeth Irwin (Little Red School House), Lucy Sprague Mitchell (Bank Street), Caroline Pratt (City and Country), Helen Parkhurst (Dalton), etc.).

To read more about NYC private school startups, we recommend “Building the Next Dalton” in NY Magazine (Nov. 5, 2006). The article looks at such earlier startups like Claremont Preparatory School, British International School, Harlem Academy, Brooklyn Free School, Brooklyn Waldorf School, the IDEAL School, and includes such topics as hiring the right leadership, finding a location/real estate, etc. The last page gives specific costs in areas such as: operating budget, real estate costs, insurance, renovations, personnel, training, supplies, library, extras.

For those interested in for-profit education, a recommended event is The BMO Capital Markets “Annual Back to School Education Conference” which will be held on Sept. 15, 2011 in NYC. Among last year’s speakers were Mac Gamse (from Meritas, LLC which acquired Claremont Preparatory School from MetSchools, Inc. in April 2011) and Marcel van Miert (from The WCL Group, which owns World Class Learning Academy opening in Sept. 2011).

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