Editor’s note: This story was written by Lower East Side parent Jill Fehrenbacher.
I moved to the Lower East Side in my twenties because I loved the vibrancy and the history of the neighborhood, but being originally from the West Coast, I hadn’t expected I would stay long enough to be raising my children here. I remember, precisely, the horrifying moment that it dawned on me that many parents in NYC actually plan this out well in advance and start thinking about grade school long before their children are actually born — and I — ill-prepared as I was — had done no such thing. So, with panicked parent guilt when my son was 2, I began frantic research into figuring out what I wanted in a grade school, and where I would find the type of education that was right for my son.
Here’s what I discovered: the handful of public schools on the Lower East Side don’t get the resources they deserve, and – like most schools nationwide – have become hyper-focused on standardized testing. It’s not hard to find stories of children spending the entire school year prepping for multiple-choice tests or being assigned homework even in kindergarten.
I knew I wanted an alternative to Common Core rat-race of test-prep and too-early academics, which I did not think would be a healthy or supportive environment for my son. However, I had no idea where to even start looking until the day I came across a flyer for New Amsterdam at a local yoga studio.
The flyer was advertising “parent-child classes” and the imagery was so different from other children’s programs I had seen advertised, that my curiosity was piqued. Where were the garish primary colors, cartoon characters, plastic toys and words like “enrichment”? I signed up for a Tuesday morning class, and the first time I brought my son into the beautiful, light-filled space, I was amazed by how tranquil and calming the room felt. Who would ever think that a room full of toddlers could be called serene?
With no electronics or plastic toys, and soft, warm organic textures enveloping the space – the room was palpably quieter than any “play room” I’d ever experienced. Parents sipped chamomile tea and knitted cute little critters for the class while the teacher carefully lead the children in nursery rhymes. The usual cacophony one sees in a children’s play space just wasn’t there. Even the toddlers seemed better behaved in this peaceful space – seemingly soaking up the warmth and serenity of the thoughtfully-designed environment.
When the teacher started leading the toddlers in a circle game, and the transfixed little ones clamored silently around her like she was the Pied Piper, I knew I had found something special. Fast forward four years later and my older son has gone through his entire nursery and kindergarten experience at New Amsterdam, and my youngest son is in parent-child classes now. The environment at the school has been wonderful for both of my boy’s development, and having had this experience, I really couldn’t imagine sending them anywhere else. Here are some unique things about New Amsterdam that I love:
– High student/teacher ratios – usually about 1 teacher per 6 students
– The teachers are dedicated to each child and spend a lot of time communicating with parents. I email with my son’s teacher weekly and we have regular parent-teacher conferences and days where parents can come in and observe the class.
– The children spend at least an hour each day (sometimes more) outdoors in a beautiful community garden in the East Village that has turtles, chickens, rabbits a fishpond and lots of wildlife.
– The children plant vegetables in the garden and harvest them for the food they make at school
– Every week the children bake bread, make soup and bake cakes
– The children all help with the chores at school such as sweeping and washing dishes, and they take leftovers to the garden daily to compost.
As my older boy approached kindergarten, my husband and I realized that grade school was sneaking up on us, and so we started visiting schools in the area. Though we found some great options, nothing seemed like quite the right fit for us, at least not in terms of offering the kind of a nurturing, calm, and mindfully-created environment we’d found at New Amsterdam. So when the staff at New Amsterdam announced that the school would open a new Grade School on Avenue B in 2014, we were over the moon, and excited to be one of the pioneering families helping to grow this new school.
Progressive schools inspired by Rudolf Steiner are called “Waldorf Schools” and what sets them apart from more traditional learning centers is their focus on developing the whole child. This means is that in addition to trying to develop strong academic skills, Waldorf schools place a heavy emphasis on social skills, physical development and emotional skills, through movement, art, handwork, drama, music and languages. Waldorf schools very consciously work to develop well-rounded individuals who cannot only read, write and do arithmetic (and score well on standardized tests), but can speak well, get along with their peers, form substantial emotional connections with others and grow into civic-minded adults who will make the world a better place.
Now, a reader who’s never seen a Waldorf school might be ask themselves – don’t all schools strive to create a harmonious and nurturing environment? Most would probably say that they do, but the differences between a Waldorf school and a traditional one are immediately apparent as soon as you step into a classroom.
At New Amsterdam, class sizes are tiny with 2 or 3 teachers per group of 6-15 children, so the children receive individualized attention with teachers who know them intimately and can focus on their unique personality and course of development. There is no homework in the early years and students are encouraged to develop socially, physically, and emotionally through the arts, movement, crafts and copious outdoor time.
New Amsterdam is an ecologically-minded school, and this manifests in several ways. Waldorf philosophy believes that children need “nature” time every day, so they’ve set up a partnership with a community garden where the children have a daily hour-long recess where they spend hours each week climbing trees, building forts, and digging in the dirt to learn about life the old-fashioned way.
Students work with their teachers to cook organic, healthy, wholesome lunches in the classroom each day. A sample of my son’s school lunch each week: vegetable soup, fresh-made bread (baked by the children in the classroom in the morning), apples, and cashews for snack.
Until this year, all graduating kindergarteners at New Amsterdam hit a dead end because the school finished at that level, but now that N.A. is finally becoming an official Pre-K-8th Grade School, they’ll be able to provide an excellent, alternative education option for progressive-minded families in the area.
Now my son is poised to enter New Amsterdam’s first grade at the school in 2015, and I am excited to be involved in bringing this wonderful education system to downtown Manhattan. I think part of the reason I am so inspired by this new school is that provides my children things I wished that I had in school when I was growing up. As a child, I always wished for better food at school, a more homey, personal environment, more time for art and outdoor play. For me as a parent, New Amsterdam is a dream come true, and I couldn’t really construct a more perfect school environment if I started the school myself!
For anyone interested in finding out more information about New Amsterdam, the school regularly holds open houses, sample days and prospective family events. They also offer weekly summer camp throughout this coming summer season. You can find out more on their website here.