Be on the lookout for the February issue of The Blue & White, on campus now! Bwog will again honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting features from the upcoming issue. Such treats include a visit to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, an investigation into Columbia’s animal testing practices, and a discussion on, well, self-pleasure. Here, Claire Sabel and Anna Bahr present the first in a series on The School at Columbia. A more in-depth exploration of the current state of the school, as well as a variety of perspectives from parents within Columbia and the wider community, will be featured in the upcoming March issue of the magazine.
On May 1st, 2000, Professor John Cole, then University Provost, announced that the Board of Trustees had unanimously voted for the creation of a K-8 Columbia school for children. The goal of this endeavor, he wrote, was “to maximize our ability to recruit and maintain the most able faculty in the world.” Three years later, The School at Columbia opened, embarking on a remarkable educational experiment, that would result, Cole hoped, in “one of the very best schools in the nation.” It would combine cutting-edge technology and pedagogy with an explicit commitment to diversity. By drawing a student body from both Columbia employees and unaffiliated local families, The School aims to foster an integrated and creative space for a wide variety of youngsters. Technological innovation was to be the school’s life-blood. State-of-the art facilities were designed to be paired with a progressive curriculum. Every child from kindergarten to eighth grade was fitted with a laptop; since the launch of the iPad, kindergartners begin with the digital tablets before graduating to portable Macs in third grade. Consequently, The School requires both a hefty price tag and a serious commitment to financial aid.
Though in many ways Columbia’s utopian vision has been successfully implemented, the elementary institution has not been realized without criticism. The School admitted its first students in grades K-4 in 2003; by the time the 5th and 6th grades were added in the 2005-6 academic year, faculty demand had grown to more than double capacity. Professor Alan Brinkley, who replaced Cole as Provost just two months before the school was due to open, bore the brunt of their anger. “It’s certainly a mess,” Brinkley told the New York Times, although he believed that the demand was unanticipated. He convened a Faculty Task Force to recommend revisions to the school’s admissions policy, ensure equitable opportunities for those seeking places, and establish a new financial aid policy.
The Task Force claimed that Provost Cole’s initial plan for the school was “to make admission nearly automatic for all children of Columbia officers who wanted to attend.” In reality, the admissions policy for Columbia affiliates is structured according to professional rank: the children of full professors receive priority, slimming the possibility of acceptance for children of librarians or janitors. But Cole’s purported politi- cal motivations in allocating half of the school’s spots to community children, meant “to secure the local Community Board’s approval of the School and the new building in which it is housed,” made restructuring the admissions policy impossible.
The initial planning of The School fell under the responsibilities of the Provost’s Office, which appointed Dr. Gardner Dunnan, recently resigned from a 23-year reign as Headmaster of The Dalton School, to manage the project. Cole was also on the board at the prestigious prep school. Dunnan left following a “prolonged period” of concerns over his structural direction and leadership at the school; news of his relationship with a married Dalton teacher only hastened his departure.
Cole, a distinguished sociologist, is renowned for his work on the sociology of science, and in recent years has focused on the role of scientific research in higher education. He was instrumental in orienting the school in this technological direction, while Dunnan’s appointment implied that the school was unlikely to espouse a more modest charter school model and instead favor more lavish appointments. Indeed, in 2005 the Task Force estimated that, at its full capacity, The School would cost Columbia “$9-10 million a year in operating subsidies.”
Whatever the expenditure, its magnitude is self-evident and fully deployed. At 556 West 110th street, a few doors down from Harmony Hall, it encompasses 75,000 square feet over five and a half floors, each equipped with a suite of attractive classrooms to serve its nearly 500 students. The remarkably modern classrooms are bright, comfortable, and spacious. Spanish vocabulary is prominently displayed on many walls as evidence of the School’s thriving language immersion program. A beautifully furnished ballet studio, where yoga and tap are also offered, looks out onto Broadway. Several state-of-the-art science labs are accompanied by The School’s “Discovery Center,” an interactive, hands-on approach to biology filled with fossils, animal models and elementary science experiments that resembles a similar “Discovery Room” at the Museum of Natural History.
The School also boasts a sophisticated surfeit of human resources. The Office of Social Work is dedicated to helping families face problems ranging from job loss to divorce to restraining orders; the faculty to student ratio is one to five; and the cafeteria serves breakfast every morning to faculty, children, and their families—an effort to strengthen the larger community and relieve the stress of the morning school rush. But the most impressive element of The School is its technological fluency, as furnished by a team of Educational Technologists. The School devotes as much as 8% of its annual budget to technology, says interim Head of School Nancy Elting.
According to The School’s official history, in 2003 its facilities were “considered by Columbia University its most technologically advanced, featured a SmartBoard in nearly every room and wireless Internet access throughout the building.” The contrast between this junior satellite and the main University campus was not lost on the Task Force, who noted that “the School is staffed and resourced more generously than most Columbia ventures.” In January 2011, the Arts and Science’s Classroom Report found that only 65% of Columbia’s classrooms were electronic, and noted that “Columbia lags significantly behind its peers” in this regard.
Thatcher Ulrich, whose daughter attends The School thanks to a community lottery placement, is wary of the emphasis on technology. He notes that the facilities are “very physically tight,” which means the kids are producing “real science and real art.” However, he admits that while he sees the logic in youngsters doing classroom exercises on their laptops, for other projects, technology “kind of works, but I’m not that fond of it. I prefer traditional stuff.” He has the impression that the “use of technology might run down” as the school continues, and senses that even in the time from when he toured the school a few years ago to the present, there’s a decreasing focus on all gadgetry all the time.
The School also prides itself on the notable diversity of its student body, which is proudly displayed on the school’s fact sheet—right above the $31,600 annual price tag. Roughly half the school’s spots are offered to neighborhood families, who, after earning the opportunity in a general lottery, complete a largely procedural application that involves no additional testing. Placement at any grade is offered with need-blind financial compensation.
In Ulrich’s opinion, the diversity of the student body tipped the balance in favor of Columbia over local public schools—an advantage Elting acknowledged. “Parents choose [The School] knowing that we are committed to diversity of every kind. We believe in a spectrum of children and a broad range of families,” she affirmed. The School’s financial aid package is comprehensive, with families paying anywhere from the full tuition fee to the bare minimum $350 that accompanies the entry application. Ulrich sees the mixed student body as “a big draw,” but adds that “it’s probably not perfect mixing.”
In a recent Forbes article, the school’s technology integrator, Karen Blumberg, recalled an episode where students used school equipment to record a provocative video clip. A teacher spotted the video on YouTube, in which a black student pronounced, “I hate white people. I want to kill them. I’m going to beat up the next one who comes along.” Such episodes clash with The School’s projection of a perfectly harmonious, cosmopolitan student body, although the dialogue was followed by laughter and mock fighting, and the incident supplied a teachable moment for the children about considering context in video editing. Elting maintains, however, that student relationships are typically amicable. “The children mix and match so comfortably and so easily. They don’t question it. It’s you and I who come from other lives and other experiences and question it far more than they do,” she said.
The impression from the School’s administration is one of happy oblivion. Elting expressed gratitude and relief about the fiscal flexibility she is allowed—thanks to the University’s munificence. Fundraising, she said, “is not something I have to do. I can spend my time worrying about teacher development and families, and it’s a gift… My hat is off to the University.” She painted a picture of a healthy and constructive collaboration, one which she believes holds a very promising future. “I would love to see the school grow, as I think the University would,” she added. The School does indeed have immediate plans for a substantial infrastructural expansion. The kitchen, which currently serves hot lunch daily to faculty, will be renovated to accommodate the appetites of the entire student body. “If some of these children were in public school, they would qualify for a free lunch. A hungry child is a child unable to learn,” said Elting. The school also plans to expand their middle school classrooms “to fit the students’ growing bodies,” said Stacy Bolton, Director of Communications at The School.
Although it operates on a budget befitting a well-funded private institution, The School has neither the tuition base nor the endowment to support such an endeavor, relying instead on annual handouts from the University. When Columbia announced last year that the so-called “fringe benefits” for faculty would be significantly slimmed down—due to a budget squeezed by the national recession and Columbia’s multi-billion dollar expansion project in Manhattanville—some faculty members began to question whether The School was worth the cost. Further, as competition for admissions intensifies, many question whether it is a benefit at all.
The demand of Columbia officers for a comprehensive early-education alternative for faculty children alongside a more fiscally responsible structure at The School has gone answered. When interviewed by the Spectator this past December, Columbia’s current Provost John Coatsworth called The School’s present situation “problematic,” and admitted that if it had been his decision, he would have preferred to invest more in local public schools rather than build a new institution. He corroborated that, as the Task Force concluded, there does not appear to be a viable way to accommodate all Columbia faculty children.
Professor Christia Mercer, who served on Provost Brinkley’s Faculty Task Force, said that, seven years after its initial report, virtually all of the faculty recommendations were disregarded. The prevailing sentiment among “many members of the Columbia community,” Mercer claims, seems unchanged since 2005 when the Task Force declared that “The University is already spending more than it should [on The School].” When asked for her opinion about the Task Force’s proposal, Bolton said that she had no knowledge of any such report. Bolton, who received an M.A. in Art History from Columbia, started at The School in September of 2011.
On top of this bleak prospectus, Columbia announced last year that faculty fringe benefits were being cut by $25-35 million. An annual expenditure on the order of $10 million (Mercer estimates that The School currently “costs Columbia 12-14 million every year”) for The School, which advantages only around 30 new faculty members, does not bode well. The situation is further complicated by the opening of The Teacher’s College Community School, a public, Department of Education affiliate, last September. Two classes of kindergarten students are enrolled for 2011-12, and The Community School plans to eventually include pre-K through 8. Like The Columbia School, The Community School sustains a comprehensive language program and accepts students from a range of learning abilities, though without the hefty price tag. More significantly, The Community School cites one of its assets as its unique access to “University…resources for student academic enrichment and comprehensive family support.”
Given that the problems identified with The School at Columbia nearly seven years ago have yet to be rectified, the necessity of fiscal reform for fringe faculty benefits, and that a similarly attractive, public, K-8 school may soon be a viable alternative, the ability of The School to fulfill its core mission of attracting faculty to the University must be reassessed. Professor Pamela Smith, whose son attended The School, explained in an email that although the school had evolved significantly in the years since its inception, “it is key in recruiting senior faculty if their children are given a place in it.” While the story of the exceptional technological and pedagogical innovation merits more widespread acknowledgement among the Columbia community, the cost to that same community must similarly be scrutinized.
Update [September, 2012]: The second half of this feature, examining the likely future of The Columbia School and its impact on University employees, was published in the September issue of the magazine.