Why New York’s elite still need a school like Fieldston

Courtesy of photographer Will Greenwald Fieldston, which has been home to New York’s elite since the 19th century, was recently honored by the Washington Post with its “Classes of ’89 and ’90,” a flash…

Why New York’s elite still need a school like Fieldston

Courtesy of photographer Will Greenwald

Fieldston, which has been home to New York’s elite since the 19th century, was recently honored by the Washington Post with its “Classes of ’89 and ’90,” a flash past of its alums that included former Rep. Charlie Rangel, The New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

At the current school, the average class size is just over 25, and the PTA has raised $37 million since it was founded in 1993.

Despite this ostentatious display of wealth, there is not much ostentation at Fieldston, a patch of land in Manhattan’s Westchester County about halfway between the Bronx and Manhattan. The school, which occupies roughly a square mile, includes six buildings on its six acres of land. Even the sledgehammer used to break ground has its history. The aptly named “Sledgehammer,” built in the 1820s by an Italian Civil War hero to build a carriage house for his stable, has a plaque in front of it on the campus.

One of the few outwardly showy additions is a rose garden. Hailed by the school as a “treasured campus tradition,” it is listed in New York State and federal registers and is currently the busiest rose garden in the state.

In the mid-1980s, Fieldston’s students were taught that “air is the new rock,” like Ronald Reagan. Some of those airy thoughts remain today, and the school has a sustainable performance programs called “Wake Up to Wind” and “Build Up,” where the students are taught to build, support and manage renewable energy systems.

There are, however, limits to Fieldston’s level of academic pretension: The school is most comfortable with small numbers of students, which means a strict dress code. According to Superintendent Dan Cohen, the average class size at Fieldston is 25-27, which is in line with the size of the student body.

“We have a very modest bell-curve of classes — across the board,” he said. “Students from each of our building are selective in what courses they take — there is a logic to that, because it’s not that difficult to get into 25 classes.”

Indeed, Fieldston boasts a tremendous amount of integration — many students actually live at school, in the same buildings. No school has better public transportation to get kids from their doorstep to school. There is also free running track throughout the school grounds, allowing for athletic training.

Today, Fieldston is coming to terms with its history and diversity. Gone are the days of its founding, when the founding class consisted of black Jews who were expected to blend in with the white student body.

“We have a very diverse student body — we have more white students, for example, than black students — but that’s no longer the case,” said Park Avenue Community School president Leo Marin. “The Jewish population went from a very Jewish core to a very diverse population. We have a lot of families from Latin America who are of Jewish origin but who are of different racial backgrounds.”

Unlike many private schools, Fieldston students are able to play in youth soccer leagues and run track, swimming and basketball. There is also a student co-op program where students live in a shared house, working in restaurants or in private homes and working as cooks, teachers, security and gardeners.

Cohen, who worked at the Bronx Institute of Technology for many years before becoming superintendent at Fieldston, was at a loss for words when he was asked what Fieldston had to do to avoid becoming boring and irrelevant.

“Let’s face it: When did the economics of the nation become academic scholarship?” he said. “Our purpose and our goal is to give extraordinary students extraordinary opportunities and, in that sense, we have not changed a whole lot over the years.”

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