Lower Manhattan’s highly regarded Blue School is closing. In a story first reported by Bloomberg, the acclaimed elementary school will cease operations at the conclusion of 2023’s spring semester.
A statement posted on the school’s website explains, “it is with great sadness that we announce that the 2022-2023 school year will be Blue School’s last year of operation…. In an effort to support all of the families who will be in need of a new school next year, Blue School has entered into an agreement,” with Little Red School House/Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI), under which LREI will extend an offer of admission for each Blue School student.
“Over the past several years through the pandemic,” the statement notes, “Blue School has experienced a significant decline in its student population, which combined with other challenges has threatened the long-term viability of the school. While the Blue School Board and Leadership Team worked tirelessly to pursue every possible action to put the school on a sustainable financial path, they were ultimately unable to guarantee a future beyond the current academic year. Knowing the difficult path ahead led Blue School to explore potential alternatives that would offer the best possible outcome for its students and families should the school find it is unable to continue, which led to the strategic agreement with LREI.”
This development caps several years of distress for the Blue School. In May, teachers and staff mounted a one-day strike to protest what they saw as the School’s “unlawful refusal to recognize and bargain with our union.” In a statement to Blue School families, union members said, “we do not make this decision lightly, and it comes only after exhausting other options since our election in August 2021. Blue School is breaking the law by refusing to recognize our legally certified union. We are striking to protect our fundamental, democratic right to organize collectively and secure a voice in our working conditions and terms of employment.”
In September, 2020, the school missed an interest payment on $64 million in tax-free bond debt it had issued (under the auspices of the City’s Economic Development Corporation) just four months earlier. This led the bond underwriter, Preston Hollow Capital, to seize part of the Blue School’s building, in the South Street Seaport, which had been purchased with the bond proceeds.
The Blue School began almost 20 years ago as a parent-and-child play circle for toddlers, founded by the members of the acclaimed Blue Man Group performance art troupe. The group soon expanded into an educational program, and opened in what was supposed to be its permanent home at 241 South Street in 2007.
From the beginning, the Blue School attracted widespread admiration for its focus on striking a balance between creativity, intellectual rigor, and curiosity. The late British educational reformer Sir Ken Robinson, who served on the Blue School’s board, devoted a chapter of his bestselling book “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education” to the Blue School because, he said, “it exemplifies so many of the values that I’ve advocated for a long time, that we’ve tried to encapsulate in this book, about the ecology of the school and how parents, students, and teachers work together.” In a 2015 lecture at the Blue School, he added, “what we’re trying to argue in the book is that these principals be applied everywhere.”
Dr. Robinson saw the contrast between traditional approaches to education and innovators like the Blue School as analogous to the difference between industrial agriculture and organic farming. “For agribusiness,” he said, “the goal is the plant that is their product. They manage their way to that goal with numerical metrics like yields, which they boost using chemicals, such as fertilizer and pesticides. But organic farmers take a very different approach. They’re not preoccupied with measurements like output or yield per acre, and they’re not especially focused on the plant. They pay attention to the soil. This is what allows everything else to flourish.”
“Instead of treating kids like products, and monitoring their performance with metrics like test scores and graduation rates,” he reflected, “we need to create environments where they can flourish. Organic schools recognize that students thrive in certain conditions, and if you create those conditions, kids will grow together and learn with each other, collaboratively and holistically.”
This innovate approach was not enough to overcome the headwinds created by the pandemic, however. Declining enrollment, driven in part by a population of affluent local families with second homes that enabled them to decamp from Manhattan for the duration of the COVID crisis, combined with looming debt payments to seal the Blue School’s fate.