Gym and Arts Center at School Facing Closure to Continue Under New Pennant
The soon-to-be defunct Blue School, in the Seaport District, will live on in at least one respect: Part of its strikingly designed learning space will be repurposed by two other Lower Manhattan private schools.
Green Ivy Schools, a network that includes the Pine Street School and the Battery Park City Montessori School, has announced that it will open a new Arts and Athletics Center within the 156 William Street building that has housed the Blue School’s fourth- through eighth-grade programs since 2018. This will entail taking over the basement level of the 45,000-square-foot building, which houses two arts studios, as well as a column-free gymnasium that can double as a 130-seat auditorium. This 11,000-square-foot facility will be reconfigured to include flexible learning spaces, dance and movement rooms, fine art and music areas, lockers, a basketball/volleyball court, and performing arts stage.
The Pine Street School (located in the Financial District, a short walk from the new space) plans to begin offering daily co-curricular, physical education, and enrichment programs there in June. And starting this autumn, students from Battery Park City Montessori will have access to the space, as well.
“Pine Street School is designed around the fervent belief that learners should have a voice in their own learning and in our school culture that promotes student agency,” says Eileen Baker, the head of school at Pine Street. “Experiential learning ignites the child’s natural desire to learn with an environment that is authentic, nurturing, warm and ultimately transformative. Our new Arts and Athletic Center amplifies the opportunity we provide our students to explore and discover more of what inspires them as innate learners and leaders of tomorrow.”
This arrangement comes as the Blue School winds down operations, in anticipation of shutting its doors in June. A statement posted on the school’s website last November explained, “it is with great sadness that we announce that the 2022-2023 school year will be Blue School’s last year of operation…. Over the past several years through the pandemic, 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.”
This development capped several years of distress for the Blue School. Last 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.” And 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, 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. Robust growth soon made it necessary to establish a second facility, at nearby 156 William Street.
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.
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 innovative 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.
In a related development, the building that housed the Blue School’s kindergarten-through-third classes, located at 214 Water Street, is now being offered for sale. The structure was sold to Swiss investors in 2017, with the proviso that the Blue School be granted a lease through 2060. That lease will be voided by the school’s demise, which frees the new owners (who bought 214 Water for $17.6 million) to offer it unencumbered. Their asking price is $28 million.