By Eric Messinger
Before the eyes of all current and future students’ families, the well-regarded York Avenue Preschool is in the process of transforming into one of the largest private nursery programs in the city—one with the scale to provide new spots (and hope) to city families with young children, and the set-up and program to make sure that every child has an amazing nursery experience. But it won’t be moving from its long standing location at the southeast corner of York Avenue and East 80th Street. Nor is it taking on a major capital renovation. What’s going on? You might say that the school is expanding from within.
The same site that houses York Avenue Preschool is also home to Gymtime Rhythm and Glues, a popular Upper East Side children’s enrichment and activity center known for its developmental and team gymnastics programs, as well as classes in cooking, Tae Kwon Do, and a variety of other activities. Another Gymtime pillar has been its Early Learning Foundations Preschool, also known as ELF. Originally a preschool alternative program, over the years ELF has distinguished itself from the alternative learning pack by offering a genuine nursery school curriculum and setting with experienced teachers and leadership. In fact, the most significant distinction between ELF and more prominent nursery schools like York Avenue Preschool has not been what’s happening in the classroom, as much as the admissions policies and the ex-missions policies (or lack thereof) on the back end.
As a member of the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY), the accrediting group for most well-established, local independent schools, York Avenue Preschool follows a rigorous annual admissions process that yields, year in and year out, a stable community of families and a robust PTA. And when it’s time for families to begin the Kindergarten application process—private or public—York Avenue Preschool is there to offer them truly dedicated and savvy guidance.
ELF, which is not part of ISAAGNY, has never veered from its original plan to allow any interested families to sign up on a semester basis (much like they would sign up for any other Gymtime program). The big testament to ELF’s success, however, is that it still attracts many of the same families from year to year, even though they only have to commit to one semester at a time.
But while having two successful preschools under one roof seemed like a good idea for a long time—because there were enough local families for whom the cost of, or the commitment to an ISAAGNY school didn’t make sense—Michael and Bonni Branciforte, the husband-and-wife team who founded both schools, believe it’s the right time for the schools to merge.
“I honestly didn’t feel this way in the past, but now I feel like York Avenue Preschool has really hit its stride as a top program,” Michael says. “The leadership team is very strong, families love the school, the curriculum is great, the ex-missions are very impressive. And what’s been especially encouraging is seeing how well the educators from both schools have come together to create an even better school—one that not only can accommodate more students but also still give each one the quality early enrichment and socialization that both schools were known for.”
“The more we looked at it, the more it seemed like the schools were mirroring each other,” Jean Monaco, York Avenue’s head of school, says. Monaco, who will continue on as the leader of the combined school, adds: “It began to seem like you’re only fighting yourself with all these options. Why not instead just give the full-fledged experience to as many families as possible?”
The two schools will continue to operate independently for the coming school year, and then will open as one school in September 2015. But the admissions process for next September begins this month, as parents begin to send in applications and sign up for school tours.
Families who were enrolled in ELF for the 2014-2015 school year have already been guaranteed admission to the combined school if they want it for the 2015-2016 school year. “Selective admissions doesn’t mean that you are omitting them from the process. It means that you are taking a good look at who’s applying and how they can best fit into your community,” says ELF’s current educational director, Victoria Versace McLaughlin, who will become York Avenue’s new educational director.
While the Brancifortes are still very hands-on in overseeing Gymtime’s athletic and enrichment programming, they leave the running of the preschools to the educators and admissions experts. In addition to Monaco and McLaughlin, other key staffers include assistant director Karyn Alston (née Smith), and admissions director Nancy Baldaro.
For months now, the team has been laying down the essential groundwork for the combined school by establishing a curriculum that reflects both schools’ best practices, or as Monaco puts it: “Finding the commonalities in philosophy, while making sure that the history is acknowledged and built on properly.”
McLaughlin elaborates: “We have an integrated philosophy, which means we take the best from many different methodologies. All early childhood programs should have roots in play.. We are “academic” in the sense that we recognize that there are teachable skills and knowledge. We are sequential in that our curriculum builds on itself to prepare children for the next step, wherever they are going.”
At capacity, the combined nursery school will have about 160 students divided among 10 classrooms. There will also be a library and access to Gymtime’s signature gyms, cooking classroom, and art space. The space allows the preschool to take full advantage of the facility. York Avenue students use the Gymtime gyms, have classes in the art room and are given the opportunity to cook with the Gymtime chefs. The preschool also integrates music, yoga and movement, playground , sign language and foreign language into the children’s week, dependent on age group. This allows children to learn through many different experiences that enhance the classroom curriculum. team also hopes to build a music room stocked with age-appropriate instruments.
The school’s largest entry point (i.e. when it’ll have the most available spots) is expected to be for 2-year-olds, with some additional spots for 3-year-olds. But once you’re in, you can count on being part of a school that values community, with a loving staff that will get to know your child almost as well as you do.
For more about York Avenue Preschool, visit yorkavenuepreschool.org.