On the Upper West Side not too far from the Central Park Reservoir sits another kind of urban oasis, one that’s been nurturing the neighborhood’s children for 25 years. Aptly named Columbus Pre-School and Gym (for its Columbus Avenue location), it’s the kind of local institution that is at once unique and familiar. Unique because among the children’s enrichment and activity centers in the city, it’s one of the few that brings together the magical combination of a nursery school and a gym. Familiar because when you step inside, it’s as if you’re stepping into your parents’ home—that is, if your parents are as welcoming and down-to-earth as the Glucks.
When Billy and Peggy Gluck founded Columbus Pre-School and Gym in 1988, the surrounding slice of the West 90s was becoming more and more family-friendly and professional, even as some blocks were still beset by serious drug and crime problems. Over the years, the neighborhood and the business have thrived together, so much so that a second generation of Glucks—Billy’s and Peggy’s children, Travis and Kiah—are now part of the business as well. Visit the facility at any time of day and chances are that one of the Glucks is around to answer questions, get problems solved, or simply say hello.
“I think it gives parents a feeling of comfort to walk in and actually see the owner right behind the desk,” says Billy. “I think that gives them a sense that we really care.”
Peggy adds, “We know each child by name—nobody has a number—we know them personally. We know the parents, we know the siblings, we know the nannies.”
Between students at the nursery school and at the gym, that’s a lot of people to know, not to mention a lot of coordination. The gymnastics program and the preschool are run independently of each other. Students in the preschool (which serves ages 2 to 5) use the gym as part of their school experience, but the gym’s main programming (with classes for infants to 12) is open to any family, whether your child is in the preschool school or not.
The original inspiration for opening the school came from Peggy, who had been working as an assistant teacher in another preschool on the Upper West Side after trying out tons of different jobs. She fell in love with teaching little ones, but she didn’t like the part about working for someone else. “I came back to Billy and said, ‘You know what? This is a great business and I can see it working for a very, very, very long time,’” she says.
After they opened the preschool, the Glucks then collaborated with a partner (with whom they’ve since parted ways) to help in launching the gym portion of the business, and thus Columbus Pre-School and Gym was born.
The popular nursery school takes a progressive approach to early childhood education, in which student preferences and play are an important part of the learning process and social experience, says Julie Kandall, the Columbus Pre-School Director. In the middle of her second year at the school, Kandall is a relative newcomer to the Columbus family, but her friendly and enthusiastic style seems to be a perfect fit.
During a recent visit to a class of two-and-a-half-year-olds—the youngest group at the school—Kandall proudly watched as they began story time. The tots were sitting on a rug nestled between couches and bookshelves, amid classroom walls plastered with their artwork, family photos, and—perhaps most interestingly—posters showing the results of previous classroom polls.
“Do you want to bake banana bread or zucchini bread?” was one of the issues of the day (banana bread won), while the choice to name the classroom fish Blue won by a 10-vote landslide. Clearly, the children are calling a lot of shots around here.
“The curriculum emerges from the children’s interest,” explains Kandall. “Usually within the first couple of weeks, the kids are building dinosaur land and pretending they’re dinosaurs in the classroom, or they’re blasting off into space. Themes come up, and then we address the kids and say, ‘You know, we noticed that in the block area you’re always building things with dinosaurs. Do you want to learn about dinosaurs?’ And they say, ‘Yeah!’ Then we bring in tons of books and start giving that curriculum.”
While the curriculum is shaped by the kids, the classrooms still provide the structure that young children require. Essential skills like numbers, letters, counting, and reading are all taught here, but they don’t always happen in the orderly sequence of a more traditional approach. Most recently, Kandall says, a Russian doll featured during a show-and-tell piqued the students’ interests, so now they’re studying Russia. Before that, the topic of interest was different modes of transportation around the city.
“Kids learn when they’re invested in what they’re learning,” she says. “I also think that for a teacher it’s more exciting to know that every year something different is going to happen.”
The preschool welcomes and receives a lot of parent participation and support. While the gym doesn’t have a PAC (Parent Action Committee), it maintains Columbus’ distinct community feel. It attracts lots of repeat families, including many from the preschool, and is led by beloved veteran instructors. And in the youngest classes, many parents are right in the mix of things.
The gym is a non-competitive one, meaning it doesn’t have teams, but its program teaches children the fundamental skills they need to enter into competitive gyms in their age range if they want. Among the non-competitive programs in the city, Columbus has one of the biggest gyms, filled with multi-colored mats, a trampoline, uneven bars, low and high balance beams, and even a miniature climbing wall. Still, as the Glucks see it, it’s not really what’s in the gym that makes it stand out—it’s who.
“Our classes are taught by USGA-certified gymnasts. Our coaches are not dancers or performers helping kids do tumbling on a mat,” says Kiah. “The children learn real skills here. They develop core strength and the abilities to do actual gymnastics.”
The teachers also seem highly skilled at keeping it fun. At a recent class for tots, Coach Marvin Myers asks the children a simple but important question, “Did you guys bring your muscles today?”
“Yeah!” they shout back in unison.
As the little kids go from stretches to rings, rings to handstands, handstands to trampoline, they walk together by forming a train. “Chugga chugga chugga chugga,” they proceed over to the trampoline, where they have time to practice a few jumps before they go “flying.” The children take turns laying with their bellies on the center of the trampoline as Myers stands over them. Then, with one swift bounce, the child is launched into the air and straight into the arms of Myers, who catches each boy and girl effortlessly and then holds them upside down while they squeal with laughter. Once every kid has had his or her turn, it’s “chugga chugga” out of the gym and into the arms of their parents and caregivers.
While the gym and preschool are run separately, the glue that holds it all together— two generations of Glucks—is spread throughout the institution in the form of countless touches, large and small: a joke from Billy, support from Peggy, another situation solved by Travis, another good idea from Kiah. Billy and Peggy say that they intend to pass the reins to Travis and Kiah, but they’re not likely to fully retire either.
“I’ll miss coming to pajama parties for the school, so I don’t think I’ll ever give that up,” says Peggy. “We’ll always come in and help out if they need us.”
Billy smiles and nods. “We’re not a franchise,” he adds. “We’re a family business.”
For more information about Columbus Preschool and Gym, visit columbusgymnyc.com or call 212-721-0090.