Avant-Garde 'Anti-Preschool' Launching on Upper West Side

By Emily Frost on August 21, 2013 11:58am 

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 The preschool uses avant-garde methodology and emphasizes community. 
Upper Valley Preschool Launches in October
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Body painting, yoga stretches, Latvian memory games — and eating sardines while pretending to be dolphins.

What sound like exercises for an experimental theater workshop in Brooklyn are actually lessons that will be taught at a new "avant-garde" preschool on the Upper West Side opening its doors Oct. 1.

Neighborhood moms and dads are lining up for a spot at what founder Maria Dantos calls her "anti-preschool," which is moving into an 11,000-square-foot space on West 96th Street at Columbus Avenue for children from 3 months to 5 years old.

"I have a more holistic approach to education. It's not the corporate thing," said Dantos, whose preschool is the outgrowth of a small, popular in-home daycare that had a waiting list of 100 kids.

"It's like Brooklyn comes to Manhattan," she added.

Tired of the more traditional preschool she worked at on the Upper West Side, and at the behest of parents, Dantos broke away and formed her own playgroup inside a two-bedroom brownstone on West 88th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in 2010.

Now, what started as a collection of 12 kids and four teachers is set to take off as an official 80-child preschool that Dantos hopes will have the same community vibe her playgroup was known for. 

The school's out-of-the-ordinary activities are also a key selling point to parents. Babies might do yoga or get their bodies painted so they can explore different sensations, while 2-year-olds might eat sardines and imitate dolphins, she explained.

"Imagine a place where children play Latvian memory games, dress up in child-sized kimonos and are lulled to sleep by Sigur Ros," the school's website says. 

Teachers at Upper Valley, most of whom have master's degrees, will have creative discretion to lead their classes. 

Drawing from the "cooperative vibe" of her upbringing in the Upper Valley area of New Hampshire, Dantos said she wants to create a feeling of shared responsibility for the school among parents and teachers. 

A monthly parent-teacher organization will meet to solve problems, parents will be encouraged to share their talents with students in the classroom and there's an open-door policy at the preschool as long as parents call ahead, Dantos explained.

Parents can also vote on policies such as when the school should be closed around the holidays. 

"It's a democratic style," she explained. "I don't want it to be an oligarchy."

The preschool is screening parents via interviews to weed out those who see it as "just as a service," instead of an opportunity for community, Dantos noted.

Through the strength of word-of-mouth alone, about 60 children are already signed up to attend the preschool, and its first open house will be held on Thursday. 

Tuition is $2,100 per month for infants and goes down in cost from there, she said, and the preschool's hours stretch from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. to accommodate working parents.

Dantos sees her model as a successful one, as all six children from the daycare's graduating class last year were placed into city-run gifted and talented programs. 

While the curriculum will incorporate plenty of free playtime and outdoor excursions, skills that appear on the kindergarten entry test will also be woven into daily activities so that children are well prepared, Dantos said.

The decor is described as "'Mad Men’ meets 'Free to be You and Me'" on the school's website, and its eco-friendly, LEED-certified building used to house the Mandell School's administrative offices and some of its classrooms.

As the space takes shape over the next month, Dantos is preparing to take on a new crop of youngsters she hopes to get to know very well throughout the school year.

That includes maintaining an atmosphere where "I know everybody and what they had for lunch," she said.

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