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Mandell School Charts New Course by Staying Inquisitive

By Emily Frost | April 29, 2013 1:24pm

UPPER WEST SIDE — Growing up, Gabriella Rowe vowed she'd break away from the family business, The Mandell School, a private nursery and kindergarten on the Upper West Side founded by her grandfather Max Mandell in 1939.

Rowe broke with a tradition that had produced three generations of teachers in her family, and instead pursued a career as a banker and management consultant.

Her work had her traveling almost 300 days a year, a life that she couldn't sustain when she became pregnant with her first child almost 14 years ago. It was a  life-changing event that coincided with the death of her grandfather.

Rowe changed tack and went to study education at the graduate school at Bank Street College, helped her mother run the school, and eventually took over leading the school. This included its major 2008 expansion to a pre-K to 8 program and the school's move in 2010 to a brand new building on Columbus Avenue at West 98th Street. 

“I feel privileged to be here," Rowe, 47, said.

With spring finally in bloom, Rowe is excited by the school's 8,000-square-foot terrace that opened in the fall of 2012 and currently houses a Tilapia pond and chicken coop, with a garden large enough to yield pounds of vegetables on its way.

While some schools would leave the space open for running and uninterrupted play, Rowe said, she and the teachers wanted something different.

"The space itself sets us apart, but it's also what we do with it," she said.

City-dwelling children, Rowe observed, "don't get the same opportunity to be in nature."

Environmental and global consciousness and a farm-to-table ethos are at the center of the school’s curriculum, from learning about fair trade in 3rd grade to finding global warming solutions in 8th grade.

Since Mandell’s new school was built from scratch, she had the freedom to think big. The cafeteria has a living wall filled with vegetables, stemming for Rowe’s desire to have it feel like “an Italian garden.”

There is a professional-grade black box theater, a gym whose fourth wall is a floor to ceiling window, an indoor hydroponic garden, and enough classrooms  to have a teacher-student ratio of  7 or 8 to 1.

Rowe spoke to DNAinfo.com New York about the philosophies that underscore her leadership, as well as the school’s future.

Q: Why did you decide to expand the school?

A: We saw the options for our pre-K families dwindling, and there was a strong enough core group that wanted to stay.

The growth is on the preschool side. We think it’s the neighborhood community feel that sets us apart, and we looked for other neighborhoods like the Upper West Side. We’re developing schools near Lincoln Center and in the West Village.

Q: How has your background as a banker helped you in this job?

A: We had 30 students when I started and we now have more than 600. I would never have been able to do that without my experience in business and consulting.

Q: You have two sons, a fourth grader and an eighth grader, at the school. How has motherhood influenced your perspective?

A: I think my boys are my greatest accomplishment.

As parents we’re here to support them and to find their passion and vision and to require it of them.

Q: Twenty-nine percent of your students are children of color. How have you created that diversity?

A: We’ve worked to create an environment where fairness and respect are universal.

We believe you should choose your own label and there’s a place for your voice. As a result we’ve become an incredibly attractive community for those for whom that is a value.

Q: What is a key belief at the school?

A: We ask one another all the time: Why? If we don’t know the answer, we have to find the answer.

We believe in high expectations … then you scaffold and support. If you set the bar really high, the children rise to meet it.

Q: You decided to drop the ERB, the test commonly used in kindergarten admissions at independent schools. Why?

A: It goes back to the ‘why?’ Why are we taking the ERB in the first place?

It was leading to rampant stress and prepping.

It was the most measured and thoughtful decision.

Q: You’ve been able to chart your own course — what has that meant for the school?

A: We have the ability to think independently. We’ve been able to be more honest with ourselves. I work very hard to surround myself with people who don’t tell me what I want to hear.