Cultivating Character at the Garden School
Jackson Heights Garden School Evolves with Community
This Spring I spent some time becoming better acquainted with the Garden School in Jackson Heights. The Garden School is a private,non-profit, neighborhood school that primarily serves the Jackson Heights and Queens community- and which has begun to pursue the growth in interest from the nearby boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
What makes the Garden School unique? The answer to that question is quite possibly as long, as the history of the school itself.
One of the first aspects of the school uniqueness I discovered, stood squarely in the midst of a photograph of its Founding Fathers of 1923. It turns out that Edward MacDougall, the Founder of the Queensboro Corporation, was one of the leading forces behind the creation of the Garden School. The Queensboro Corporation was the leading and largest real estate developer of the Jackson Heights neighborhood nearly a century ago.
In addition to investing in the erection of some of the highest quality residential buildings in all of Queens - and for that matter all of New York City - the Queensboro Corporation alsoinvested in developing the human infrastructure of the Jackson Heights community through the creation of the Garden School.
The photo at right was taken of a theatrical production, in the early days of the Garden School, in the playground thatlies adjacent to the school. This playground recently served a pivotal role in the Garden School history, and has emerged as an opportunity for both the school and the community to come into even more harmonious goal alignment.
Today, nearly a century later, the vision and the quality of a Garden School education endures. In some manner, one might say that the quality of a Garden School education has withstood the passage of time, as well as the high quality construction of the pre-war buildings of the Jackson Heights neighborhood. The high quality of the historic buildings in the Jackson Heights neighborhood remains head and shoulders above the construction quality of most of the other buildings of that time - and likely by an even a larger margin - way ahead of the quality of the glass and steel skyscrapers being erected today.
In some similar measure, the Garden School has maintained a standard of educational value that compares well with its public and private school peers. Amidst all of the turmoil surrounding the efficacy of the public school system, and when measured in value against the soaring costs of a private school education, the Garden School has thrived, survived and is beginning to grow again.
To be sure, nearly a century ago - the schools, the buildings and the real estate developers were different than they are today, which we will see as we journey back into the past, and return to the present, of the Garden School in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Click here to read the rest of our story about the Garden School in Jackson Heights, one of the oldest & most prestigious private schools in Queens.
Cultivating Character at the Garden School
Jackson Heights Garden School Evolves with Community
History: Garden School Jackson Heights
The Garden School was founded in 1923, by members of the new and growing Jackson Heights community. When the school was formed, it was called the Garden Country Day School, as Jackson Heights was a community of young, upwardly mobile commuters, and home to the garden apartments being built and sold by the Queensboro Corporation.
To your right is a photo of the Jackson Heights Tennis Club which eventually became the Garden School, and in which the school continues to operate to this day. New York City and the Jackson Heights Golf Course are in the background.
The Garden School began as an independent, privately operated, community school. A status, which the Garden school retains to this day, and which provides parents and students with a rare opportunity to shape their own views of the world and of key issues, devoid of specific government, religious and / or cultural bias. There are few schools in the city and nation - if not the world - that can provide this sort of educational tabula rasa. And what gives the Garden School a particularly additional zesty flavor is that the Garden School lies resident in one of the most diverse communities in the city and world, and which has a student body that reflects as much.
In the 1920's the Jackson Heights neighborhood, as well as most other parts of Queens, were still comprised of countryside and farmlands. Over time, the bucolic lands of Queens were converted - first into managed communities by a dying breed of idealistic real estate developers - and decades later became a part of the modern urban sprawl that we live in today.
By 1928 the Garden Country Day School had moved into its current building with some good measure of support from Edward MacDougall, Founder of the Queensboro Corporation. The building was once the Tennis Club of Jackson Heights, overlooking the golf course as you can see in the photo shown in the story introduction. As previously mentioned, the Garden School remains in this building today, and has occupied it for nearly 90 years. In 1929, the Garden School graduated its first high school class.
Private Schools in Queens: The Garden School
To be sure, much has happened since the school graduated its first class. On my visit to the school, I could see the walls adorned with the graduating classes of decades gone by. While the ethnicities and wardrobes of the student body changed over the years - the school has retained its sense of mission and commitment to the community, but not without some measure of turmoil.
The dress code, as you can see in the photos that accompany this story, is not in any way elitist as one might expect from a private school with a tuition costing $17,250 per student per year. On the contrary, the Garden School dress code is more akin to a neighborhood school, as the clothes they wear reflect the students’ own personal style moderated in some measure by their own parents' oversight. It’s worth mentioning that 20% of the students get some form of tuition assistance, and a couple students receive full merit scholarships.
The Garden School: Personal Values & Involvement
Parental oversight has long been one of the most determinant factors in the educational success of any student. This important educational tenet appears to be well understood by the Garden School. I suppose this insightful understanding of the importance of family to one's academic success should come as no surprise, when one contemplates that the school was founded by Jackson Heights neighborhood parents. And perhaps that is why they chartered the school to be managed independently - devoid of racial bias, religious or cultural prefernce, and beholden only to the parents and members of the community itself. In some small measure, a school chartered for the people by the people.
The photos above right are of graduating classes from the early and more recent decades of the Garden School - a leading Queens private school in Jackson Heights.
The Garden School: A Youthful United Nations
Jim Gaines, Director of Outreach at the Garden School, graciously gave me a tour of the Garden School in late April of 2016. One of the first things that struck me was the sense of community that the school appears to have successfully cultivated. The student body, appears, in some measure, to reflect some of the ethnic diversity of both the neighborhood and the borough of Queens, which gives it the feel of a youthful United Nations ... and the family of [hu]man.
The school appears to remain, what it originally had set out to be – a school reflecting the values and aspirations of the evolving neighborhood. As mentioned above, no government, no religion nor culture preside over it, only the people who comprise it ... the teachers, students, staff, parents and alumni - and indirectly, the surrounding Jackson Heights community.
It took me a while to fully comprehend this unique independence, set amidst Queens' great cultural diversity, because it is so rare - as to be almost mythical - like the unicorn.
Private School Facilities in Queens
The Garden School facilities appear competitive with NYC public and private schools in terms of core facilities and capabilities for a school its size. They have a computer lab, physics lab, biology lab, swimming pool, playground, cafeteria, gymnasium, library, art room, auditorium / theater and linguistic capabilities.
The few teachers I observed or met, seemed to share an enthusiasm for the school that appeared to go far beyond their paycheck. And I found a sort a familial comfort by the student body vis a vis each other, as well as in their interactions with school faculty and staff. There was a comfort within the school that seemed reminiscent of an earlier time.
Perhaps the relatively small size of the school, and an academic lifecycle that encompasses grades K through high school, provide a sense of communal continuity that’s increasingly difficult to find in our big city and modern mobile times. As far as I know, there are only a very limited number of other private schools in the NYC area that also offer K through 12 in the same school. I imagine the benefit of this configuration, is that there is a sort of built-in stability in a child’s academic and personal life, which is likely important during their formative years, when the whole world is swirling and changing about them as well as within them.
Garden School Headmasters & Richard Marotta Ph.D.
I had an opportunity to meet Richard Marotta, Ph.D., the school Headmaster, for a brief discussion about the Garden School past and present. Dr. Marotta is one of the few, and one of the proud headmasters of the Garden School during its 93 year history. The first Headmaster was John Bosworth Laing [1923 - 1927]. He was succeeded by Otis Flowers [1927 – 1948]. Mr. Roberts succeeded Flowers and held the position until 1960, when he was followed by Mr. Fisher who held the position into the 1970’s. William Hughes preceded Richard Marotta who arrived in 1991. Headmaster Richard Marotta is shown seated in his office at right.
Jackson Heights & A Changing Landscape
One can only imagine how significantly life changed during the early decades of the school beginning with the growth of the subway lines and highways into Queens. This network of urban travelways continued during the Great Depression, and included the construction of LaGuardia Airport only miles away. In 1939 LaGuardia Aiport opened and in 1939 the first World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park opened.
The outbreak of WWII followed in the 1940's. After WWII, the United Nations was founded and its headquarters were first housed in the building that is now the Queens Museum. The Cold War, followed the Second World War, but by the mid 1960's NYC was ready for a World’s Fair again, which included the erection of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. During the 1960's the struggle for Civil Rights escalated with outbreaks of violence in the Harlem section of NYC as well as around the nation. And during the 1960's escalation and 1970's ending of the Vietnam War - drugs, violence and street gangs grew - before finally winding down in the late 1990's. In the 21st century we witnessed 911, which was eventually followed by an resurging interest in the Jackson Heights neighborhood, Queens real estate and the Garden School.
The Garden School Struggle in the 21s Century
But while the world was swirling around the Garden School during the terms of prior headmasters - Headmaster Richard Marotta likely had to guide the Garden School through some of its most trying of times. It was during Headmaster Richard Marotta’s tenure, that the stormy seas of population changes and enrollment declines converged, bringing along significant economic challenges to the independent private school.
When the Garden School was first erected in the roaring 1920’s, the Jackson Heights neighborhood was an upper middle class, planned suburban community. The neighborhood overlooked a beautiful golf course, which was surrounded by large and very well constructed ‘garden’ apartments [hence the name Garden School], which came with enclosed open space in a manner similar to English and other European apartment complexes. Jackson Heights was founded as a wealthy community that could create and support a privately funded, truly independent school. But real independence comes at a price, as it also means you are somewhat on your own.
Through the years the community changed. I won’t take you through the demographic and income shifts that accompanied the changes of each decade mentioned above, except to say that beginning with the civil unrest in the 1960's, which were followed by drug-fueled street violence and soaring crime rates in the 1970’s and 1980’s, higher income and white flight began and continued, leaving parts of the city wanting, and Jackson Heights was one such neighborhood.
The Garden School Rises to the Challenge
In 1991 enter Headmaster Richard Marotta. During the 1990’s and in the first decade of the 21st century, Garden School enrollments were static or declining, funds were diminishing, and as the end of the first decade of the 21st century neared, the Garden School fiscal house wasn't looking well.
In 2009, the school took out a loan of $1 million at a rate of 13%, reportedly because it couldn’t find a better rate. By about 2011 the school had taken on a debt of $2 million and was nearing the sale of its playground to a real estate developer to keep its finances whole. Things looked dire, because as one Jackson Heights filmmaker said, "Who would want to send their child to a school without a playground?" [I'm paraphrasing].
But the upwardly mobile Jackson Heights community rallied to the cause, along with the assistance of NYC Councilmember Daniel Dromm who enlisted the help of Mayor Bloomberg. The sale of the playground was made to the city, in lieu of the real estate developer, and for a higher price [both offers were about four million dollars more than the school needed to pay its debt and create a multi-million dollar rainy day fund]. And in addition to the higher price, the city offered a far more generous deal, as instead of having a large building erected on the lot ajacent to the Garden School, the Garden School was allowed to retain the use of the playground during school hours, while the Jackson Heights community now has the use of the lot after school hours and on the weekends which is to be used as public parkland.
It was, as Headmaster Richard Marotta told me, a win-win. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something along the lines of,
“It [the Garden School playground deal] was a textbook example of how private organizations and government should work together for the benefit of the entire community.”
A story with a happy ending is nice to see once in a while. I only wish people would collaborate toward the benefit of the general interest more often.
Following the crisis which began between seven and nine years ago [2007 - 2009], the Garden School begun growing again. I briefly attended a fundraiser held for the Garden School at the Terrace on the Park in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. I was impressed by how much the event seemed to be a communal, family-friendly affair - but not surprised - given the Garden School roots. In a bit of coincidence, the fundraising event honored, among others, Michele Beaudoin owner of Beaudoin Realty [see photo above right] whose offices are located in the Queensboro Building - the same building out of which real estate developer Edward MacDougall, one of the Garden School Founders, once worked.
In the photo from left to right are: Headmaster Richard Marotta, Trustee Arthur Gruen '66, Gala Honoree Michele Beaudoin, Board Chair Mike Rakosi '64, Trustee and Past Parent Jean Kinn.
Garden School Student Body: Cultivating Character
This brings us back to the question of cultivating character at the Garden School. There are four tenets to the character building at the Garden School: 1) Kindness, 2) Honesty, 3) Inclusion and 4) Independence.
The Garden School faculty, staff, students and parents work on this every day. The Garden School enrollment numbers a bit over 300 [305 last count] and has been growing the past few years. It wasn't long ago that the student enrollment numbers were in the mid 200’s. The student grade enrollment runs from Nursery [2 years old] through Grade 12. And the class size is relatively small as the maximum enrollment is 18 students. The great benefit of the small class size is that Garden School students are assured of getting individualized attention as there's a 6:1 student / teacher ratio.
About 75% of the student body is from Queens, with about 15% - 20% from Brooklyn, and a few students travel from Manhattan. Outreach Director Gaines told me that there are well over 25 nationalities represented at the school. A chart I saw online from 2011 indicated that about two thirds of the student body was Caucasian, but I was told that the student body has become even more diverse in the years since.
At a time when public education is beginning to recognize and re-invest in smaller schools and smaller class size, one might say that the Garden School has long been ahead in this regard. And unlike the charter schools, the Garden School doesn’t spend a lot of time prepping for standardized performance testing, although they do internal standardized testing that helps to measure and ensure a student’s mastery and comprehension of the material being taught in the curriculum.
Garden School Curriculum: Cultivating Character
The Garden School curriculum includes seven Advanced Placement Courses, including Math, English, Literature, French, Science, History and Biology. The Garden School also has College Counselors and a program to help students prepare for SAT exams.
I was provided a list of colleges that had accepted graduates of the Garden School. Although the list didn't indicate the time period reflected, the list included top tier private schools like Columbia, NYU and Yale; as well as public colleges like Hunter and York.
What I found at the Garden School was in many respects both unique and rare. Because the Queens private school operates free from government, religious and cultural bias - parents are provided an even greater opportunity to guide their children through the process of learning about the world in some measure in an unbiased fashion ... and to cultivate the kind of character in their children that they want them to be.
The Garden School tagline is “Cultivating Success in Every Child”. This is a lofty goal, a gold standard if you will, that quality educators have been striving to achieve since the beginning of time. Of course achievement of that goal, is in some good measure conditional upon the community - meaning the students, their teachers, their parents and their friends. As like cultivating plants in a garden, the surrounding environment will affect how both a plant or a person grows.
The Garden School originated as a community school, and appears to have evolved in tandem with the community into a sort of privately-run, United Nations-like school. And thus they appear to be in an enviable position to help parents cultivate their children's character, preparing them to meet the challenges of a diverse, complicated and changing world.
Garden School Summer Camp & Universal Pre-K
Director of Outreach, Jim Gaines told me that the Garden School also offers a Summer Camp which runs from mid June through Mid August. The Summer Camp is based upon what he termed a FAST curriculum: Fine Arts, Academics, Sports & Technology. They have swimming, outdoor sports, academics for kids from 2 to 13 years old, which includes a mix of structured and free time.
The Garden School also has its own fleet of five school buses, which it uses to pick up students that can’t walk to school. They also run one of the largest Universal Pre-K programs in Jackson Heights for the NYC Public School system in a separate building on Northern Blvd & 78th Street. The Pre-K program is located on the same block as the Garden School. The Garden School is located at 33-16 79th Street in Jackson Heights and their phone number is 718.335.6363.
Thanks & Photo Slide Show
Many thanks to the Garden School and Headmaster Richard Marotta and Outreach Director Jim Gaines for their help with this story.
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