The Mandell School's new building, at 795 Columbus Ave., allows the school to expand from pre-school to middle school, but "building" is a loaded word.
There is recycled wood in the lobby, the sinks are solar-powered and the lights are on timers and sensors. There is a new hydroponics lab and a vertical garden panel in the cafeteria, where the children are catered only organic food. There are even plants in the stairwell.
"It is a space deeply flexible," said Gabriella Rowe, the head of the private Upper West Side school. "It is driven by the needs of the children, as opposed to solely the needs of the educators… it is that living, breathing space."
Mandell, one of the prestigious "Baby Ivies" of Manhattan, is the only school this year to earn two Blackboard Awards: one in the "new and noteworthy" category because of their impressive expansion from pre-K-to-1st grade into preparatory and middle school, another for their heavily involved community-service program.
Both awards go hand-in-hand, however, as the private school's 60,000-square-foot, eco-friendly facelift is as community conscious as its service-focused curriculum.
"For us, community service is really about community outreach, being a part of your community and being engaged in the community," said Rowe, explaining that every class has a community service requirement. "Whether it is within your school, within your neighborhood or within your planet."
Last year, Mandell housed pre-kindergarten to 1st-grade students. A pilot program for 5th and 6th graders was launched last winter, and it began in full swing this semester, along with a 2nd grade in the new Columbus Avenue building built by Aragon Construction and designed by JRS Architect, P.C. Rowe's vision is to fill in with 3rd and 4th graders soon, and then 7th and 8th. She's wanted to expand to K-8 for a decade.
"In many instances they are regarded as the most challenging years for children," Rowe explained about middle school. "Their most awkward years, their most uneven years. Our view was that those awkward moments in a child's education can be the great teaching moments. To allow the children to find growing up attractive."
The second floor of the new space is what spokesperson Monica Rodriguez calls "the swamp" and the "heart of the building." It's an open area where children can hang out, work with advisers, be independent. One child, a 5th or 6th grader, was sitting on a beanbag chair reading an iPad. Rodriguez pointed out the outlets on the floor, where the children can charge their gadgets and net books. Mandell's building is that kind of high tech.
While the equipment is new, the Mandell's "good citizen" philosophy behind the curriculum is not. The school is involved with so many community service projects, Rowe says it's "hard to keep track." But a particularly notable one is a Dominican Republican humanitarian mission to deliver aid to the Orfanato Ninos de Cristo orphanage.
"It's not that we're going to have a bake sale and raise money and go buy something," Rowe said. "It's about what I can do as a person that can enhance the lives of others in my community."
Not everyone was on board with sending their 7-year-old to a developing country during the first three-day trip in December 2009 (about 10 students went); Rowe insists it is an amazingly rewarding experience that parents are warming up to. Another group went this past June, and Rowe predicts 30 to 40 students will go with their parents this winter to install an air-conditioner, work on their vegetable garden and play with the children there.
"They've been planning stuff to perform for us for five months," Rowe said of the children in the orphanage.
Continuing the tradition of the school's founder, the late Max Mandell (who is Rowe's grandfather), and Rowe's mother Barbara, seems like the natural thing for her to do. Rowe said when children learn about community service "at a very young age, it stays with them."
"This is the world in which I wanted to raise my children," she said.
— By Sara Dover
Photo above: Dance class at New Voices School.
Photo by Andrew Schwartz