Just outside the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine, a peacock pauses a moment by the flower garden until the laughter of small children sends it bouncing toward a piece of quiet shade a few dozen yards away. Peacocks are just one of the wonderful surprises that await students at this Upper West Side private school that is quietly developing a nurturing environment for students and a reputation for excellence among educators.
“We’re educating children to be articulate, confident citizens of the world,” said Marsha Nelson, head of school. “In order to do that, we must not just expose them to the cultures but give them experiences.”
Nelson came to the Cathedral School three years ago from the Trinity School, where she served as the associate head of school. Nelson is now in her fourth decade as an educator. Her first visit to the school was on a Friday morning.
“I’d never seen kids both so eager and willing to take risks. Kids who want to share at all of the various development stages in learning,” Nelson said. The entire lower school, 160 students in kindergarten to fourth grade, gathers in the massive common room in front of an oversized fireplace to share projects and musical talents. But first the grades march down the hallway singing the school song, “Oh What a Day,” to hear classically trained pianists play after students who are in the first week of saxophone practice perform in front of teachers and parents.
“Parents are very involved here. I often tell parents in the admissions season that this is the school that matches the goals and values in your family— you’re not just picking a school, you’re picking an important relationship for your family,” Nelson said.
When James Vescovi was looking for a school for his daughter, they immediately felt at home.
“It was such a welcoming place. We liked the school’s size, the mix of kids, and the fact that it’s not one of these crazy schools where every single parent is worried about getting their kids into Harvard Law School,” Vescovi, said.
His daughter and son have since graduated, with his youngest son now in the fifth grade at Cathedral. After 14 years of being a proud Cathedral parent, Vescovi thinks the school is still at the top of its game.
“The place just keeps getting better. The curriculum is stronger and the kids are content,” he said.
The spirit of community shown every Friday afternoon is also what has kept Edith Thurber, the interim head of the Upper School and an English teacher, at the Cathedral School for eight years.
“What I enjoy most is the sense of community,” Thurber said. “I have wonderful individual friendships with people in all areas of the school. I love the people who work in the kitchen, I love the kids. I think this is a community where people have real conversations and real relationships.”
Head of School Nelson believes that being a small school with access to tremendous resources is a big part of Cathedral’s ability to cultivate a nurturing environment. The school is attached to St. John the Divine, the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, and sits on 13 acres of land. All of the students have their graduation in the cathedral and attend what Nelson defines as an Episcopal school for children of all faiths.
The building first opened in 1901 as a boarding school for the cathedral’s choir, and that tradition is continued today with 20 to 24 current students in St. John the Divine’s choir. At the school, dubbed by some as “the Little Princeton,” the expansive dining room with massive wooden chairs is often compared to another famous institution: Hogwarts.
“Our students have great pride in the building,” Nelson said.
Students also take pride in being citizens of the world, the school’s mission, and that is reflected in the strength of Cathedral’s language programs. The Latin program in seventh grade is one of the strongest in the city and students begin to learn a second language in kindergarten. This year, that will include a pilot program in Mandarin Chinese, taught by a fluent kindergarten and third grade teacher.
“We really are trying to help kids be humanists,” Thurber said. “I think we approach a fairly classical curriculum in a progressive way.”
- Jonathan Bender