As an assistant teacher and then director at Columbia Teachers College’s Hollingworth Preschool for nearly 25 years, Connie Williams Coulianos has focused on educating “developmentally precocious children.” That’s the term she uses to describe those who are ready to take on learning at a level not typical for their age group. So when the opportunity arose to develop an ongoing school for a similar population, Coulianos jumped at the chance. The product, the Speyer Legacy School, opened this fall with Coulianos at the helm.
Speyer Legacy aims to educate intellectually advanced children who have mastered verbal, reading and/or math skills earlier than their age-mates. They exhibit an intense passion for intellectual pursuits, often pursuing details until their quest is satisfied—whether it’s maps, mythology, music or nature. It was once estimated that such children represented less than 1 percent of the population. That figure has increased significantly as more parents and teachers become aware of the characteristic behaviors that indicate early exceptionality in learning. Many children are also under-identified because they come from low-income neighborhoods.
Speyer Legacy was founded as a separate venture by Coulianos and a dedicated group of Hollingworth parents. One of those parents, Dr. Esther Kogan, is now the school’s executive director. Speyer Legacy opened this fall with a kindergarten class and a combined 1st and 2nd grade class. The school will open a 3rd grade in 2010 and add a grade each year to eventually become a K-8 school.
The admissions process currently includes the same ERB testing required by other independent schools, parent and teacher written observations and an on-site visit where the child participates in a small group session that replicates aspects of the program. Experts who know what patterns to recognize screen the entire process. Decisions are not based on a cut-off score, but whether students’ needs are served by the school’s mission; there is no preference given to siblings, as every child is evaluated individually.
To help enrich the curriculum, Speyer Legacy has hired a cast of all-star adjunct teachers familiar to many New York parents. The program includes chess with nationally renowned chess master Sunil Weeramantry and an innovative immersion Spanish curriculum with a lot of music and conversation. Art is led by Nitza Horne, a docent from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Cyndie Bellen-Berthézènethe, founder of Hi Art, which brings opera and other forms of fine art to children. Students study music with Danny Lapidus, of the children’s band Hot Peas ’N Butter, as well as with Miranda Hentoff. Children will also study nutrition and agriculture with Stacey Antine of HealthBarn USA and pursue fencing as part of the “Optimal Health” component of the curriculum.
Building on Coulianos’ experiences at the preschool level, she hopes to offer the same enrichment to exceptional students beyond their 5th birthday.
“Children are not vessels to be filled but fires to be ignited,” she said, paraphrasing her favorite quote by Plutarch. “We have to keep the fire going as children grow older.”
Speyer Legacy School
211 W. 61st St., 6th Floor
Connie Williams Coulianos, head of school
Esther Kogan, executive director
— Sarah Seltzer
with additional reporting by Anne Gehris