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Portfolio School expanding and moving to Hudson


It’s not often that a neighborhood gets a new private school. Leman Manhattan opened in 2005, and if we stretch our boundaries a little further, we get Avenues in 2011. Otherwise, you have to go back to the ’70s (Village Community), the ’40s (St. Luke’s School), the ’20s (Little Red) or heck, the 1870s (Friends Seminary) to find a school ribbon cutting. I think you get what I am working at here: it seems like it’s a big deal that the Portfolio School opened here in 2016. And as of this fall, it is expanding at its new location on 90 Hudson.

The school is the brainchild – and it really is just that – of Doug Schachtel, a filmmaker with an MFA from Columbia and an MBA from Baruch, and Babur Habib, a software developer with an expertise in education technology. The two met on a squash court, strangers who just took up a playing time together, and the “child” was born after long conversations about innovation (or the lack of it) in schools. And then in their Andy Hardy moment, they decided to open a school and pay for it themselves, with the help of friends and family.

“I never thought I’d be sticking my toe in the water of trying to save education,” said Schachtel. “But if not us, then who?”

The result is a project-based learning method that has few other followers – especially on this coast. (Some other examples: the Khan Lab School in Mountain View, Nuvu Studio in Cambridge, High Tech High in San Diego.) The school operates on a studio model, so the entire space is used by all the kids, who move from room to room depending on the activity of the moment. There are mixed-age groupings now across the 20 kids in grades K through 5 (they started with seven kids); if a kid needs to read at a higher level, she just moves to the next cohort for that 1.5-hour period. There are no separate subjects – the students learn the core skills within the project they are working on (see a darn cute vid of the kids talking about this below). There is a well-stocked maker space in the current location on N. Moore that will get bigger at the new one. Eventually the school will go through high school.

“Kids are motivated to learn because they want to complete the project, not just to take a test at the end of the year,” said Doug. This, he says, gives them confidence and agency in their own learning – and the ability to use their knowledge in different ways. “We use the term ‘adaptive expertise’ – being able to transfer your learning from one domain to another.”

Oh, and there are no interior doors to classrooms. They want kids to be able to flow from room to room and cooperate with other kids across all grades. (“I think once you get rid of those ways we compare ourselves, once you get to a place where everyone does their own thing, they start to feel like they are in a family.”)

They are not totally flying blind here: the pair snagged a head of schools from Calhoun and Fieldston, and a director of research and learning from Stanford’s Transformative Learning Technology Lab.

Construction started last month on the new space: 8,000 square feet (see flyby rendering below) on the southeast corner of Hudson and Leonard, the former Downtown liquor store. The plan is to eventually start other schools, but for now, they are doing just what they planned. “I wish we were doing more selling, but we don’t have to. People come through the door knowing this is what they want.”

Portfolio School
27 N. Moore Street (till fall, then to 90 Hudson)

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