Brown School has experienced a lot in its 120 years. It’s expanded and shrunk and expanded once, twice, three times more. It’s moved from downtown Schenectady to Rugby Road to Van Antwerp back to Rugby and to its current home on Corlaer Avenue.
Through all the changes, its core mission has stayed the same: To promote lifelong learning in an atmosphere of acceptance and experimentation.
“We’ve done it all,” said Head of School Patti Vitale. “We’ve lost grades, we’ve added them again. But I think one thing that’s really key to the success we’re experiencing and what got us through the difficult times is that we’ve always stayed very true to that mission. We know who we are and we know what we do well and we just enjoy doing it.”
Brown School turned 120 this year, and the tiny Schenectady private school celebrated the milestone Saturday evening with a gala at the scenic River Stone Manor in Glenville. Administrators, teachers, parents and community officials wore their finest to the event, hugging and shaking hands and laughing over the soft sounds of classical music.
The non-sectarian school, which offers nursery through eighth grade, has been a favorite among Capital Region families who prefer an alternative to the public school system. In addition to academics, music and art, Brown School educators go out of their way to emphasize emotional and social growth in their students.
It all began in 1893, when Helen “Nellie” Brown took a dozen students into her downtown Schenectady home at 237 Liberty St. There was a wood stove for heat, a wooden bucket for drinking water, and Brown’s passion for providing an education that fosters self-confidence, curiosity and a lifelong love of learning. Originally established to serve the children of the city’s large General Electric workforce, the school quickly expanded and in 1904, moved to a building on Rugby Road in the GE Realty Plot.
“People still affectionately speak of that building as 'Little Brown,’ and that’s when you know that the teacher has been here a very long time,” said Vitale, chuckling.
Brown School began offering a high school program for young women in the 1930s, and students in all grades had activities ranging from drama, horseback riding, glee club and ice-skating. The school grew and then shrunk and then grew, but in the '40s, '50s and '60s, its program ended with the sixth grade. By the 1970s, low enrollment caused school officials to worry about its future. It was time for something new.
Administrators came up with the idea for a before- and after-school child care program. It immediately appealed to families in the Capital Region, and helped stabilize the school’s enrollment. As the school grew again, it needed more space and ended up moving into Van Antwerp Middle School for eight years during the 1980s. In 1991, the Niskayuna school district reclaimed the property, and Brown School returned to Rugby Road for another five years.
“We were at all these different locations, and then in 1996, the decision was made to bring everybody under one roof, and that’s how we ended up at 150 Corlaer Ave.,” said Vitale. “We started to build grade by grade by grade. So now we have nursery through grade eight.”
Friends and educators milled about the gala Saturday, perusing silent auction items and sipping from long-stemmed glasses. Earlier in the day, Vitale had the opportunity to swing across the stage at Proctors following a matinee performance of Peter Pan, having bought the privilege in the silent auction.
Back on earth, Vitale contemplated Brown’s future. She said lots of parents, and students even, always ask about whether the school will expand to offer high school.
“There are always discussions of high school,” she said. “They get close to the end, and when they hit eighth grade they’re ready to jump into new things. But I think they look really hard to find an experience that will replicate a lot of what they’ve found in their earlier years, because they had a good time and they’ve done well.”
Brown School parents organize a gala every year, but decided to do something special for the 120-year milestone by honoring the people who have helped keep the school running. These include the attorneys at Albany-based law firm O’Connel and Aronowitz PC, who sit on the school’s board; the Schecter and Smachlo families, who put their kids through the school; and Robert and Carol Keller, who created the school’s first endowment.
“I think of Brown School as a really beautiful home,” said Vitale. “It’s got great colorful hallways and happy, talented teachers and kids. But every home needs a good foundation. The people we’re honoring tonight, they’re our foundation. They’ve helped sustain us and keep us going in good times and bad.”