A New Era Dawns At Hampton Day School

Originally published June 19, 2003-By Susan Rosenbaum

Ira Statfeld pulled a chair up beside Michael Recanati in their newly renovated, expansive Windmill Lane, East Hampton, house Sunday evening. It is a tasteful, comfortable place, and its owners, who have been together for 31 years, relaxed as they fielded questions about their plans for the Hampton Day School.
Indeed, the two men welcomed a chance to explain how they hope to reconfigure and expand the 35-year-old Bridgehampton institution, the South Fork's first nonparochial day school, which has classes from prekindergarten to eighth grade.

Their involvement, coupled with the school's tumultuous history of leadership, has raised concern, even suspicion, among some parents. As their ideas and plans continued to be discussed this week, some tangible developments began to surface.

Mr. Statfeld and Mr. Recanati were talking with South Fork educators a year or so ago about creating a new private school when the Hampton Day board approached them. They found philosophical compatibility.

Six months later, the two men, who met as high school students, took center stage at Hampton Day and went public with pledges of serious money, time, and experience, and spoke of their connections in the business world. Soon after, they took charge of the school board, and, with the help of two educators, have set about implementing their ideas.

Mr. Statfeld is an attorney. Mr. Recanati's family owns a shipping business, where he worked for some years. He has also mounted business ventures of his own, including a short-lived dot-com company.

By and large they leave the school's academic particulars to Janet Stork, the head of school, and Mariah Bruehl, the elementary division head. Both women previously worked at the Dalton School, which Mr. Statfeld and Mr. Recanati's 10-year-old son, Rafe, attended for four years.

Their educational philosophy grows from two simple concepts, they said. First, build the school around the child, not around a preconceived program. Second, develop enough variety and support for all students to learn in their own way, at their own pace. In the end, they said, a graduate headed to Harvard will be "proud to stand with" a classmate returning to the family farm.

The men bring years of philanthropic experience with educational institutions in New York and in Israel to the job of coming up with the resources to make it happen.

"The job is 24/7," said Mr. Statfeld, smiling.

"It would have been easier just to start from scratch," said Mr. Recanati.

The arts and sciences form the "pillars" of the effort, they said. That effort has begun with the concept of the Morriss Arts Center, which has yet to be built. It is named for Mr. Statfeld's father, Morris Statfeld, who, after surviving the Holocaust in Poland, ran a kosher delicatessen in Clifton, N.J., that enabled him to put two sons through school. Had life dealt him a different hand, Mr. Statfeld said, "he would have been a rabbi or a professor."

The arts center added two key players to its board this week - Andre Bishop, the creative director of the Lincoln Center Theater, and Jane Rosenthal of Tribeca Films, who has a house in Water Mill.

Emma Walton of Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre is a member as well, as are the actor Roy Scheider, Ms. Stork, Ms. Bruehl, Mr. Statfeld and Mr. Recanati, and their accountant, Daniel Pearson.

This fall, Bay Street will add a theater program, including drama classes, production, and writing, to the Hampton Day School's arts curriculum.

"We feel the school has to reflect and serve the community," said Mr. Recanati.

A structure to house a high school, set to open in September 2005, will be built first, at a cost of about $2 million. If all goes well, an $8 million "glorious arts center," is to follow, with an auditorium to accommodate not only a student body of 500 (double the present one), but potentially also to serve as the summer residence of a major theater company.

There is, after all, "a resort element with a potential for outside fund raising," said Mr. Recanati. "It could help pay for the school."

Bringing "the school into the community and the community into the school" is the mission of the day school and the arts center, said Ms. Stork in a press statement this week.

Meanwhile, in September, the Hampton Day School will change its name to the Morriss Center School, which will be led by its own board of directors and function as a "sister" organization to the arts and sciences center. In time the two will probably merge, said Mr. Recanati.

Mr. Recanati said that while the buildings will "reflect the language of the community, they are not going to be trophy projects." In developing the 27-acre campus, he promised that "no dollar will be wasted."

As of this week, the school has pledges of between $5 million and $6 million over five years, Mr. Recanati said. The men have set a working goal of $25 million.

Acknowledging that housing is "the most valuable commodity in the Hamptons," Mr. Recanati said boarding facilities will be built for about 60 of 250 high school students. Faculty housing will also be provided.

Meanwhile, the school is in talks with the Group for the South Fork and the natural science division of Southampton College to expand its science curriculum. An organic garden is also planned, as is a soup kitchen for the needy.

Rumors about mergers with other local private schools, including the Hayground School, also in Bridgehampton, which broke away from the Day School several years ago, have no basis, the men said.

Several teachers who once worked at the Ross School in East Hampton, however, have arrived at the Hampton Day School. The Ross School has the South Fork's only nonparochial private high school. Former Ross teachers so far include Coach Xu, who will be the director of sports and integrative health, his wife, Master Wei Qu He, a Wushu and martial arts coach, and Andrea Drake, who will teach in the upper grades.

Of particular interest is an expanding faculty of learning specialists, including Jodie Rutherford, a special education teacher, and Vanessa Ciardullo, a reading specialist, who will join Cindy Sulzberger and Ann Schafer-Wolf, special educators who have taught at the Day School part time for more than six years.

The men acknowledge that their son was a consideration in their decision to become involved with the school but both parents stressed that their primary commitment has been to education and to giving South Fork families "a real choice" in private schools.

Questions have been raised about one of Mr. Recanati's business ventures, a short-lived dot-com company called IFusion, which, like a number of others, sprouted and disappeared within 14 months, mostly for lack of major corporate contracts.

"I learned more from that failure than from all my successes," said Mr. Recanati, calling it "an example of an unsustainable business model." It was a new field, he said, and the risks were enormous. What he learned, he said, was, "Take your time."

As far as education goes, he said, "First, do no harm" was valuable advice. "When you play with the education of children you must remember the responsibility," he said. "The lives you affect - you have to walk with humility and awe. You don't want to hurt kids and families."

Since the couple moved to East Hampton full time after spending parts of 17 years here, they have sold their New York City apartment and have never looked back, Mr. Recanati said.

"It says a lot about this community that a gay couple with a child has been accepted among the leadership of a school, and that it is a nonissue." It is, they said, "the one place on the planet" where they considered making such a commitment. "We're talking about a very good country school."