- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2011

NEW YORK | In the 20 years since they became a performance art sensation, the Blue Man Group has taken its men with blue heads on the road to stages in New York, Las Vegas and Europe.

The trio is now headed to center stage in the classroom. Blue Man founders Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton are the co-founders of Blue School, a private preschool and elementary school they started so they could send their own children to a school that was creative enough for them.

After renting space in several Manhattan locations, Blue School is moving to a permanent home near South Street Seaport in the fall. The three original blue men will appear onstage Wednesday for the first time in 11 years to raise money for the school.

No blue greasepaint was in evidence during a visit to Blue School’s current home in the East Village, but there were nontraditional touches such as a “soft room” with padded walls and foam structures to climb and a hallway drenched in trippy black light.

After a drumbeat summoned parents and children to sit on the floor, a class of 4-year-olds shared what they had learned about the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. A first-grade group left to explore the neighborhood, outfitted with cameras and reflective vests.

Teachers addressed their charges not as “children” or “boys and girls,” but as “friends,” as in, “Friends, can we move to the rug for meeting?”

Three fish and the severed head of a fourth rested on plates in a kindergarten class; the children took turns touching them.

“If you put these fish in water would they swim?” asked teacher Molly DeGesero.

The children were unsure. The smallest fish was dropped into a bucket of water. It did not swim.

Ms. DeGesero explained later that the children had developed an interest in the life and death of fish after the inhabitants of a classroom aquarium died during winter vacation.

Kindergartner Beatrice White said she liked touching the fish. “The long one was slimy,” she said. “The medium one was, like, scaly.”

The children’s role in focusing on fish illustrates Blue School’s philosophy of student-directed learning.

“Children who either choose what they’re learning or are part of choosing what they’re learning do better academically,” said Mr. Goldman, the Blue Man founder who is the most involved with the school.

Mr. Goldman and his wife, Renee Rolleri, are on the school’s board of directors and are the parents of Rhyus, a first-grader.

With his wire-rimmed glasses and unassuming manner, Mr. Goldman looks more like a graduate student than a showman.

Blue School began in 2006 as a play group when Rhyus was a toddler.

“Within six months after we started, there was so much momentum and interest from our community we realized we needed to keep moving,” said Ms. Rolleri, who has studied art therapy and child development.

Blue School has 155 students from 2-year-olds through second-graders and plans to add a grade each year up to at least fifth grade.

The school’s permanent home is being designed by star architect David Rockwell, who designed the nearby Imagination Playground, an interactive play space with giant foam blocks, as well as many of the city’s hottest restaurants.

From its countercultural beginnings, Blue School has evolved into a sought-after private school that receives six applications for every available space.

Students entering at kindergarten take the same $510 aptitude test that New York’s other top private schools require. “It’s really just part of the child’s profile,” Ms. Rolleri said.

The $29,820 tuition is “the exact average of all the private schools in the city,” Mr. Goldman said.

The money buys a student-teacher ratio that public school parents can only dream of, with two teachers for each class of 14 to 18 children.

Because it is new, Blue School cannot tout the percentage of its graduates who go on to attend top high schools and Ivy League universities.

Other schools do boast about their successful alumni, and Cornelia Iredell, co-director of Independent School Placement, a head-hunting service for private schools, said some parents exert pressure on schools to stress academic rigor at an early age.

But Ms. Iredell said the city’s top private schools “really focus on nourishing the child in every area.”

“The arts are not considered extras,” she said.

Blue School parents said their school stands out.

Lawyer Angela Badamo said she and her husband chose Blue School for their 4-year-old son after visiting at least 10 schools, public and private.

“It was a place where from our observation the kids were having a lot of fun,” she said.

Ms. Badamo said the connection with Blue Man Group was “kind of intriguing,” though she has never seen the show.

Eric Huang, also a lawyer and the father of a Blue School first-grader, has never seen the stage show either. He said he loved the school’s “community feel.”

Mark Shriver, senior vice president of Save the Children, which is exploring working with Blue School, said the school’s emphasis on viewing students, parents and teachers as a team is not just rhetoric.

“When a school has got that comprehensive approach, if we can learn anything from them, we want to learn that,” he said.

The school has set a goal of raising $750,000 at the Wednesday benefit, with ticket prices topping out at $10,000 and Dave Matthews as the opening act.

“Yes, it’s a high ticket price,” Mr. Goldman said, “but it’s 300 seats.”

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