Helen “Nellie” Brown knew the value of education.
That’s one reason she opened a small private school — in the front two rooms of her family’s home on Liberty Street in Schenectady — in 1893.
The 34-year-old teacher welcomed 12 students her first year.
“Most of them were children of GE families, so it really stepped out of the need for GE families who wanted some options to public school,” said Patti Vitale, who now heads the school Brown launched 125 years ago.
Brown School celebrates its 125th anniversary Saturday night with a gala cocktail party, dinner and dance at the Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady. The party continues next weekend; the “Color Outside with Brown School” road races will start at 10 a.m. on April 28 in Schenectady’s Central Park.
Brown has had a colorful history. According to school historical documentation, Nellie moved her students, pencils and paper to larger quarters on Park Avenue in 1900.
People noticed Brown’s good work — among them were Willis T. Hanson, president of the former Union National Bank; Edward W. Rice Jr., president of General Electric; and Francis E. Pratt, commercial vice president of GE. In 1905, the men underwrote construction of a new school house on Rugby Road, and Brown became principal.
When Brown retired in the early 1920s, an association of parents assumed supervisory duties at the school, then located in the 1180 block of Rugby Road.
In 1927, Brown expanded curriculum to include high school students; a nearby Rugby Road house was purchased to accommodate other students.
“By the early 1930s, there were as many as 90 students between the two buildings,” according to school records. “Only girls were allowed in the upper grades, known as Miss Brown’s seminary for Young Ladies.”
Children and teens did more than reading, writing and mathematics. Girls played on the school field hockey and basketball teams. They rode bicycles and horses; they wrote stories for “The Babbler,” the Brown newspaper.
There have been changes.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, the school’s program ended at the sixth grade. Brown School became a primary school during the mid-1970s, but low enrollment put the school’s future in question.
New programs helped, such as providing child care services during the mornings and afternoons. In the early 1980s, parents pushed the school’s administrators for an expansion to third grade. Additional grades would later be added.
Requiring more space, the school moved to a former Niskayuna school, Van Antwerp Middle School, where it remained for eight years. In 1991, Niskayuna Schools reclaimed that property for district use, and Brown School returned to Rugby Road in Schenectady, where it remained until 1996.
In the spring of 1996, the Board of Trustees purchased Brown School’s current campus at 150 Corlaer Ave., the former New Life Ministries building and, before that, Notre Dame High School. In the fall, Brown resumed high school education with a freshman class. It is co-ed — two girls and one boy.
Vitale believes one of the secrets to Brown’s success has been meeting the needs of the community throughout the decades. She believes students — and parents — like Brown because of the small class sizes and individual attention.
Some students, Vitale said, may not be comfortable in a public school setting.
“That’s not to say anything against the public schools,” she said, “but there are some children who just can’t perform to their best because they’re maybe in a classroom size that’s too large, or there might be too much of a focus on testing. We have families who are not looking for that type of atmosphere. They’ll look for something different.”
Two hundred students currently are enrolled at Brown, which serves 17 school districts in the Capital Region. Some students (with parents driving) have traveled to Schenectady from as far away as Cherry Valley.
Falling enrollment is no longer a problem.
“We have been up to 350,” Vitale said. “We want to stay within the 200 range.”
Vitale, who started at Brown as a teacher in 2001 and has been at the helm since 2010, said manageable numbers ensure the 50-person faculty knows all students by name.
Vitale personally reads every report card.
“I will write my note to them,” she said. “I know the kids coming in, and I’m not the only one. In this school, you just don’t know your class. You know the kids throughout the school.”
Tuition at Brown starts at around $9,000 and goes up to $14,000. The money also buys lunch (pizza bar, soup bar and salad bar included), overnight camping trips and, for eighth-graders, an annual trip to Washington, D.C.
There are always challenges.
“I think the challenges you face are the challenges Schenectady faces,” Vitale said, comparing her school to the city itself. “I want to be reflective of that. As our city grows, I want to see this school be a vital part of that city.”
Vitale believes Brown students tend to do well on Corlaer Avenue and at the schools they later attend.
“They learn to advocate for themselves here very well,” she said. “They’re comfortable and they’re confident. We’re pretty proud of them, wherever their path takes them.
“We hope it stays here,” Vitale added, “but we support them wherever they go.”
Reach Daily Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.