- Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, the wife of the ousted WeWork CEO Adam Neumann, felt frustrated when she couldn’t find a school she loved for her eldest daughter. She decided to build her own.
- WeGrow officially opened in WeWork’s New York City headquarters in 2018 and offered a rich program including language immersion, yoga, meditation, music, and weekly farm visits.
- But after its failed attempt at going public, WeWork announced in October that it would close WeGrow at the end of the school year. Several parents have formed a coalition to try to save the school, even suggesting that Jeff Bezos might want to help.
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On a recent Friday morning, WeWork prepared to lay off 2,400 employees. This was weeks after WeWork’s founder and CEO Adam Neumann stepped down in the wake of a failed attempt to go public and the company was taken over by SoftBank.
But on the third floor of WeWork’s headquarters in Manhattan’s swanky West Chelsea neighborhood, there was a full-blown dance party.
As sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the 10,000-square-foot space, one young woman in a pink jumpsuit jammed on an acoustic guitar while another played a ukulele. A man with a tattoo sleeve banged on a bongo and another waved a tambourine as they belted out the lyrics to Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” They were joined by about 40 children and some parents who danced around the band until it was time to gather into a conga line.
Each child broke off when the line reached their destination, whether that was yoga, meditation, music, Mandarin, Spanish, or Hebrew.
This is how “morning ritual” concludes each day at WeGrow, WeWork’s progressive early-childhood school – the brainchild of Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, Adam’s wife.
In October, WeWork announced it would shut down WeGrow in June, after two years of operation. WeWork said in an emailed statement that it was closing WeGrow’s doors “as part of the company’s efforts to focus on its core business.”
But 12 parents have formed a coalition aimed at saving the school. They say they’ll do whatever it takes, including finding a funder and a suitable piece of real estate, with or without WeWork’s help.
“There’s nothing even close to this in New York City,” a father involved in the coalition, who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about how his statements could affect his family, told Insider. “We have something very special here that’s hard to quantify.”
Insider spoke with four parents about what it’s like being part of WeGrow and how they’re trying to prevent the school from closing.
WeGrow’s supporters offered to take over the school from WeWork
Supporters say they want to see the school survive because it offers a stellar education housed in a supportive and creative environment. It values play, interaction with nature, the arts, and meditation, in addition to academics. The warm community was an added bonus that parents said they didn’t know to expect but now don’t want to give up on.
The leaders of the group of parents trying to save the school said almost all the remaining families would stay on if WeGrow continues next year. The coalition even offered to take over WeGrow from WeWork, but their propositions were rebuffed.
A WeWork representative told Insider that the company “thoughtfully considered all proposals for WeGrow’s future.”
WeWork hasn’t disclosed what it will do with the Bjarke Ingels-designed space or its furnishings, which include suspended wooden nooks, a rock-climbing wall, and an amoebic light fixture that’s supposed to resemble clouds.
WeGrow was created because of Paltrow Neumann’s frustration with her educational options
Like nearly every new school, WeGrow was conceived out of frustration.
While shopping around for a school for her eldest daughter, Paltrow Neumann found herself disappointed with the available options, she said in an interview with Goop, the lifestyle site run by her cousin Gwyneth Paltrow.
That’s when she decided to build her own.
Paltrow Neumann’s vision was a school that’s academically rigorous without the stuffiness and cutthroat competitiveness of an exclusive private school. The school also aims to foster “conscious entrepreneurship,” Paltrow Neumann told Goop.
The school, open to students between the ages of 3 and 9, follows the Montessori method of teaching, which combines several age groups in a classroom and encourages self-directed learning and collaborative play.
WeGrow’s pilot program started in 2017 with a handful of children. There were about 120 students at the start of the current school year.
The school features meditation, yoga, and farm visits
WeGrow offers amenities that go far above and beyond what most private schools offer.
There’s a meditation room, a dance studio, a music room lined with guitars and other instruments, and a large indoor jungle gym. On a recent Thursday evening, the students put on a showcase where children as young as 5 performed original numbers while playing electric guitars, keyboards, and drums.
Each week, the students visit a farm, where they learn about agriculture, pick their own produce, and then sell the items back at WeWork’s headquarters. (Before WeWork’s unraveling, the students visited the Neumann family’s 60-acre farm in Westchester. Now they visit a different local farm.)
There’s also an intensive language-immersion program, with students able to choose among Spanish, Mandarin, and Hebrew.
Paltrow Neumann tapped several impressive names to lead the effort, including Adam Braun, the brother of the record executive Scooter Braun. Adam Braun is also the founder of Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that brings education opportunities to underserved children.
In the WeGrow classrooms for children who are 6 and younger, there’s one teacher for every four students. In the older grades, it’s one teacher for every seven students. For comparison, the average public school in New York City typically has one teacher for 14 students. In private schools, it is usually about one teacher for every eight students.
At least half of students at WeGrow got some tuition assistance, parents told Insider
Tuition at WeGrow starts at about $36,000 for the younger children and goes up to about $42,000. That’s about standard for New York City’s private schools and may even be on the reasonable end, considering WeGrow’s student-to-teacher ratio.
While WeGrow has gotten flack for catering to the ultrarich, parents say it was anything but. At least half of students receive some form of tuition assistance. One parent told Insider that nearly every family got some help.
The parents Insider spoke with weren’t permitted to disclose how much financial aid they received, but they indicated it was generous.
Yelena Kaminsky, a widow and mother of three who owns a small jewelry business, was able to send her 7-year-old son to WeGrow because of the school’s scholarship program.
Another mother who has two children enrolled at WeGrow, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy, told Insider that WeGrow offered her more tuition assistance than she had anticipated getting.
At least one family who was willing to pay full tuition was turned away because they wanted the school to alter elements of its philosophy, a parent told Insider.
Parents defended WeGrow, even seeing its affiliation with WeWork as a positive
The parents at WeGrow said the swarm of negative news around the school had been hurtful. The most scathing critique has been that the parents shouldn’t have put their trust in a startup or Paltrow Neumann, a former yoga instructor who dabbled in acting before partnering with her husband at WeWork.
Each parent Insider spoke with said they did agonizing amounts of research before betting on WeGrow. The father who’s part of the coalition first visited WeGrow in 2018 and said the WeWork connection gave him pause. But it wasn’t enough to deter him.
He could’ve afforded to send his daughter to a renowned private school, but he didn’t want her in a stodgy environment like the kind he was exposed to growing up.
“You go to a school that’s been around for a hundred years and there are risks involved with that,” he said.
Kaminsky saw WeGrow’s affiliation with WeWork as a positive, since it meant the school had sound financial backing. She was so certain that WeGrow would serve her son well that she sold her house in Staten Island and got a place in Brooklyn to be closer to WeGrow.
Some parents told Insider that Paltrow Neumann was a draw for them. They appreciated her vision and that she was right there at pickup and drop-off with her five children who attended the school.
Paltrow Neumann removed her children from WeGrow when the turmoil began at WeWork. But parents said they were still in close touch with the founder, who has encouraged them to fight to keep WeGrow open and has even offered her connections to help them.
WeGrow has been a target of criticism from education experts
The sudden shuttering of WeGrow has ignited criticism among experts who have said that tech moguls without relevant experience should stay out of education because it’s a notoriously risky field requiring proven processes, sound business plans, and solid leadership to even have a chance of taking off.
“It’s like, if someone had a great idea for a new way to conduct brain surgery, do you think they should have experience in brain surgery?” an education expert, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, told Insider. “It’s so presumptuous and shortsighted.”
Relying on a corporate funder to support an educational institution isn’t without major risks.
“Having a big financial backer has a giant pro and a giant con to it,” an expert in for-profit education, who asked to remain anonymous because of the controversial nature of the topic, told Insider. “The pro is that they have financial resources that many other places don’t. Within that is a giant con: You are kind of indebted – both literally and figuratively – to that one particular backer.”
Even so, parents said people who haven’t personally seen WeGrow in action can’t lump it in with failed tech-driven education ventures like the Mark Zuckerberg-backed AltSchool, which aimed to profit from its school software in addition to running a school.
“It felt like a sanctuary,” the father said of his first visit to WeGrow. “This is a school where the kids can feed their senses, feed their brain, and have movement.”
Parents aren’t giving up on keeping WeGrow open
When parents were notified of WeGrow’s impending closure, they had until November to switch out and still get a full tuition refund. About a handful of families took WeGrow up on the offer, parents said.
But in New York City, that’s not much help considering how competitive it is to secure a spot at desirable schools. At Dalton, one of the most exalted private schools in Manhattan, there can be 1,500 applications for one kindergarten seat. Some parents will even start to prepare while their babies are still in utero.
The parent coalition hasn’t given up on finding a funder or an educational organization to keep WeGrow alive. Some parents have offered to pay more in tuition, while others have offered services. One parent said he’d be a security guard, and a few have said they’re willing to teach. The name Jeff Bezos has been floated, since he’s expressed interest in supporting educational causes.
But the clock is ticking. While some people have looked into other public and private schools, certain parents have refused to consider an alternative.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Kaminsky said. “I’m so invested [in WeGrow]. It’s going to happen.”
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