Hot for TeachersWho says homeschooling is just for granola moms and religious zealots? Thanks to a pair of glamorous consultants, more and more NYC boldfacers are educating their kids in the privacy of their brownstones and high-rises—complete with their own custom uniforms and music lessons from the pros.
Photo: Jeremy Liebman
Melissa Meyer and Teri Flemal are sitting at buzzy West Village bistro Morandi, nibbling on pomegranate-gorgonzola salads and seasonal-vegetable frittatas—and joking about their new homeschooling business. "I thought about wearing my clogs," Melissa quips, kicking up an ebony heel, "but that would have been way too stereotypical." Each woman sports perfectly blown-out blonde hair; Melissa, 43, accessorizes her chic black jeans and cashmere sweater with a gold charm necklace and Teri, 53, is uptown elegant in a tweed jacket and pearls. Like their style, their new company QED (short for Quality Education by Design), has little to do with earth mamas teaching hippie spawn. Instead, try field trips to Egyptian pyramids. Visits to the Louvre. Harp lessons from a member of the New York Philharmonic.
While these educational perks might sound like the curriculum for an Ivy Leaguer or a Dalton student, they're in fact enjoyed by growing legions of NYC homeschoolers. Melissa and Teri's consultancy, which pairs posh parents (most with children in pre-K through middle school) with teachers from QED's 50-strong-and-expanding network of instructors (whom the women find through their own contacts as well as teachers who apply), is setting a new standard for this trend.
According to Melissa, it's the ultimate personalized education: "There is no one-size-fits-all approach here. Every family is unique." As Teri sums it up, "The QED model of homeschooling is the most desirable of scenarios—where an educational environment is adjusted to meet the needs of a child, as opposed to having a child adjust to meet the needs of a school or a classroom. It is the ultimate private school." A study published in November 2008 by Stanford University found that the number of homeschooled children nationwide increased 29 percent from 1999 to 2003. And according to numbers released late last year by the New York City Department of Education, homeschooling across the five boroughs from 2003 to 2007 increased by 32 percent—to about 2,783 kids. Celebrities like Tom Cruise hire tutors to homeschool their offspring. Sports-star siblings Venus and Serena Williams were homeschooled, as are 12-year-old Little Miss Sunshine actress (and New York native) Abigail Breslin and 14-year-old Mark Indelicato of Ugly Betty. Meanwhile, any stigma in terms of college admissions is vanishing, as schools like Stanford and MIT have encouraged homeschoolers to apply.
Melissa says homeschooling is particularly appealing in New York City, with its competitive school admissions. "For most people with kids in school, there's a sense of feeling trapped," she explains. "You sort of get on the private school train…and once you're there, you don't feel like you have a lot of options. You pay a lot of money to be there, and you're supposed to be really grateful that you're there. So the perspective of 'There is something else that works—and that maybe works better—for my family' can be incredibly powerful."
She speaks from experience. The genesis for QED started in 2005, when Melissa, a former grade-school teacher at the City & Country School on West 13th Street, and her husband, Peter Mensch, a band manager who has worked with Metallica and the Rolling Stones, were on a family vacation. "We [were] walking around Paris and it's this beautiful day, and I said, 'We should just move to Paris.' And he paused for a second, then said, 'OK.' I was like, 'Really? Well, OK!' " she recalls. Once they had spontaneously decided to put their West Village lives on hold and move to France for six months—Peter's spring schedule was flexible, with few bands touring—they had to sort out their children's education. The decision to homeschool came easily; according to Melissa, Peter had always "secretly harbored this dream of opening this little school for our kids, and not dealing with the private school scene and having more control. All three kids [twins Hannah and Eli, 14, and daughter Jona, 13] were enrolled at Little Red School House [a West Village private school]. I took a leave of absence for the kids from school, and I got the Little Red curriculum. I'm a teacher, so I thought, 'I can [teach them at home]. What's the worst-case scenario?' We left in March over spring break and we were going to come back for September. So even if I really mess it up, they're missing what, three months of school?"
Melissa quickly realized there was no need for concern. In their Left Bank apartment, "we had our lesson plan for that first day. Within three or four days, we were speeding through. There were no distractions! We realized how much time gets wasted in a classroom. We'd anticipated that we'd be in school for four or five ours—because kids are usually in classrooms for five-and-a-half to six hours a day. It ended up taking two hours and we were done."
That left time for outings to explore Darwin's theories in the Galapagos, as well as field trips to Egypt and other parts of Africa—not to mention visiting virtually every museum in Paris. By trip's end, the family realized none of them—even the kids—wanted to go back to Little Red. "All five of us knew we'd experienced something incredible," recalls Melissa. "And we wanted to hold on to it." They decided to continue the children's homeschooling in Manhattan "for another year. It was really a lark, initially."
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Because Melissa wanted to "just be a mom" again, the couple started interviewing teachers and quickly settled on Teri—an award-winning educator from Spring Lake, N.J., who had worked as a private tutor in Manhattan. "It was definitely an expensive year," Melissa admits, because they paid their kids' tuitions at Little Red, as a safety net, on top of paying Teri. "Double indemnity," Teri describes it, dryly. (Private tutors in Manhattan, such as the ones employed by QED, generally make $50 an hour and up.) Teri's plan for Melissa's kids included having them dressed appropriately for "school" (no pajamas) and starting class at 9 a.m. She also implemented quarterly report cards. It went so well that the next year, in the fall of 2006, it was time to "cut the cord," as Melissa puts it—meaning that she and her husband officially withdrew their kids from Little Red. She adds: "It sounds very risky and it was, because we knew that eventually we wanted them to go back [into private school for a traditional high school experience]. But we were willing to take that chance, because we're committed."
That fervor paid off, Teri says: "When the kids went to reapply to private school in 2008, their ISEE (Independent School Entrance Examination) scores were impressive, we had a portfolio of work for them"—including math tests, creative essays, PowerPoint presentations and art projects—"and we had their report cards ready. They were accepted at 10 private schools."
After seeing how enthusiastically Melissa's children were welcomed by the Fieldston School's often-impenetrable admissions board, it became clear that they had a marketable skill. The duo launched QED as a consultancy in August 2008, landed two clients within two weeks, doubled that number within the first two months and, although the QED founders decline to divulge the number of students on their books, they recently signed up their first clients in California. Though accreditation doesn't apply since QED is a consultancy, not a school, word of mouth among satisfied parents has established their cred. Teri and Melissa have been working up to 50 hours a week and are even meeting with nonparents, like a sports agent who may introduce QED to his uprooted athlete clients and their families. "My husband and I have seen the difficulties faced by friends of ours who are professional athletes," Melissa explains. "When young, school-age children are involved, there is a constant tug to balance the peripatetic athlete's lifestyle with a stable school life. I can see how QED could fit a need for these families—but as far as we're concerned, it could work for any family." Well, not exactly any family. Though Melissa and Teri won't disclose fees, they say that the total cost of their services—including the QED fee plus salaries for the teachers—costs about the same as the average private school tuition in Manhattan. In other words, about $30,000.