New York City’s unwavering dedication to delivering top-notch education for its inhabitants is evident throughout its history. From the city’s inception as a Dutch settlement to its current standing as an influential global hub, the city has witnessed the establishment of numerous prestigious schools that have served its residents for nearly 400 years.
The Dutch heavily influenced education in colonial New York City. The settlers highly valued education, reflected in their focus on basic literacy and religious teachings during their early school years. Collegiate School, founded in 1628, is symbolic of this time – serving as a renowned training center for ministers that helped shape the initial precepts of the city’s academic pursuits.
Today’s post will focus on the nine oldest schools in New York City. We’ll delve into the schools’ unique histories, notable alumni, centuries-long transitions, and current educational offerings. The list will include special mentions of the oldest elementary and high schools still operating that support the city’s drive for public education over the years.
301 Freedom Pl S, New York, NY 10069
Collegiate School is a top-rated private K-12 all-boys school on the upper west side. Started back in 1628 by the Dutch West India Company and the regional assembly for the Dutch Reformed Church- Classis of Amsterdam, the school identifies as the oldest independent school in North America.
Its origins begin with the arrival of Reverend Jonas Michaelius to New Amsterdam in 1628. While Rev. Jonas may have worked as an educator, as proved by a letter discovered in 1984 about his struggles to teach a catechism class in 1628, the school wasn’t chartered until 1638. This places its founding date two years after Havard and three years after Boston Latin School.
Collegiate School has shifted location seventeen times in the last 394 years and changed its name several times. The school was chartered under the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, which it would remain part of until 1940.
Collegiate began as a co-ed school south of Canal Street. The school has been shut only once in its roughly 400 years of existence, in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. The school was reopened in 1784 and changed to a “Charity School” in 1791.
The school formed a Board of Trustees in 1808, which runs the school to date. The school was reorganized in 1847, separating the boys’ and girls’ schools. In 1860, it received a name change from Charity School of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church to Collegiate School of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church.
The school separated from the church in 1940 and was incorporated as an independent institution. The school switched to its current location at 301 Freedom Place South in 2018 after 128 years at West 77th Street.
The school has nurtured many notable figures over the centuries, including Egbert Benson, one of the founding fathers of the U.S and New York’s first Attorney General, David Benioff, a renowned author and screenwriter for the show Game of Thrones, and Walter Murch, an award-winning editor, director, and sound designer.
139 W 91st St, New York, NY 10024
Trinity School is a private independent college preparatory school on the upper west side. It was founded as a Charity School in 1909 and is the fifth-oldest school in the U.S. It’s the oldest continuously operating school in New York City.
William Huddleston, a New York City lawyer and city schoolmaster, successfully petitioned the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, based in London, for school books and funding. The first class met at the Trinity Church and sought to teach the poor children in the parish.
The society agreed to fund and provide books to the school, provided that the city’s mayor and aldermen certify annually that there were forty children from low-income families at the school. Each year, the mayor and the aldermen visited the school to compile the school list to send to London.
The first permanent schoolhouse was built in 1749 on the church grounds but was razed down by a fire after two months. The building was rebuilt and housed Columbia University, called King’s College at the time, on its first floor.
Trinity School was the only NYC school to operate unhindered during the Revolutionary War. Ties to London were severed by the war, with the school receiving financial support from the Trinity Church and the Common Council of New York.
However, a shift toward the establishment of a public education system led to the council withdrawing all support for church-sponsored charity schools in 1825. Trinity School redefined itself as a private school, with seven dollars per quarter as the tuition fee.
The school has relocated numerous times in its over three-hundred-years history. It currently serves roughly 995 students at the 139 West 91st Street campus. It has a fairly competitive admissions process, with New York Times in 2011 reporting that the acceptance rate at the school stood at 2.1% for Trinity’s kindergarten.
New York, NY 10027
Columbia University is a private Ivy League university in NYC that serves roughly 31,455 students. The school was founded in 1754 and has a close history with the Trinity School. It is often identified as the oldest institution in New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the nine colleges present before the Declaration of Independence.
Discussions of forming a college in the Province of New York began as early as 1904. It wasn’t until 1946 that the general assembly passed an act to establish a college. Controversy arose over the location and religious affiliation of the college, with Advocates of New York City and Anglicans successful on the first and second issues, respectively.
The school began in 1754 with eight students in a new schoolhouse built by the Trinity Church, housing the Trinity School. The school was named King’s College and received its royal charter from King George Ⅱ of England.
The school was shut down in 1776 during the Revolutionary War and resumed classes in 1784. It reopened with a new name, Columbia College. In 1857, the school shifted from Park Place to Forty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue, where it remained for 40 years.
In 1896, the Board of Trustees authorized using another name, Columbia University. Today, the school is officially known as Columbia University in The City of New York. The school moved to its current location at Morningside Heights in 1897.
Notable Columbia University Alumni
As of December 2021, the faculty, alumni, and staff associated with the university included seven Founding Fathers of the U.S., Four U.S Presidents, 33 foreign Heads of State, 53 Billionaires, 101 Nobel laureates, 125 Pulitzer Prize recipients, and 33 Academy Award winners.
Some names you may recognize on this list include:
- Stephen Friedman, chairman of Goldman Sachs
- James P. Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley
- Isaac Asimov, science fiction author
- Langston Hughes, writer and poet
- Upton Sinclair, writer and presidential candidate
- Brian de Palma, director
- Jason Everman, guitarist and former member of Nirvana
- James Franco, actor
- Warren Buffett, investor and entrepreneur
- Eric Ober, former president of the CBS News Network
Alexander Robertson School
3 W 95th St, New York, NY 10025
Established in 1789, Alexander Robertson School is New York’s oldest co-ed school. The school serves students in junior kindergarten through fifth grade. The Second Presbyterian Church founded it as a free-to-all school for “the sons and daughters of farmers and common folk.”
Alexander Robertson, a prosperous linen merchant and long-serving member of the church’s Board of Trustees, donated two thousand pounds and property on Pine Street to the church. The endowment was to establish a free school for the congregational needier children.
Alexander Robertson School currently operates independently of the Second Presbyterian Church. It is a non-sectarian school serving students of all faiths at its campus on West 95th Street.
New York University
New York, NY 10012
New York University is a large four-year private research university serving over 51,123 students. Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson, lead a group of over 100 delegates that discussed the terms for establishing a new University in 1931.
The group envisioned a university open for all, regardless of social background. On April 18th, 1831, the College of Arts and Science opened its first classes near City Hall in Lower Manhattan. The school shifted to Washington Square three years later.
The school of law was established in 1835 and became the first law school in the U.S. to admit women fifty years later. The School of Medicine was formed by six eminent surgeons and doctors in 1841. The College of Dentistry was founded in 1865, with the Graduate School of Arts and Science beginning twenty-one years later.
Due to overcrowding, New York University shifted its operations to a spacious campus in the Bronx. The Washington Campus was demolished, and the rebuilding of the main building began. By 1939, the University’s enrollment had reached an astonishing 47,000 students.
The school set up its first abroad campus in 1958, NYU Madrid. NYU’s global network would later expand to over 13 cities on six continents. The School of Medicine announced free tuition scholarships to all its current and future students in 2018.
Notable New York University Alumni
NYU’s alumni and faculty include 39 Nobel Laureates, 26 Pulitzer Prize winners, three foreign Heads of State, 58 U.S. House of Representatives members, 38 Academy Award winners, 17 billionaires, seven Olympic medalists, and many more.
Some notable alumni you may recognize include:
- Alec Baldwin, actor
- Matthew Morrison, actor
- Lady Gaga, musician
- Donald Glover, actor and musician under the name Childish Gambino
- Philip Seymour Hoffman, actor
- Martin Scorsese, director and writer
- John F. Kennedy, Jr., son of former President John F. Kennedy
- Judy Blume, children's literature author
- Suzanne Collins, author known for the Hunger Games series
- Sean Hannity, Fox News commentator
- Brian K. Vaughan, artist and author
- Spike Lee, director
- Anne Hathaway, actor
- Whoopi Goldberg, actor and commentator
Union Theological Seminary
3041 Broadway, New York, NY 10027
Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (UTS) is a private Christian liberal seminary in Morningside Seminary, Manhattan. Founded in 1836, the school is the oldest independent seminary in the U.S.
The school was founded by the members of the Presbyterian Church. However, the school was open to students from all denominations. After the disposal of Charles A. Briggs by the General Assembly for heresy, Union Theological Seminary voted to rescind the right of the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly to veto faculty appointments, establishing independence.
Union has served as Columbia University’s constituent faculty of theology since 1928. It has also partnered with the neighboring Jewish Theological Seminary of America since 1964. In the late 1960s, the school faced financial difficulties due to a declining student population.
Union found a solution by leasing some of its buildings and transferring ownership of Burke Library to Columbia University. The agreements helped stabilize the school’s finances and kept it afloat.
Some of the notable alumni that attended the school include J. Seelye Bixler, 16th president of Colby College; Francis L. Garrett, a former Chief of Chaplains of the U.S. Navy; and Frederick Buechner, a writer, novelist, and Presbyterian ordained minister.
441 East Fordham Road Bronx, NY 10458
Fordham University is a private Jesuit research university named after the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx. The university was founded in 1841 by John Hughes, a Coadjutor Bishop of New York. It is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit in the Northeastern United States and the third oldest university in NYC.
The Bishop acquired a 106-acre farm in Worcester County for $29,750 in 1840. St. John Seminary begins on the property later that year. St John’s College, later identified as Fordham University, was founded a year later.
John McCloskey, who later became the first American Cardinal, was the school’s first administrator. In 1845, John Hughes sold the college to the Society of Jesus for $40,000, switching the school’s administration to the Jesuits.
The New York legislature granted Saint John’s College a permanent charter on April 10th, 1846. The school held its first commencement later in June, with four graduates. One of the four proceeded to become a lawyer, while the rest were ordained as priests.
Having achieved university status, the school changed its name from St. John College to Fordham University in March 1907. The school opened its School of Pharmacy in 1912. Fordham University received full accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in 1921, an accreditation it maintains to date.
The school has numerous notable alumni that called Fordham home, including Alan Alda, an award-winning actor and scriptwriter, Andrew Cuomo, 56th Governor of New York, and William J. Casey, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
P.S. 34 Oliver H. Perry Elementary
131 Norman Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222
P.S. 34 Oliver H. Perry Elementary is an above-average public elementary school under the New York City Public Schools. Established in 1867, the school is the oldest continuously operating public school in Brooklyn.
Designed by Samuel B. Leonard and completed in 1867, the school building is an NYC historical landmark-based at the heart of Greenpoint in Brooklyn. The structure’s facade was restored and repaired, with the building identified as a historical landmark in 1983 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The building was used as a hospital during the civil war. The former wards were converted to become the current classrooms. The school currently serves roughly 452 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
The school offers a unique Polish-English dual immersion program, a first in the city. With 60% of the residents living in the neighborhood of Polish descent, the school’s program helps educate kids in the Polish language, with half the instruction done in English.
Flushing High School
35-01 Union St, Queens, NY 11354
Flushing High School is the oldest high school in the city. It was founded in 1875 and operates under the New York City Schools District. The Village of Flushing established the school before integrating with New York City.
The boundaries of school district No. 5 were established in 1841, with the Board of Trustees identifying Garden and Church Streets as the location for a new schoolhouse. The elementary school thrived, with the number of students overcrowding the school.
A council meeting held in 1873 recommended the construction of a new school. The School Board purchased land on the corner of Sanford Avenue and Union Street. Flushing High School opened in 1875 and was initially a grammar school.
The Board of Regents shortly recognized it with its reorganization into a high school. It was the only public high school recognized by the Board within the limits of Greater New York for eighteen years.
Its popularity rose, and by 1891, the school required a new structure. The current school building was built between 1914-1915 and featured a distinctive Collage Gothic style with turrets and gargoyles. The school received an additional wing extension in 1954.
The New York City Landmark Preservation Commission designated the school building as a state landmark in 1991. It was also included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
Notable figures that attended the school include
- Andy Shernoff, a songwriter and musician
- Nancy Gertner, a former United States District Judge for the District of Massachusetts
- Lynn Burke, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming
Currently, the school serves approximately 1,414 students in its five-acre campus. Flushing High School offers numerous college-preparatory programs, including advanced placement courses, dual credit programs, and CTE classes.
Make an Educated Decision: Find the Right School in NYC
New York City’s educational history traces back to its founding as a Dutch Settlement. The Collegiate School, whose roots go back to 1628, is the oldest continuously operating school in the city. Public Schools came in later in the mid-nineteenth century, with the earliest school still operating being the P.S. 34.
The schools in this list offer numerous academic offerings besides their rich cultural and educational traditions. They can serve as excellent picks for your child’s next school in NYC. Remember that the right learning environment should match your family’s needs and interests.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©iStock.com/Wavebreakmedia.