The Biscayne Times

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Aug 11th
The Privileged Class PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
May 2020

In the Biscayne Corridor, private schools are on the rise as parents rebuff the public school system

LSchools_1eila and David Centner are building a private-school juggernaut.

The forging of their educational empire started last summer and includes a former Buena Vista office building; the shell of a defunct charter school just west of the Wynwood Arts District; and a majority interest in an established Wynwood preK-8 private school.

They also assembled a teaching staff, recruited the head of a successful private school in Atlanta, and created a preK-12 curriculum that includes teaching Mandarin and emphasizing emotional and intellectual intelligence.

The Centners are considering adding a “learning center” on another property they may purchase in the future that would be dedicated to strengthening children’s brains.

“There are a lot of ways to strengthen brains -- brain exercise, healthy nutrition, neurofeedback, stuff like that,” says Leila Centner. “There’s a lot of neuroscience behind that.”

Exactly how much money she and her husband, David, have invested in creating their new education enterprise, the Centners won’t say. Public records indicate they paid $10 million for the three-story office building at 4136 N. Miami Ave. in June 2019. They’ve also bought an undetermined number of houses and residential lots near that office building in Buena Vista, which school representatives have told the BT will be used for teacher housing. Another $15 million was spent buying the two buildings making up the Aspira Arts Charter School at 1 NE 19th St. in August 2019, Leila Center says. (In 2019, the Centners spent more than $25 million buying vacant property in or near Edgewater. Leila Centner says they’re still determining what they’ll do with those land-buys.)

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And then, on January 1 of this year, the Centners obtained an $8 million purchase-money mortgage from Roland and Maria Padovan Kindell, owners of the seven-year-old Metropolitan International School at 3645 NW 2nd Ave., as part of their investment in that school.

In conjunction with that transaction, the Centners created a new for-profit company called the Metropolitan International Centner Academy (MICA), which includes three subsidiary companies for the preschool (the Buena Vista building); the elementary school (the original Metropolitan International School in northern Wynwood), and middle/high school (the former Aspira Arts Charter School just west of Edgewater).

But less than two months after the Centners absorbed the Metropolitan International School, Florida’s education system shut down as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the nation. Schools and universities are now holding classes online. Restaurants, hotels, and public spaces are, as of deadline, closed, and the economy has stalled.

Yet even though MICA charges as much as $25,000 per year for tuition, Leila Centner isn’t worried. MICA is still receiving inquiries from parents interested in registering their children for classes.

“It’s interesting,” she says. “We can’t do in-person tours, but there’s still lots of people asking us to do virtual tours for them.”

Leila Centner indicates they’ll have room for many more students when schools open again. MICA’s schools can now accommodate up to 1300 students, she says, and they’re in close proximity to waterfront communities where many of these parents reside. “They’re centrally located, close to the Beach, close to the Design District,” she says.


MSchools_3ICA isn’t alone in receiving requests from interested parents. The operators of four other private day schools in the Biscayne Corridor tell

“We have wonderful families who come here, and, sadly, we have to turn them away. We’re at capacity,” says Arvi Balseiro, head of the Cushman School in Miami (tuition up to $39,900), which has operated at 592 NE 60th St. since 1926. To meet increased demand, the Cushman School has gone through a series of expansions, including purchasing an office building at 4770 Biscayne Blvd. two years ago for $13.5 million to add a senior high school. That increased Cushman’s student capacity from 600 to 700.

The demand for private schools has increased thanks, in part, to a migration of wealthy individuals in search of Florida weather and lower taxes. “There has been an influx of people moving in from the Northeast,” says Balseiro. “It’s been happening for months.”

And more are coming. Last month four real estate brokers told The Real Deal, a real estate news website, that they’re getting calls from New Yorkers interested in renting Miami Beach waterfront homes for between $15,000 and $85,000 a month. The median annual household income in the City of Miami is below $37,000, but there are plenty of luxury waterfront homes and high-rise condos, particularly in Coconut Grove, Brickell, Edgewater, Bay Point, Morningside, Bayside, Belle Meade, and further north.

Well positioned to accommodate these parents is the Avenues, a New York-headquartered private school (tuition in the $56,000 range) that paid $60 million in May 2018 for the shuttered Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School north of the Design District. Tara Powers, spokeswoman for Avenues, tells the BT that the target opening is 2023.

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“As a world school, Avenues is one school with many campuses in leading cities around the globe,” writes Powers in an e-mail explaining why the City of Miami was chosen. “Miami is a dynamic, vibrant, growing global city and we think it is an ideal location to add to our network of campuses around the world that already include New York, Sao Paulo, Shenzhen, and online.”

It isn’t just wealthy New Yorkers who want to put their children in private schools here. Recent transplants from Latin America and Europe, as well as many locals, also insist on private education for a variety of reasons, from the specialized religious or cultural instruction to the academic edge for admission to competitive colleges. (Private schools often provide scholarships, and some even accept state-issued school vouchers. Leila Centner says ten percent of the MICA student body will receive scholarships.)

Léna McLorin Salvant, head of École Franco-Américaine de Miami, says her K-5 school ($15,000 a year) accommodates mostly French parents who want to continue their children’s education under the French system. “We’re the only [French] school still accredited in the class range of the fifth grade,” says Salvant, who has campuses in Miami Shores and South Miami. “There is a lot of demand,” she adds.

Achikam Yogev, a senior director at the real estate firm Colliers International, says there’s an expectation that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause enrollment to drop at private schools. Yet at the same time, Yogev says, he’s still scouting locations as far south as Homestead for his private and charter school clients, including a Spanish school chain and a boarding school. The Biscayne Corridor, Yogev adds, is a particularly coveted region: “The demand for schools has outpaced the supply.”


ASchools_5ccording to the Florida Department of Education, there are already 619 private schools in Miami-Dade County serving 74,316 students. The majority are located west of I-95 or in the southern parts of the county like Homestead, Florida City, and Kendall.

There are 13 private schools east of I-95 within the City of Miami and another 17 private schools in Miami Beach. There are seven in Miami Shores, including the 82-year-old, preK-12 Miami Country Day School (tuition from $24,300 to $38,265), which has a student body of 1250.

The state lists seven private schools in North Miami, 16 in North Miami Beach (including Allison Academy), one in Aventura (Aventura Learning Center), and at least a dozen in unincorporated northeast Miami-Dade. Among the unincorporated private schools is Monsignor Edward Pace High School, which took in students from Archbishop Curley High when it closed, and the 48-year-old preK-12 Scheck Hillel Community School ($11,340 to $35,450) just west of Aventura.

There are also 476 public schools within Miami-Dade County with 350,040 students enrolled -- fourth largest in the nation. That includes three schools in the Brickell-downtown area, 24 schools serving the eastern parts of the City of Miami and Greater Miami Shores, nine within the North Miami area between I-95 and Biscayne Boulevard, 14 within northeast Miami-Dade, one in Bay Harbor Islands, one in North Bay Village, and five in Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade’s public schools include magnet schools and charter schools. Magnet schools offer specialized educational curriculums. Charter schools are managed by private companies but receive state funding, on average between $6500 and $7400 per student, according to the Florida Charter School Alliance.

The Biscayne Corridor itself has several top-rated “A” public schools: the School for Advanced Studies and the New World School of the Arts in Miami’s Central Business District; iPrep Academy in Omni; Design & Architecture High School in the Design District; Doctors Charter School in Miami Shores; Ruth K. Broad Bay Harbor K-8 School; MAST at Florida International University in North Miami; Fulford Elementary in North Miami Beach; Virginia A. Boone Highland Oaks School; Aventura Waterways K-8 Center; Aventura City of Excellence K-8 Charter; and Norman S. Edelcup/Sunny Isles Beach K-8.

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Several “B” rated public schools are in the Biscayne Corridor, too, according to the latest rankings from Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Among them: Alonzo & Tracy Mourning Senior High in North Miami; Doctor Michael M. Krop Senior High; Miami Shores Elementary; and Morningside K-8 Academy.

Enid Weisman, a former public schools regional superintendent and the current mayor of Aventura, says the county’s public schools are among the best in the nation. This is especially true in northeast Miami-Dade, which has an abundance of “A” and “B” public schools.

Aventura itself oversees a pair of charter schools: the Aventura City of Excellence School and the recently completed Don Soffer Aventura High School. Nevertheless, new arrivals from abroad in Weisman’s condo-filled community want to enroll their children in private schools.

“You know, in my area, we have a lot of Jewish Latinos, and in Argentina or Colombia or Peru or Mexico, everyone went to a private school. It was just the culture,” Weisman says. “So they come here, and the first thing they ask is: ‘Where are the private schools?’”

Private schools, unlike public schools or even charter schools, aren’t regulated by the Florida Department of Education, even though the state now diverts tax money to vouchers that can go to private schools. Private schools only have to register with the department every year, and pass periodic safety inspections by other local and state departments.

“Meaning, private schools can teach that the grass is purple and the sky is red. They can teach anything they want. It’s all put out to parents as a choice,” says Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the Orlando-based Fund Education Now, which advocates for public school funding.

Mayor Weisman adds that parents must do their homework, which includes examining a school’s accreditation claims. “You have to check things out,” she says.

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Rose Pujol is a Realtor with Douglas Elliman and a Coconut Grove activist. Her children, grandchildren, and niece went to two renowned private schools: Gulliver in Pinecrest and the all-girls Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove. Going to a good private school, Pujol explains, can ensure a child will be admitted to a good college.

“What happens in today’s world, from the time they’re in pre-kindergarten, the parents are already looking at what school has the best chances of getting their children into a great university,” says Pujol, who adds that Coconut Grove is home to 18 private schools.

Ironically, Pujol is part of a coalition fighting Carrollton’s plans to build a 367-seat all-boys school at the historic Villa Woodbine at 2167 S. Bayshore Dr. in the Grove. Opponents fear increased traffic and are dismayed by Carrollton’s plans to remove 115 trees and portions of a historic coral wall surrounding the property and its 100-year-old mansion. Carrollton (tuition up to $36,780) paid $8.4 million for the 3.7-acre property last December.

Leila and David Centner faced similar neighborhood opposition when Buena Vista residents found out that the couple wanted to turn a two-year-old office building with ground-floor retail into a preschool. After the City of Miami’s Planning Zoning and Appeals Board approved the Centners’ application last summer, residents of the Buena Vista Heights Homeowners Association filed an appeal, insisting that the preschool would bring additional traffic to the area. (The office building is just three blocks from an entrance ramp to the I-195 expressway.)

The Miami City Commission finally approved the school in October, but not before the Centners promised to reduce the building’s capacity from 195 to 120. Leila Centner stated at the time that she doubted there would be more than 15 students in its first year. (See “Preschool Pressures in Buena Vista,” October 2019.)

That pre-school population increased following the Centners acquisition of Metropolitan International. So once it is deemed safe for all schools to reopen, there will be around 80 students attending the Buena Vista school.

Leila Centner insists that peace has been made between her school and the neighborhood. As proof, her publicist sent the BT photos and a press release about a ham and turkey giveaway this past December, hosted by the Centners and the association. Says Centner: “We decided to work together as a team.”

Ulysee Kemp, president of the Buena Vista Heights Homeowners Association, couldn’t be reached by deadline. Evelyn Andre, the association’s past president, remembers the turkey giveaway but isn’t aware of an agreement with the school. As for the school increasing its student body to 80, Andre says: “Even 50 parents coming and dropping off kids will have a huge impact on the neighborhood, traffic-wise.”


David and Leila Centner met online around ten years ago. A couple of years later, David Centner, founder of Highway Toll Administration LLC, proposed to Leila Samoodi via a flash mob of dancers. (The event was featured in a July 2012

The couple went on to have two children (now ages five and two), and make a fortune. In March 2018, David Centner sold Highway Toll Administration, an electronic toll collection service used by freight truck and rental car companies, for an undisclosed amount to Platinum Equity, a $13 billion investment firm. The couple then relocated from New York to South Florida (where David Centner was raised) and embarked on a spiritual quest.

“When we sold our company, something was still missing, so then began this journey -- what was this feeling we were having?” Leila Centner, a CPA and clothing designer/entrepreneur, told the BT last September.

That existential examination led to periodic trips to India, and to receive spiritual counseling from the O&O Academy, a non-denominational meditation school. Leila Centner, who told the BT she had a rough childhood, says the sessions helped her come to terms with the past and fuel her passion for education. David Centner, in past interviews with the BT, indicated that he’s supporting Leila’s vision to create innovative schools.

Soon after moving to Miami Beach, the couple started the David and Leila Centner Foundation, a charitable organization that, among other things, helped build a catering school for Lotus House, a long-term shelter for women and their children.

After that, the couple went about creating their own private school by buying properties and hiring teachers. They consulted with Harvard lecturer and Happiness Studies Academy founder Tal Ben-Shahar, who created the emotional intelligence aspect of the curriculum, and Lucy Lien, director of a Minneapolis charter school that specializes in Chinese language instruction.

Following the assimilation of Metropolitan International School, the Centners acquired that facility’s accreditations and added additional teachers and administrators to their staff, including Ines Lozano as Metropolitan International’s principal and now the “international ambassador” of MICA, and Maria Padovan, Metropolitan International’s founder.

Born in Italy, Padovan started teaching at the age of 19 in Uruguay. In the course of her 58-year career in education, she formulated a language-teaching technique (called the Padovan Method) and in 1998 launched a private school in Key Biscayne called International Christian School.

Ten years later she moved her school to an annex at the First Presbyterian Church at 609 Brickell Ave. Then in 2013, Padovan took over a building in Wynwood that once served as a police substation.

Padovan tells the BT the school will be even more successful now that the Centners are involved. Besides increasing student capacity -- the original Metropolitan International School could hold only 300 students -- Padovan is enamored of the Centners’ philosophy. “We have the same ideas about education,” says the 77-year-old educator.

The next hire was Ande Noktes, founder of the Midtown International School in Atlanta, a 200-student, preK-12 private school for gifted and academically advanced students (tuition between $22,800 and $23,900). Leila Centner says she met Noktes through a Midtown School board member, took a tour of the school, and was impressed.

“I thought it was an amazing school,” Leila Centner says. “She had already helped that school do an amazing job, and she was looking for her next thing in life.”

Indeed, Noktes says, Midtown International School was the third school she’d started in Atlanta, and she was ready for her next adventure. “I’m sure you’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs,” she tells the BT. “There’s just something in our blood that tells us when it’s time to start something new.” As Head of School for MICA’s campuses, Noktes will oversee operations at all three schools.

The new team was able to quickly adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and initiate remote teaching. Leila Centner sees it as a learning experience: “It’s stimulating kids to be creative thinkers, critical thinkers. We want to prepare them for an unknown world.”

 

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