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Matthew Levey’s Charter School Quest

Late last month, on a warm, luminous morning, Matthew Levey, a 48-year-old former McKinsey consultant, stood on Willoughby Street in Downtown Brooklyn and shook hands with his new charges: 65 kindergartners, a sea of neon sneakers, starched dresses and cotton golf shirts. It was the first day — ever — for the International Charter School of New York. And Mr. Levey, who had spent the last 36 months planning, developing and hiring for his new elementary school, was in high spirits. The kindergartners would be joined a few days later by 70 first graders. Ultimately, plans call for the school to run through fifth grade, educating students in topics that Mr. Levey cares about: how Francis Bacon developed the scientific method, why Aristotle matters and what led to the decline of the Roman Empire.

In some ways, Mr. Levey is an unlikely charter school operator. A Columbia Business School graduate, he started his career as a diplomat with the State Department, stationed in Sarajevo in 1995. After a stint at McKinsey & Company, he spent nine years at a risk-management firm. The father of three children who lives on the Upper East Side, he has never taught a classroom of elementary school students, never written a lesson plan, never sent anyone to the principal’s office. Still, he is no longer an anomaly. He is part of a small but growing band of New York City parents who are starting their own schools, some private, some conventional public, some charter.

It is a group defined by a shared conviction: They can better envision a place of learning than many of the people now doing that job.