Behind the Magic
Looking at Evan Levey right now-a dark-haired, well-dressed man of 30 who's soon to be married-it's hard to imagine him so many years ago as a toddler enjoying one of his mom's classes with other little kids from the neighborhood. But Evan was not only one of the original beneficiaries of Wendy Levey's popular early enrichment programs; he was also the inspiration for their creation. Back then, Wendy had already started a nursery school, and when Evan, her first child, started toddling around, she came to the same realization that new moms do every day: It was time to find her child a program where he could enjoy music, art, gymnastics and other activities. So she went ahead and created it herself. The result has become one of our city's wonderful children's enrichment and activities centers, 74th St. Magic. These days, Wendy still runs the Epiphany Community Nursery School, but 74th St. Magic is run by someone else in the family. Can you guess who? After years of acting as a mix of hard-working apprentice and appreciative co-pilot, Evan Levey now oversees much of Magic-and his joy and passion for the job is as evident as his mom's has always been. "I love kids myself, and, because I grew up here, I've never had any doubt about the importance of what we do," says Evan. "We're not solving world peace, but we have a place where kids can go that's fun, clean, safe-where they'll learn a few things and where we'll be able to help them, not just physically or emotionally or intellectually, but in all ways." "It's worked out really well," Wendy adds. "Not only does he have my full confidence and trust, but, even more importantly, he gets along well with kids, parents, the staff-he really gets it." Epiphany Community Nursery School and 74th St. Magic are both housed in a cheery and colorful low-rise building on East 74th Street between York Avenue and the East River, where the signature big red awning pops out like a hug for all the children who treat the place as their home away from home. When I visited 74th St. Magic in the early fall, Evan proudly toured me around the facility-from their popular children's gym to the expansive roof-top play space-and also made sure I had time to sit in on some classes. That's where the real magic happens, of course. In a Double Time class, which combines time in the gym and classroom, I was duly impressed by the determined little kids, in their pint-sized chairs and tiny smocks, painting versions of fall leaves that would soon be placed along the walls of the room. There was a mix of the overly enthusiastic (moving gobs of paint around like they were spreading butter) and the overly cautious (looking as if they're scared of what will happen once the brush hits the paper). But the thing that most impressed me about the class was how organized and orderly it was. While most of the students worked on their art projects, others were busy playing with toys and blocks and even doing some make-believe cooking. There was an overall feeling of fun being had by everyone. At the same time, the children were so well-behaved for their age that I kept wondering, What kind of magic fairy dust had been sprinkled on them? Evan and Wendy, however, had a more tangible explanation. Early on in her career as an educator of young children, Wendy found that the single most effective way to help students learn and grow was the process of "sequencing." The basic idea, as they described it, is that to teach a young child any task-whether it's applying paint to paper or walking on a balance beam-you must break it down into a sequence of age-appropriate steps so that the child is more likely to enjoy the process and master it. Sequencing is the backbone of every class at 74th St. Magic, underpinning what happens in a particular day as well as across an entire semester. "It's a very intuitive approach for kids," Evan says. "There's always a beginning, a middle, and an end to every class. And there are steps that enable to you to progress. If you want to learn how to jump on the trampoline, you first have to learn how to climb up there, and then you have to learn how to do a seat drop. It's granular but it's also grand." Of course, the typical parent is less interested in the nitty gritty of the education process than in whether their children seem like they're having fun and learning as they grow. Beyond that, parents want options and flexibility and lots of early enrichment. To that end, the "magic" part of 74th St. Magic stands for Music Art Gymnastics Instruction Center. Those are the pillars of the program for infants through kindergarten-age kids, with some gymnastics classes extending through the tween years. Parents can enroll their children in individual semester classes, combo classes, or the "alternative preschool" track, which has been newly classified under the rubrics of Mini MAP (ages 2.3 to 3.5) and MAP (ages 3.5 to 5 years). Though 74th St. Magic is administered separately from Epiphany Community Nursery School, it certainly helps that Magic can devise the MAP and Mini MAP curriculum based on classes at Epiphany. In fact, a big bonus for Magic kids is that some of their classes are taught by favorite teachers from the nursery school. Since moving into their present home in 1996, the nursery school has grown to teach 160 families while Magic serves about 800 children a year. In addition, the Leveys also offer a summer day camp and a varied menu of birthday parties ranging from their staple Gymnastic Party to Kitchen Wizardry. Evan officially joined the team in 2004 when he was just 22 years old. These days, he functions as Magic's Director of Operations-less involved in the day-to-day goings on in the classrooms than in the overall health of the brand, making sure that Magic delivers for families as it did when his mom was at the helm. "One of the great things about Evan being here is that it gives a current vision to what we're doing," Wendy says. "It enables us to evaluate not only what we've done but also what we should do. So we have all these great and popular classes in place, but, at the same time, we're always mindful of being current with technology, child development, and the changing needs and interests of parents." If enrollment is the ultimate indicator of success, then Evan is doing really well. 74th St. Magic has never been busier. But if the well-being of children is the true barometer, then Evan's doing even better. I heard it in the voices of those little artists who concluded their class time with a rousing rendition of "The Wheels on the Bus." And I saw it in their happy faces as they bounced and tumbled around the gym. Over the years, Wendy Levey has helped lead thousands of little kids to the big kid world of kindergarten and beyond. Her son, Evan, clearly took many of her lessons to heart.
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