Why Is Columbia Kicking Out a Beloved Preschool?

On a recent morning at the Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center, in Harlem, a small group of four-year-olds sat crisscross applesauce on the rug of the Orange Room, hunched over whiteboards. Their teacher was coaxing them to trace the letter “A.” “No, I’m done,” a boy in a turtleneck and sweats calmly announced, putting

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On a recent morning at the Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center, in Harlem, a small group of four-year-olds sat crisscross applesauce on the rug of the Orange Room, hunched over whiteboards. Their teacher was coaxing them to trace the letter “A.” “No, I’m done,” a boy in a turtleneck and sweats calmly announced, putting down his dry-erase marker. He immediately reconsidered his position. “After this, I’m done,” he said, picking up his marker again. The class’s music teacher was about to arrive, with kid-size drums in tow. Staying put on the rug, the children banged out some beats and reviewed the concepts of forte and piano. (Today, the classroom mood was forte.) When another boy’s attention drifted, Denise Fairman, who started as the Red Balloon’s director in June, joined the children on the rug, where she gathered the dreamy boy onto her lap and gently guided his hand on the mallet, bomp bomp bomp.

For a half century, the Red Balloon has operated out of a-thousand-plus square feet on the lower level of 56src Riverside Drive, a Columbia University-owned residential building near the northern tip of Riverside Park. Despite the subterranean location, the space feels bright and airy, primary-colorful, and includes an indoor playground and a small library lined with a grass-green shag rug. In terms of both services and costs, the Red Balloon—which currently enrolls about twenty-five kids, ages two to five—is a rare find among Manhattan preschools. It is open from 8 A.M. until 6 P.M., five days a week, year-round. It serves breakfast, lunch, and snacks prepared in its on-site kitchen. It is the only Columbia-affiliated child-care center that accepts tuition vouchers from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (A.C.S.), which assists families in need. About sixty per cent of the students are children of color. Tuition is twenty-five hundred dollars per month; as a point of comparison, a few blocks south, the Weekday School, which is run out of the Riverside Church, charges as much as thirty-seven hundred dollars per month from September to June.

The Red Balloon is able to welcome a socioeconomically diverse community of students in large part because it doesn’t pay monthly rent. Since the center’s launch, in 1972, Columbia has provided the space for an annual one-dollar lease. But, just before the start of this school year, Columbia sent a certified letter to Fairman stating that it would not renew its lease after August, 2src23. Columbia had previously told the Red Balloon, in July, 2src21, that it would terminate its lease within months, but the university reconsidered and extended its lease when the school agreed to a corrective action plan; among the plan’s requirements were that the school increase its enrollment numbers and—owing to high staff turnover—maintain consistent leadership. Still, the letter came as a shock to Fairman and the Red Balloon parent community, because the school’s leadership at the time of the earlier notice of closure had never informed them about it. In November, Fairman, the parent board, and representatives from the local Community Board 9 had a conference call with various Columbia officials; on that call, according to attendees of the meeting, a Columbia representative stated that the university’s concerns about the school owed to “gaps in leadership” and issues with the school’s “governance.” Two Columbia representatives on the call, Dennis Mitchell, of the provost’s office, and Amy Rabinowitz, of the Office of Work/Life, did not agree to speak with me on the record.

“For us, this is about providing quality childcare for the Columbia University community and our neighbors,” Samantha Slater, a Columbia spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail statement. “We have had concerns about Red Balloon spanning several years that include a lack of consistent communications, effective management, and steady leadership. Paired with persistent under enrollment, we have lost confidence in Red Balloon’s ability to provide the safe, stable childcare our community deserves moving forward.” Slater went on to say that Columbia planned to renovate the space for a new nonprofit child-care center and that Columbia would help all currently enrolled Red Balloon families find new placements.

The Red Balloon sits near the southern edge of Columbia’s decades-in-the-making Manhattanville campus, which will cost a total of six and a half billion dollars and spread over seventeen acres (and which involved controversial, though court-approved, deployment of eminent domain). It is a heady moment for Columbia—which just announced a new incoming president, Nemat Shafik, the current president of the London School of Economics and former deputy governor of the Bank of England—and for the Manhattanville project, with the recent completion of two new business-school buildings that sit just blocks from the Red Balloon: one named for the entertainment titan David Geffen, the other for Henry R. Kravis, the co-founder of the private equity firm K.K.R.

The effective shutdown of the Red Balloon also comes at a crisis moment for child care, locally and nationally. New York City is in better shape than much of the rest of the country, owing to its universal Pre-K program, established under Mayor Bill de Blasio. But de Blasio’s successor, Eric Adams, has pressed Pause on the rollout of universal 3-K, and half of New York City, including Harlem, is categorized by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services as a “child care desert,” meaning that there are three kids under the age of five for every open child-care slot. (In July, Governor Kathy Hochul said that some sixty-eight million dollars in new funding would go toward the state’s child-care deserts.) Sixty-five per cent of child-care workers in New York State—who are overwhelmingly women, and predominantly women of color—are eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, or other public benefits, according to a 2src21 report by a state task force. Another study found that, for a single adult with one child, the median wage for a child-care worker did not meet the living wage in any state. The extremely low wages contribute to the industry’s extremely high rates of turnover. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that nearly a hundred thousand child-care workers have left the profession since the beginning of the pandemic. And there is no market-based solution or flash of business genius that can solve the wage conundrum. Child-care centers have fixed costs—strictly regulated facilities, a high ratio of adult caregivers to children—and raising teachers’ pay means raising tuition fees, which are already unaffordable for most New York City families.

The parents at Red Balloon are a tight-knit group. They all had babies or toddlers during the earliest lockdown days of the pandemic, which intensified what can be a lonely or overwhelming time even under optimal circumstances. Some of them lost jobs, leading to financial strain; many of them struggled to find reliable, reasonably priced child care. Several current parents told me that their families found friendship, solace, and joy in the Red Balloon community after so many months of isolation. The imminent closure of Red Balloon “is enraging to me as a mom,” Annapurna Potluri Schreiber, the president of the parent board, said. “There is such a sense of grief and loss about it.”

Another Red Balloon parent, Amy Crawford, began looking for child care for her two-year-old last spring, when day cares and preschools were still conducting tours remotely. She attended many Zooms. “Red Balloon stood out in terms of parent testimonials—there were a bunch of parents on that call, and to hear that level of passion was incredible,” she said.

“What Columbia is implying by picking on this particular place is that these kids are not important,” Crawford went on. “If they had actually talked to the parents at Red Balloon before they made this decision, or if they had a greater connection to what was happening, they would understand. There are decades of committed families that continue to talk about the experience they had there.”

The origins of the Red Balloon date back to April, 1968. Student protesters, galvanized by Columbia’s plans to build a private gymnasium for students in Morningside Park and by revelations about the university’s ties to a think tank that supported the war in Vietnam, occupied multiple university buildings—and briefly barricaded the acting dean in his office—in a weeklong standoff, before they were violently forced out by the New York Police Department. In the years following the uprising, “the university was very sensitive to its relations with students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community,” Augusta Kappner, a past president of the progressive Bank Street College of Education and an early Red Balloon parent, said. “The university was really working to change the image of itself that emerged from 1968, and to make that process of change inclusive.”

In this atmosphere of reckoning, Columbia’s new president, William McGill, announced the formation of a new laboratory for community programming, to be run out of the School of Social Work. One of the lab’s directives was to address the child-care needs of the Columbia and Harlem communities. “It was a moment when people had a national vision of what was possible,” Kappner said. “You had the War on Poverty and a movement to make quality child care available to all people. You had the feminist movement and more women entering the workforce. There was pressure from many sides and a growing awareness that child care was not just an individual good.”

The lab’s day-care initiative was launched in November, 1971; the following month, the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, which would have established a federal day-care system, easily passed the House and Senate, only to be vetoed by President Richard Nixon. President Biden’s original Build Back Better plan would have provided federal subsidies to raise child-care workers’ wages and lower day-care costs for most families, but Senate Republicans and Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, squashed the measure. In fifty years, “the shortage of options, the high cost, how precarious child care is, how hard it is to stay in business—none of this has changed,” Nancy Kolben, who helped lead what became the Columbia University Day Care Project, in the early nineteen-seventies, said.

The Red Balloon, one of the fruits of the community-programming lab, opened in February, 1972, with some technical support from Teachers College, in a building supported by the state’s Dormitory Authority, the purpose of which is to “serve the public good.” The school stressed social development over individual or academic development. “There was a feeling among the parents that there would be plenty of time in the future for the kids to deal with workbooks, and what was important here was that they learn to get along with people, value friendship, how to share, how to enjoy things together with other people,” Kappner said. “The kids were learning letters and math, but not in any rote way that would have resembled school for Richard Nixon.”

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