School puzzles over threat of closure

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Looking at the Amalgamated Nursery School, which has been educating the youngest residents of the Amalgamated and Park Reservoir co-ops for 83 years, one might never know the anxiety that loomed over its director Lisa Wenz just one week ago.

Wenz has worked at the school for 27 years, first as a substitute, then a full-time teacher and finally as the program coordinator of one of the oldest Universal Pre-K programs in the area.

It came as pure shock to Wenz, she said, when she received an email from the Education Department—just one day before the start of winter recess on Dec. 22—informing her that the city would not renew its contract with the school.  

“I am really at a loss to tell you why,” Wenz told the Press on Jan. 4. “We have consistently filled everyone of our seats with a waiting list, every year. I think it was 2008, the DOE called us—this is before Mayor [Bill] de Blasio’s initiative—we were given full day back then. We have had full-day pre-K for a long time.”

The vaguely worded letter from the Education Department seemed to indicate, Wenz said, that there were too many Universal Pre-K, or UPK, programs in Van Cortlandt Village to justify a renewal of her school’s contract with the city.

“Proposed location did not meet the demand threshold based on the most up-to-date data, which we consider when making our decision,” the letter read. No further reasoning or information was provided, just a list of options to receive more information on the decision. 

But no information seemed forthcoming, while questions abound. 

“I think what it comes down to is that there are too many seats already in this area,” Wenz said. “We have been doing [universal] pre-K since 2000—so, a long time. Many other sites have opened up since then, so for us to kind of take the hit, that concerns us a great deal.”

Wenz and the Amalgamated Housing Corporation set out to contact the Education Department and enlist the help of elected officials in an attempt to save the program.

“I know how important it is to the community—I mean, it’s been serving for decades as an early learning resource,” Councilman Andrew Cohen said. 

He said the situation was urgent enough for him to call de Blasio’s office directly to clear up the issue.

“When things reach that ‘DEFCON 5’ kind of level, I call City Hall, and so this seemed like a City Hall call-worthy endeavor and they were responsive so I’m thrilled,” he said. He used a military term for various levels or alert, or defense readiness condition—DEFCON.

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who also contacted the Education Department in support of the Amalgamated, said he requested data so his office could see if there was demand, or lack thereof, for pre-K seats, which the department declined to forward.

Following the efforts of both politicians, the Education Department extended its contract with the Amalgamated for another year, but gave no reason as to why it had initially to provide financial support.

“The fact that the DOE has built additional UPK seats in the immediate neighborhood suggests to me to me that there is a demand, because if there wasn’t a demand, then it would suggest something else, which is kind of not so good,” Dinowitz told The Press on Jan. 6.

Ten years ago, Van Cortlandt Village had a large population of seniors but today the area has more young children, and demand for seats will increase, he added.

The Education Department declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind its funding decisions and on whether or not the Van Cortlandt Village neighborhood may indeed have too many pre-K seats already available. 

“Our pre-K planning and contracting processes are focused on continuing to meet demand for free, full-day, high-quality seats across the city,” a spokesperson said in an email to The Press. 

The “Amalgamated’s current contract had an option for a one-year extension, and in accordance with regular contracting process, we granted that extension,” the official said. 

The school may apply for future funding and the Education Department would “evaluate each proposal individually based on a number of factors, including program quality and the most up-to-date demand information available,” the email said.

The Amalgamated Nursery School first started offering UPK in 2000, along with programs for 2- and 3-year-olds. Other programs have opened in the community since then, and in September, the Education Department opened a new pre-K center on Sedgwick Avenue in the Shalom Aleichem Houses.

“There might need to be at some point a conversation, a bigger conversation about distribution of UPK seats in Van Cortlandt Village area, in Kingsbridge Heights, you know, but I think that is an issue,” Cohen said. “You have the Amalgamated Nursery School, you have Mosholu Montefiore over at the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center and you possibly have UPK coming to Ampark. So, I think I think that that’s of concern, but I don’t think just closing the Amalgamated Nursery School is the way that we want to resolve that.”

Dinowitz echoed that concern, noting the Amalgamated, and perhaps local elected officials, might again have to fight for the school a year from now.  

“I would say all’s well that ends well, except I know we are going to have to still have discussion on this to make sure that the program continues beyond the one year they were given,” Dinowitz said.

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