The half-century-old Red Balloon preschool officially closed doors this month after yearlong community pushback over Columbia University ending its no-cost lease.
But the Ivy League institution will keep the location rent-free for an early childhood learning center after a year of renovations. While it is unclear how much of Red Balloon’s identity will be retained by the new center, the university promises similarly affordable and culturally-competent childcare with comparable class sizes, operating times, staffing qualifications, and prices as the old preschool.
“Columbia recognizes that childcare and early education programs for young children are essential services for working parents and that children benefit from programs that offer a socioeconomic mix of children and staff, celebrate diversity, and build children’s pride in their families and cultural heritage,” wrote interim Provost Dennis Mitchell in a recent letter to Red Balloon parents. “To achieve these objectives, Columbia expects that a highly qualified, diverse staff will be recruited and retained, and that parents will be welcome observers and contributors to their child’s program.”
The memo was sent last month and expanded on an initial May announcement to keep a childcare center at Red Balloon’s current 560 Riverside Dr. location. Since then, Mitchell says the university provided financial support for Red Balloon parents to find childcare as the space is renovated.
This news comes as a satisfying conclusion for Red Balloon Parent Board President Annapurna Potluri Schreiber, one of the university’s fiercest critics following the preschool’s planned shuttering.
“I feel very happy with the outcome that we were able to come to a place with Colombia where they were able to recognize the special place that Red Balloon has played in the community for a long time of being an affordable option for working parents,” she said.
She adds that such a center is especially crucial for mothers who are otherwise expected to sacrifice their careers to serve as homemakers. Following what Potluri Schreiber called a “long and adversarial relationship” with the university, she says Red Balloon parents finally received a seat at the table to be heard. They will be meeting again this Friday, Sept. 22, according to Potluri Schreiber.
A Request for Expressions of Interest was issued in July by the university for a nonprofit provider delineating the need to serve up to 45 youngsters between the ages of 2-5.
But there remain glaring question marks, most notably with Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) vouchers, one of the key sources of financial support for parents who couldn’t afford the Red Balloon tuition in the past. While the university says the provider must be open to accepting the vouchers, there’s no direct promise or mandate for applicants.
And the jury is still out on whether this new proposed center recaptures the magic of Red Balloon, which was founded in 1972. The center boasts a diverse, progressive curriculum thanks to a majority staff of color. The closure was announced last fall and led to multiple protests—some as recent as this past spring.
For Potluri Schreiber, whose daughter will be moving on to public school, she’ll certainly miss the old place. But she’s optimistic about the news.
“An excellent preschool can do amazing things for your child socially, intellectually, emotionally,” said Potluri Schreiber. “It can be a really wonderful experience. And I think for 50 years Red Balloon provided an excellent experience. I’m excited to see the next incarnation.”
“[One thing that was] a really big victory: the space will once again be offered at no-cost to a nonprofit,” she added. “As a longtime parent at Red Balloon, I certainly have a fondness for that name, and I know that that name has a lot of history in the community and has name recognition…but ultimately, I feel like the name is less important than the idea that we have a preschool built around the same principles.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics and public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep them writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.