I’ve been keeping a close eye on New York City’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) program since Mayor Bill de Blasio first triumphantly announced his signature initiative in 2014.
I read every press release about what would happen… and compared it to what actually happened.
I explained why, despite posters insisting it was so, UPK was neither free, nor full day, nor high-quality.
I reported on public money being used to fund religious schools, and wondered how, with not enough space and qualified teachers for all of NYC’s 4 year olds, the Mayor intended to expand into 3K For All.
But the claim that bugged me most was the city’s insistence that all UPK programs are exactly the same. Because I work with hundreds of families every year to help them find the best fit schools for their children, I hear stories about all sorts of unacceptable UPK placements. An Upper West Side mother, Kathryn Tichy, was willing to go on the record about one of them, Finger Painted Hands, which the 2019 NYC Pre-K Admissions Guide lists as having two locations, on West 83rd and West 84th Street:
The operating program is housed at 84th Street, in a multi-purpose windowless room, in the basement of a church. The gym is bare and equipped with one, maybe two, deflated balls with no other materials for the children to play with. The children simply ran around in circles with little to no direction. The classroom had few educational materials.
Before, or I should say after, the 83rd Street location closed down, parents from both locations were called into a meeting on Friday, November 9, 2018. All of the parents were informed the 83rd Street location closed due to a leak. The parents of 83rd Street were made aware of the situation on Wednesday that same week but it was revealed that parents of the 84th Street location were not aware. The private program shut its doors but the Pre-K For All didn’t close. The director, Amanda Daluz, ultimately decided to place two classrooms side-by-side in a church basement. Imagine roughly 27 kidskids and 4 teachers in one windowless room under different instruction.
Before the November meeting, the parents of 84th Street were unaware that the other classroom was on-site. Amanda made no written or verbal notice to parents until later that week. What’s even more mind boggling is how the parents of 83rd Street were told to pick their child up at a new location one day- meaning someone gave the order to move these children without the parents knowing.
During the same meeting, Amanda informed the parents with children at the 84th Street location that the classroom may be shut down due to lack of funding. This set parents in a frenzy. The teachers in this particular classroom reassured parents by saying they would take it week by week, even if no paycheck was received. They did not want to give up on the children. Parents were outraged and filed complaints with the DOE and DOH and all these agencies have said is ‘we’re working on it.’
I called the Department of Education and Department of Health for other reasons as well. For example, the classroom is located within the church’s basement; in the morning hours, the door leading to the classroom was left completely open. Anyone from the street had access. Thankfully the door was locked periodically, after complaints were filed, but it was neither Amanda nor Scott Kelley’s, the other administrator’s, priority until this issue was brought to the DOE’s attention. I informed the DOH and was told directly how they would not step in until a child is left unattended- meaning they would step in once a child walks out of the classroom to the street. Clearly there is a fine line with the flow of operations and how situations like these are being regulated.
In January 2019, one teacher was fired, and specifically stated in a message “…it was premeditated and done vindictively because I did not support her [Amanda] when the DOE visited last week and recognized she has not purchased any materials for the classroom since September.”
Cleanliness was a big issue as well. My child arrived home with dirty clothes. There was significant dirt and dust on the play mats, and dirt on the floor. Parents have offered to clean, and there is one parent who cleaned the bathroom. Parents tried addressing this, but all that was said is how the classroom was clean and suitable.
This Pre-K had such a negative effect on my child and myself that I can’t sleep knowing other families may be subject to a place like this. My hope is that Upper West Side families become aware of this poorly maintained ‘school’ in order to make a sound decision in the future.
But it looks like that won’t be an issue any longer. A different parent, Tristin Wildstein, reports:
At 6PM on Wednesday, February 27, parents from the UPK Finger Painted Hands were called into school for an emergency meeting. We were told by Amanda Daluz, the school’s owner and director, that she’d decided to shutter the program and that the next day, Thursday, February 28, would be the final day of operation. Amanda notified the DOE and the 4 teachers she employed on the morning of February 28 that it was to be their final day. Parents were left scrambling to find placements for their children. The lucky few (I know of only 5 of 26 families) found spots in local UPK programs at PS 191 and PS 84. The others are still working on plans for their children. Many have their kids at work with them today. The DOE is out of nearby options, with the closest schools at this point being south of 57th Street or north of 125th Street. Several families who visited the DOE field offices yesterday were offered placements at DOE schools only to show up for registration to find that the spots did not, in fact, exist.
In November, parents had been called in for an emergency meeting wherein Amanda cried and told families that the DOE had not been paying her for their 84th Street contract and that the teachers for that class were working with no pay. Without other options, she would be forced to close the 84th Street class. Parents walked from that meeting straight to Helen Rosenthal’s office to demand the DOE pay our teachers. After that meeting, our teachers were paid, and the school continued to operate.
In January, out of the blue, we received an email in the middle of the day telling us that our child’s teacher was no longer employed by FPH. We learned that Amanda had fired our child’s lead teacher in the middle of nap time, telling her to pack up and leave before the children awoke; she was given no opportunity to say goodbye. Our kids were devastated, and so were we – the teachers were the only reason most of us remained committed to the school after so much administrative turmoil. We learned that the teacher who was fired had personal conflict with the other lead teacher, and since they were now sharing a space, they couldn’t manage to be professional in such close quarters. The teacher who remained employed by FPH is married to one of the school’s administrators, so of course she wasn’t the one fired. Parents were livid but given the late timing in the school year, we decided to keep our kids together and live with the change in staff.
Which brings us to this week. On Monday at 8:10 AM we were notified there would be an emergency meeting that same morning at drop-off, 10 minutes later. Obviously many parents could not attend this meeting. At this preliminary meeting Amanda told us that once again, FPH was out of money. Many of the parents have questioned where this money has gone. Nevertheless, we were told that our teachers were once again working without pay and that Amanda was unsure of how the program could continue. Not 72 hours later, Amanda announced her decision to close the school.
Queries to Finger Painted Hands and the Department of Education were going unanswered as of press time, though yet another parent told me, “A lady from the outreach team at DOE called but she’s just giving out names of schools to call.”
I have also written here and here about what might happen when the next Mayor, in order to fund his or her own pet legacy project, shrinks UPK due to its being over-budget… and the reasonably priced preschools middle-class families used to count on have been driven out of business. Finger Painted Hands is just one example of a private school that was unable to continue operating once it became part of the public system (especially the lower pay for teachers outside of public schools).
It’s hardly the first program to suddenly do this to families. I doubt it will be the last.