Columbia gives the boot to a 50-year-old red-balloon kindergarten

After 50 years, Columbia University is launching the Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center by next August, an action by the Office of Work/Life (OWL) at the Ivy League school that angry parents accuse of replacing kindergarten by a more profitable operation.

“My daughter is super happy there every day and everyone is super nice and warm,” said Rui Xiao, whose two-year-old daughter Sophia attends Red Balloon. “We learned about this situation and we were very shocked by it.”

Xiao, who is married to a Columbia professor, said Red Balloon was one of the only university-affiliated child care centers that cost less than $3,000 a month.

“A community that has continued despite struggles during the pandemic must be treated with grace and support, not destroyed, as the OWL wants to do for Red Balloon,” Parent Council Chairperson Annapurna Potluri Schreiber told THE CITY.

But a Columbia spokesman, who declined to be named, said Red Balloon executives knew their lease was ending in August and university officials had given them enough time to figure things out. by extending the lease until August 2023.

“Last year, we made the difficult decision to inform the Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center that we would not be able to maintain its status as a Columbia-affiliated early learning center or continue to offer our space to the center after August 2022,” the spokesperson said, adding that university-affiliated early learning centers, which are independently owned and operated, “must maintain consistent leadership and adhere to other standards established by Columbia. “.

News that Columbia was severing ties with Red Balloon, one of nine University-affiliated childcare operations, was the first reported by the Columbia Daily Spectator.

Students sit on the steps of the Columbia University Low Memorial Library building.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Founded in 1972, in a space at 560 Riverside Drive just south of 125th Street that Columbia donated to a group of parents who eventually founded the nonprofit operation, Red Balloon is located, is open year-round 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and offers financial assistance to parents and accepts ACS vouchers for those who cannot afford the $2,500 monthly tuition. It has a diverse school staff (77% Black, Latinx, or Asian) and student body (59% Black, Latinx, or Asian).

“They live above us”

A local official called the move emblematic of the school’s high-handed approach under Columbia University president Lee Bollinger.

“When I started this work 20 years ago, there was an entity in Colombia that felt it wanted to communicate with elected officials. That’s probably not the case anymore,” the Assemblyman said. Daniel O’Donnell (D-Upper West Side) at THE CITY Bollinger “never communicates with me,” O’Donnell said.

“It seems like if you’re providing a pre-K to your employees and affiliates, and it’s a bunch of economically and racially diverse kids, you should bend over backwards to try and help them,” said said O’Donnell. “For those of us who have lived here a long time, this is not new behavior. It’s a throwback to the worst behavior of the university thinking they don’t live with us, they live above us.

Emily Bloom, literature professor at Sarah Lawrence whose four-year-old daughter graduated from Red Balloon in 2021, said that in the neighborhood, “there is a lot of growth and development, Columbia-branded buildings. There is a real need to balance this growth and development with community-oriented services. And daycare is probably one of the most valuable community services a college can provide. »

A Columbia spokesperson said, “This decision was based on our expectations for Columbia-affiliated early learning centers and came after years of working with the center. To give families enough time to find alternative care for the next academic year, we informed Red Balloon this summer that we are extending their lease and membership until August 2023.”

But Potluri Schreiber told THE CITY that despite the university’s claims, the learning center had heard little from Columbia representatives.

“They haven’t spoken, met or even emailed Dr. Denise Fairman, the new director of Red Balloon,” Potluri Schreiber told THE CITY on Wednesday. “In fact, the only acknowledgment she has received is a certified letter sent to her a week before the opening of the 2022-2023 school year stating that they were closing the school. If they are concerned about the leadership of the school, it is curious why they have treated our former and current principals with hostility.

On Friday, after THE CITY asked Columbia about Potluri Schreiber’s claim, the university reached out to schedule a meeting with Fairman and the chairman of the board.

“Norma Brockman was a director of Red Balloon for over 30 years and retired in 2019,” Potluri Schreiber said. “During his tenure, the OWL repeatedly hinted at his desire to close the school, which you can confirm with my predecessor, Parent Council Chairman Kenneth Morgan. So this closure has long been a plan of the OWL.

When THE CITY asked Morgan for this confirmation, he replied with a “Yes!”