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Columbia Gives 50-Year-Old Preschool the Boot

“This is a return to the worst behavior of the university who thinks they don’t live with us, they live above us,” one local official charged as Columbia said it had given the school ample notice its time was up.

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The Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center

Stephon Patrice Pujols-Johnson/THE CITY

After 50 years, Columbia University is kicking out the Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center by next August, an action from the Ivy League school’s Office of Work/Life (OWL) that angry parents charge is aimed at replacing the preschool with 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 goes to Red Balloon. “We learned about this situation and we were very shocked about it.” 

Xiao, who’s married to a Columbia professor, said that Red Balloon was one of the only childcare operations affiliated with the university that cost less than $3,000 a month. 

“A community that has kept going despite struggles during the pandemic should be treated with grace and support, not destroyed, as the OWL wants to do to Red Balloon,” Parent Board President Annapurna Potluri Schreiber told THE CITY. 

But a Columbia spokesperson, who declined to be named, said that Red Balloon’s leaders knew their lease was up this August, and that university officials have given them ample time to figure things out by extending the lease to August 2023. 

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

The news that Columbia was cutting ties with Red Balloon, one of nine child care operations affiliated with the University, was first reported by the Columbia Daily Spectator. 

Students sit on the steps of Columbia University’s 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 gave to a group of parents who eventually founded the non-profit operation, Red Balloon is located, is open year-round from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and offers financial aid to parents and accepts ACS vouchers for those who can’t 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’ 

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

 “When I started this job 20 years ago, there was some entity within Colombia that felt that they wanted to communicate with elected officials. Likely that is no longer the case,” Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell (D-Upper West Side) told THE CITY. Bollinger “never ever communicates with me,” O’Donnell said. 

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

Emily Bloom, a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence whose four-year-old graduated from Red Balloon in 2021, said that in the neighborhood, “there’s a lot of growth and development,  Columbia-branded buildings. There’s a real strong need to counterbalance that growth and development with community-facing services. And daycare is probably one of the most valuable community-facing services that an institution of higher education can provide.” 

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

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

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

“Norma Brockman was Red Balloon’s director for over 30 years and retired in 2019,” Potluri Schreiber said. “During her tenure, the OWL several times made allusions to their desire to close the school, something you can confirm with my Parent Board president predecessor, Kenneth Morgan. So this closure has long been a plan of the OWL.”

When THE CITY asked Morgan for that confirmation, he responded with an emphatic “Yes!”

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