By Conor Greene
Parents are upset about the city Parks Department’s sudden decision to eliminate its five playschool programs in Queens with little warning, including one based in Dry Harbor Playground for nearly four decades.
According to Charles Suffel, whose daughter attends the Glendale-based pre-kindergarten program, the city did not provide any advance notice that the program is in its last year. He only found out by making numerous phone calls to the department after becoming concerned when no registration date was set for next year’s enrollment.
While the city is blaming budget cuts, Suffel isn’t convinced that is the main reason behind the decision, considering parents pay $1,300 for their child to attend the program four days a week, and have offered to pay more if needed. “It’s a wonderful program that is academic-based, and the kids love it,” he told The Forum. “I called Parks, got bounced around, and finally got an unnamed person who tells me the program is cancelled.”
Suffel, whose daughter was to attend the school next year as a four-year-old, says it was only through that phone call that parents and teacher Roberta Maureau found out the program is slated to be cut after June. After contacting Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) and state Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), Suffel is convinced that the true reason behind the deci- sion is that Parks wants out of the education business.
“We looked into having another department take it over, but nobody wants to touch it, and now they’re stalling Elizabeth Crowley” said Suffel. “I really feel that they know if they wait long enough, we’ll have to enroll our children elsewhere.” Despite offers to pay up to $2,000 per student, Parks hasn’t even agreed to sit down with the officials and parents to try to reach an agreement to keep the valued neighborhood program open.
It is the lack of information, and Parks’ refusal to discuss the matter, that has parents upset, added Suffel. “We weren’t notified about any of this and ended up scrambling to get on the waiting list” for the universal pre-kindergarten program. “We’re not getting any information back, and the elected officials aren’t getting any calls back. It’s on purpose, because if they told us we would have had time to fight it.”
In a statement, Parks pinned the decision solely on the need for budget cuts. “Because of the financial crisis, every agency has to make budget cuts, and one of the steps Parks has put into place is the closing of programs where equal or better options are available... With the rise of universal preschool, we felt this phase out is a responsible and necessary cost-savings measure for New Yorkers as we all try to do more with less.”
The five playschools in Queens, which offer morning and evening two-hour sessions for three-and-four-year-olds, are attended by 75 children, according to Parks. The five full- time playschool staff members will be reassigned to Parks recreation centers. The department didn’t respond to claims that the decision isn’t financially driven or say how much will be saved by eliminating the five playschools.
Crowley has been on the phone with Parks officials on a nearly daily basis since word spread of the decision, trying to come up with ways to keep the program open, according to her spokeswoman. An effort to find a new provider, such as the Greater Ridgewood Youth Center, ultimately proved unsuccessful due to too many hurdles.
Parks wouldn’t consider turning the program into a parent’s co-op, so Crowley is pushing to keep the program open for at least one more year. “We need to find an alternative agency to take over the operation of the school, and I will continue to do everything I can to keep this school open for our kids,” said Crowley in a statement.
Addabbo said he is also still fighting to keep the program running, but realizes the parents need to know one way or the other soon. “I’m working on keeping those parents with a viable option for their children,” said Addabbo. “We’re trying to arrange a meeting, so the door isn’t shut yet, but it’s closing quickly because parents have to make other arrangements for their children, and we don’t want these parents shut out.”
According to Suffel, the community is in danger of losing one of the programs that makes the neighborhood a great place for families. “It’s a real shame. A middle class, well-kept neighborhood is losing a program, and we’re willing to pay for it” he said, adding that the program is great because of Maureau. “She is a great teacher... I felt horrible because I had to tell her the program was cancelled – they never notified her.”
Addabbo agrees that the program is clearly of value to the neighborhood. “Parents have told me how well it’s run and the service it provides to the working parents of the area,” he said. “Preschools are certainly needed throughout our communities, and the thought of closing any is of concern to me.”
No matter what Parks says, Suffel isn’t buying Parks’ claims that the decision is strictly financial. “It’s not a budget situation, and if it was, offer us the chance to make up the shortfall, and don’t change the story every time. We’ve requested meetings with Commissioner [Adrian] Benepe but don’t get anything. They just don’t want to hear it.”