The year was 1976. Gerald Ford was President. Abe Beame was mayor of New York. The pop chart was packed with hits from the Bay City Rollers, Barry Manilow, Diana Ross and Paul Simon (extra points to those of you who can guess the song titles popular that year). Taxi Driver, Carrie and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest hit the theaters. And the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery (RIDN) was started by a group of Island parents seeking quality, community-based, early education, for their two-, three- and four-year olds.
Karen Mann, who moved here in 1977 with two children, aged three years and four months, recalls, “I was told that the preschool here was a disaster. It had just started maybe a year before as the community came to be. So I looked over the Tram. There were a lot of schools and some had great credentials, and I hated every single one of them. They were too rigid and too sterile.”
She opted to focus her attention here. “I decided what I was going to do was get on the board and find a great teacher. This was in January of 1978. We put an ad in The New York Times to find someone who could head the school. We got about seven responses. I do write a good ad. The minute I met Sara [Sara Seiden, Director 1979-2005] I knew instantly; I just knew that that’s the person I wanted to run the school. We interviewed a lot of very nice, acceptable people. But Sara was the smartest and the most capable. Under her leadership, the school was fantastic. I wanted someone who had a vision. I wanted someone who agreed with my philosophy that you learn through play. Her philosophy was my philosophy. That’s how everybody makes decisions and then they cross their fingers but I never had to cross my fingers with Sara. It was fate. Her vision was our vision, it was perfect.”
Seiden says, “It was a wonderful hiring process. They wanted to find the right person who was going to create the preschool they wanted. I stayed for 26 years. It was a good fit.” Karen Mann explains, “Sara had the vision and we had the opportunity.”
Seiden says, “It was just the right moment for the Island and just the right moment for me.”
As much as finding Sara Seiden saved the fledgling school, the years were not without struggle, upheaval and challenge.
Politics and Pataki
The original site of the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery was 545 Main Street. According to Seiden, “The architects built this beautiful space with big classrooms.True to date, when the builders built the first buildings, in terms of how they got permission, they had to create certain things in a community. One of those things was space for preschool or early childhood education.”
The 545 Main Street facility was occupied for 26 years, from 1976 to 2002. Although the space was given to Island parents by the Urban Development Corporation, the State agency that developed the Island, there was never a formal lease. Over the years, the owners of Island House, through the Roosevelt Island Housing Management Corporation, approached the RIDN to “regularize” the relationship which meant that they were looking to collect rent and/or payment of utility bills.
When conflict with the owners over electricity charges escalated during the 2000-01 school year, the housing company refused to do even basic repairs. During the summer of 2001, while the building was unoccupied, a very serious flood caused by a backup of the uncleaned drain at the lower entry door severely damaged the carpeting which had to be removed. The floor had to be disinfected due to mildew. Despite the school’s best efforts, the Island House owners refused to back down in their demands for payment, and RIOC was unwilling to intervene. Seiden recalls, “We decided that if RIOC would not protect the future day-care needs of the community, we could not continue this fight on our own.”
So, the school had to leave its original site. “Every time the Island went through its political changes and upheavals, you’d either have support from RIOC or you didn’t,” muses Seiden. “All of those Pataki years, we got little support. Even in the ground lease, it said pre-school was supposed to be provided, and they’re not providing it,” Seiden says.
The school acquired its present River Road space in 1989. As with the previous developments on the Island, the builders of Manhattan Park were required to create a space for a preschool facility, but not required to open one. They invited RIDN to provide services in this space.
To be consistent with the school’s mission, Seiden was intent that children from every building on the Island could attend the school, even from the newly constructed 4 River Road, home to RIDN and, incidentally, an exclusively lower-income building.
She says, “At that point, we went to the Assistant Commissioner of the New York City Agency for Child Development [of the Administration for Children’s Services] and I made the case that we needed City funding to support the families that were coming to the Island [in] Section 8 housing. You can’t have families move in with a school in their building that they can’t go to. Yet, the school couldn’t afford to offer scholarships to all of these kids. We went and got the vouchers. We had the maximum of 20 vouchers per year and we didn’t have to turn anyone away.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t last forever. Ultimately, the city money dried up and the vouchers could only be used for children with special needs and foster kids. So we would then give full scholarships to a couple of kids and it was first come first served.”
The school’s experience with Universal Pre-Kindergarten [UPK] is similar. Luckily, for parents who have growing preschoolers, it looks like the school will be offering it next September once again.
Seiden says, “What we saw this last year was a tremendously unmet need on the Island.”
“Not getting into your local pre-school is a bigger deal when you live on an Island,” says current director Pamela Stark, “If you don’t get a spot [on the Island] it’s a hardship for families to take a Tram, subway, or bus in inclement weather. Some families have younger kids or other kids to drop off elsewhere, so having more spots locally is very important.”
Seiden used a similar rationale when RIDN initially won UPK funding, “We are an isolated community in the middle of the East River and if families want these services, they need to travel to either Queens or Manhattan. Without this service, our population is underserved.” But RIDN couldn’t sustain the program, again because of politics. “We had it when it was half day when it was more common for private schools to have it.”
“Part of our mission as a not-for-profit is to serve the needs of our community and it is really clear there is a big demand for it,” says Stark.
Stark was told by the New York City Department of Education [DOE] that they weren’t able to place 50 families in UPK on the Island last year. Stark has 26 children currently enrolled at RIDN who will be age-eligible for the program next year. To that end she has been working with the DOE and Council Member Ben Kallos to secure spots at RIDN. The school is holding upcoming open houses for other Island families who would also be interested in this UPK option.
“[The process of becoming certified] should be pretty smooth but I can’t say we’ve got it until we get it,” Stark lists. “We have the space, we already have done it in the past. One of our teachers, Jessica, has a lot of experience with it. We’ve got a lot of the things set already: the facility license, credentials for director, and teachers.”
One of Assistant Director Tamara Troadec’s functions is to oversee staff development for the school. She explains,”Teachers are doing a lot of emergent curriculum as a driving force.”
An emergent curriculum constantly evolves in response to children’s changing needs and interests, parental and community interests and concerns, and teachers’ priorities. Each of these key elements shapes the direction for future learning.
The way emergent curriculum manifests, says Troadec, is in, “actively observing children, paying attention to their thinking, not jumping in to fix things, allowing the children’s interests to help guide the curriculum, and help the teachers make choices that will be the most meaningful in terms of the best timing to go for a project.”
Troadec explains that a goal of hers and the school’s is, “to figure out a program more based on what you observe the children are interested in, where they are developmentally, and how best to support them.”
This genesis of use of this philosophy at RIDN was in the school’s Extended Day Program (EDP), River Road’s after-school program. “The teachers in the Extended Day Program have a little more freedom to be more experimental in terms of how much choice time they offer,” Troadec says. In this way, the EDP sometimes serves as a lab.
But it’s more than that. The school is always evolving and the teachers, even the most senior and educated, are interested in learning fresh perspectives. Troadec says the attitude among teachers is not, “ ‘But we always do it this way.’ They believe in trying new approaches.”
EDP is also unique in that it serves mixed ages. Troadec says mixed-age groups are good for all ages involved. She says, “The younger ones benefit by hearing complex language, observing complex problem-solving skills, and seeing older children exercise executive function skills like impulse control and being focused longer. For the older children it’s very exciting to be in a position where they can share and teach. Research also shows that peer teaching, direct or by modeling, is the most effective learning situation for younger children.”
“In that way EDP is very exciting,” Tamara says, “Pam [RIDN Director Pamela Stark] and I have discussed exploring it further. There is tremendous value in mixed-age groups and many schools around the world do it.”
A Look Ahead
One of Stark’s goals for her tenure as director is to see the school receive the renown on the Island that it already gets in early childhood professional circles.
She says, “Before coming here full-time, I worked at a lot of different preschools in Manhattan, as consultant, social worker and special educator. What struck me about [RIDN] is that it was a very special gem that doesn’t have the same renown as a lot of other places with similar quality. We have student teachers from City College and Bank Street [College of Education], we have professional visits; one of the Assistant Directors from Rockefeller came to do a tour. Bank Street holds a big early childhood education conference every June that people travel to from all over the country for which we were featured as one of a handful of model programs to visit, which is a very big deal.”
Seiden echos Stark’s point, “You’re not going to find a better infant-toddler center anywhere in the city. It’s really a model for what infant-toddler programs should be. Bank Street’s Infancy Institute put our program on their visiting list the last couple of years. When people come from all over the country to attend the Institute, one of the programs they see is ours.”
But, Seiden says, “There were, and still are today, a lot of [Island] parents who just think, ‘This was the neighborhood school, kids seemed happy.’” She clarifies, “It’s more than that.”
Stark sums up, “My goal is to increase the knowledge in the community about what a wonderful resource the school is, because professionally, the school is very well known and well regarded.”
No matter how the school has changed in 40 years, according to Stark, the changes have just been on the outside, “The idea has always been to keep the core quality and identity while still being flexible and adaptive.”
Stark recounted a recent Board presentation featuring school photos dating back to the 1970s and 1980s that showcased the same staff and student diversity the school boasts today. Stark says the professionalism and quality of the teachers has always been consistent.
Parent, alumna, and current board member Sarah Lenzi attests to the strength of the core. “I moved back here when [my oldest son] Ethan was turning two and I wanted him to attend RIDN. Even more than wanting him to have the great memories I have, I wanted him to be in a place where the people taking care of him are dedicated, educated, and stay. The turnover rate for teachers at RIDN is low. The teachers are Master’s level-educated. They are committed to early childhood education, not just early childhood care. That doesn’t mean workbooks and worksheets and sitting still. It means carefully curated options and opportunities to learn through play, even for the youngest children.”
Lenzi has children at both school sites. She opted to have her twin sons in infant care at RIDN’s Riverwalk site that Seiden came out of retirement to facilitate five years ago. Seiden says, “The builders, to their credit, David Kramer and Hudson/Related, were very generous. What they were buying was what they got, the highest quality program that would attract tenants. They wanted to serve the younger cohort, infants and young toddlers, which wasn’t being served.”
Regarding whether to expand to infant care, Seiden says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe [whether a parent should be at home with their infant]. The bottom line is that some babies will be in care. For whatever reasons, family reasons, if a baby is going to be put in care, it should be the very best care.”
In deciding to go the school route instead of opting for a nanny to care for her twins, Lenzi explains, “A few factors sway, for me, in favor of a school setting. First, the twins have access to an endless round of educational toys, rather than strictly commercial ones like we have in our house. The teachers know the developmental stages of young children, and know when to bring out which objects and manipulatives to help them develop their burgeoning skills. I know that there will be no screen time. I know that they will be brought to nap twice a day. I know that they will be taken outside whenever possible, even if the teacher is feeling a bit lazy. I know they will have the undivided attention of the people taking care of them. I know they will learn to be comfortable with many adults and many children. I know they won’t be hit or otherwise abused. I know all of these things because there are checks and balances in an environment where more than one adult is taking care of my children. I know that the school [teachers and administrators] will listen to me, and my needs for my children, and will also advise me in areas I want to know more about. I know they will be honest if there is cause for concern. They will see things I might not. I feel incredibly safe and so lucky to have my children being taken care of at RIDN.”
According to Seiden, “In my understanding, in about 1976, a group of parents started a preschool in an apartment. They had all the good will in the world and they really wanted a community school” because “the original settlers were building a community.” Seiden recalls, “What attracted me was that we were all pioneers.”
Lenzi says, “We are lucky to live in this naturally boundaried place for many reasons, but one I have come to be especially grateful for is the freedom, the sense of agency and ownership and community. RIDN cultivates that Roosevelt Island sense of belonging and community in the children.”
Seiden was hired as director by Karen Mann, then chair of the hiring committee. Seiden says, “The way that it was told to me, I was the fourth director in as many years.”
Of the parents’ goal for the school Seiden explains, “They wanted a school to reflect their philosophy; to be more open, more nurturing, with a high quality education to prepare their children. It had to be rigorous but in a developmentally appropriate way.”
Nellie Finnegan, who was involved in RIDN from 1979 to 1985 as a board member for two years and chairperson of the board for another two years, remembers Seiden’s vision and commitment, “Sara was the guiding force behind all of the early childhood curriculum, and management and hiring of the professional and administrative staff. She also brought great wisdom and experience in helping to advise young parents on early childhood issues. Parents and children alike all benefitted from her kind, knowledgeable and clear direction.”
Mann concurs, “We had lived in Greenwich Village and David had gone to this amazing preschool. It was at the bottom of a church and it had nothing but two brilliant teachers. It wasn’t your classic preschool. So of course when I came uptown, I wanted to find a school that I thought I understood. I’ve never been educated in teaching but I think I am instinctively pretty smart when it comes to stuff like that.”
Lenzi wants RIDN to last forever. “I want, for all our sake, for the Island to maintain its small-town community feel. And RIDN has always been Roosevelt Island’s community school.”