HARLEM — Not long after she was accepted into Columbia Business School in 2008, Denise Adusei found that she and her husband Jeff were expecting their first child.
When they went to find a suitable pre-k, though, they came up empty. Harlem has 25,000 children under age 5 years old and about 5,000 pre-k spots, Adusei found through her research. Many Harlem parents place their children in pre-school outside of the neighborhood.
"The only way we could stay in Harlem is if we found a suitable school for our kid," said Denise Adusei, who has two children.
That's when Adusei decided to use the skills she was learning at Columbia to develop her own pre-school. She came up with a business plan and won $125,000 in grants from the New York Public Library business plan competition and the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurial Initiative Fund at Columbia University.
With those votes of confidence under her belt, Adusei was able to secure a $150,000 low interest loan from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone and a $250,000 low interest loan from the New York Business Development Corporation.
"This was really about pulling all these different resources together from the community to build this much-needed school," Adusei said of her five-year journey.
Officials dropped by Monday to celebrate the opening of the progressive school.
"These kids are lucky kids," said Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel, who called early education one of the most important facets of "civilized society."
Kenneth Knuckles, president of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, said Adusei's venture was worthy of investment because she was tapping into an "unmet demand."
Located on West 112th Street near Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, the 6,000-square-foot space was the former home of a non-profit that shuttered. The school can hold between 75 and 150 children, depending on their hours of attendance.
Because of all the state regulations about where a pre-k can be located and Harlem's hyperactive real estate market, finding the space was one of the most difficult parts, Adusei said.
As much as possible from the old office space was repurposed for the new school, which also uses all eco-friendly projects.
Adusei decided to use local Harlem companies to supply what she needed. Everyone from the architect to the person who helped them comply with regulations to the Harlem mom who developed the logo to the cleaning company are from the neighborhood.
"It's local, so it wasn't hard for her to sell her dream with me," said Harlem architect Patrick Holder.
During one class, a teacher helped students to pretend that their colorful scarves were seeds that they would plant and then grow into colorful plants. The children, including Adusei's daughter, waved their scarves in the air as if they were flowers in the wind.
The school is private and meets a need for parents who don't qualify for free pre-k programs but can't afford the $30,000-plus tuition of other private schools. Parents can pay anywhere from $895 to $1,755 per month depending on how many days per week a child attends.
Adusei said she fought off people who suggested she could charge much more because of how Harlem is gentrifying and demand from Upper West Side parents.
"I want this to be a neighborhood school," said Adusei. "Kids should be able to play with their friends who live in their neighborhood."
Adusei is also hoping to grow her reserves to the point where she can offer scholarships to families in need.
"It's really about how to support our community," said Adusei. "It's important that we model that for our kids."