Longtime Provider of ESL Classes to Immigrants May Shut Over Funding Cuts

By James Fanelli on March 6, 2014 6:52am 

 The Riverside Language Program has been providing free English classes to immigrants and refugees since 1979. It is currently in a budget bind after the state Education Department drastically scaled back its funding.
The Riverside Language Program has been providing free English classes to immigrants and refugees since 1979. It is currently in a budget bind after the state Education Department drastically scaled back its funding.
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Facebook/Riverside Language Program

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — A cash-strapped nonprofit that has provided free English classes to thousands of immigrants and refugees during the past 34 years will likely close by September if it doesn’t get emergency funding, DNAinfo New York has learned.

The Riverside Language Program, a Morningside Heights charity that has been hailed by the city and the state as a model for adult education, revealed last week in a court filing that government-funding cuts and rising rent and cost-of-living expenses have decimated its budget.

For decades the program relied on contracts with the New York Public Library and the state Education Department to fund 90 percent of its operating budget.

But in August 2012 the NYPL decided not to renew a $400,000 annual contract with Riverside to provide ESL classes.

In July 2013 Riverside Language suffered another devastating blow — this time from the state. In the previous five years, the Education Department had given the program $1.015 million annually to provide classes. But when Riverside reapplied for another five-year contract, the state reduced the award to $400,000 annually.

Under the new constraints, Riverside Language began its new fiscal year in September with program funding that was only 37.5 percent of its previous year’s funding level.

Phyllis Berman, one of Riverside Language’s founders, declined to discuss the program’s fiscal woes. 

But the budget trouble came to light on Friday when it filed a petition in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court asking a judge to undo restrictions on the use of a $1 million charitable gift it received in 2007 from the estate of the late Manhattan philanthropist Marie E.S.A. Markus.

Markus’ estate had originally earmarked the $1 million donation to Riverside Language for the purchase of permanent space.

But the nonprofit said it can’t afford to buy a new place and would prefer to use the donation to pay its bills so it can stay afloat until at least 2015.

“[Riverside Language] has suffered devastating funding cuts that have reduced its annual program funding by more than half, threatening the organization’s very survival,” the program wrote in its legal filing.

Since its start in 1979, Riverside Language has rented office and classroom space in a building owned by Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, serving documented immigrants and refugees of war-torn countries and regions devastated by natural disasters. 

But in 2006 the church informed Riverside Language that it was considering a 25-percent rent increase.

The hike prompted a search for more affordable digs. Eventually, Riverside Language identified a new location in the Thoreau Center for Sustainability in downtown Manhattan.

However, the estimated cost of buying and building out the space was $3.7 million — a pricetag out of the program’s range without the largesse of generous benefactors.

Markus, who died in 2005, had been a major donor to Riverside Language in the last decade of her life.

She, her husband and parents had fled to the United States from Nazi Europe during the 1940s. A trained lawyer who worked for the Dutch government in the U.S., Markus credited her and her husband’s success in the states to their ability to master English quickly.

She began giving cash gifts of $50,000 annually to Riverside Language in 1995. After her death, she bequeathed an unrestricted $1 million to the nonprofit to use toward its expenses.

When Riverside Language’s space search led to the Thoreau Center, the nonprofit applied for a $2.8 million matching grant with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

In 2007 Berman also asked Richard Mark, the administrator of Markus’ estate, for money toward the purchase. Mark agreed and gave the $1 million restricted gift to the program.

However, two years later, LMDC informed Riverside Language that it had turned down its grant application, making the purchase of the Thoreau Center space impossible. Without the money, Riverside Language searched again for a more affordable space but came up empty.

In June 2012, bracing for anticipated budget crunch, Riverside Language asked Mark to lift the restriction on the gift, but learned he had died.

Riverside Language’s only recourse was to ask a judge last week to undo the constraints on the gift so it can continue to serve new Americans.

“With the restriction modified, Riverside Language will be able to maintain vital services for immigrants and refugees over the next two years, and have the breathing room to identify new sources of future funding,” Riverside Language wrote in its petition.

The program currently serves 700 immigrants and refugees each year.

Unlike organizations offering part-time courses, Riverside Language provides a unique learning experience. Its classes go for six hours each day, meet Monday through Friday and last 30 days.

The city’s Department of Youth and Community Development, which also contracts with Riverside Language, has praised its service in adult education.

“This program is truly a model for the city,” a DYCD employee said in a 2013 evaluation.

A New York Public Library spokesperson told DNAinfo that it discontinued its contract with Riverside because it decided to operate its own ESL classes.

The in-house approach allows the library to provide a wider array of programs, including technology classes, the spokesperson said. Since the NYPL brought the program in-house, the number of ESL students has tripled, the spokesperson said.

Education Department spokeswoman Antonia Valentine said that the state scaled back its contract with Riverside Language because it received less federal funding to distribute than in previous years.   

“There are fewer federal dollars to award and the demand and competition for these is overwhelming,” Valentine said.

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