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Sudden Shutdown of Pre-K Program Sends Parents Scrambling for Alternatives

 Birch Family Services Manhattan Early Childhood Center was one of nine pre-K sites abruptly shuttered by the city this week.
Birch Family Services Manhattan Early Childhood Center was one of nine pre-K sites abruptly shuttered by the city this week.
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DNAinfo/Lindsay Armstrong

HUDSON HEIGHTS — Navahjo Stoller’s daughter Silver was looking forward to her first day of pre-kindergarten at Birch Family Service’s Early Childhood Center on Fort Washington Avenue Thursday.

“Silver was walking around telling people that she was going to Birch,” Stoller said. “She was so proud.”

But that day never came.

Things changed abruptly the day before school was scheduled to start, after the Department of Education announced Wednesday that it was shuttering nine pre-K sites slated to open on Thursday, including Birch, and delaying the opening of 36 other sites.

But the Stollers didn't find out about the pre-K shutdown until less than 24 hours before the expected start of classes, despite city officials saying parents were notified of the change Sunday and Monday. All parents received at least two calls from the DOE, officials noted, but Stoller told a different story.

“The DOE never contacted me,” he said. “Neither did Birch.”

Stoller said he got a call from a friend Wednesday afternoon to say he’d learned from news reports that Birch’s uptown program was one of the nine pre-K sites shut down by the city.

Stoller contacted Birch Wednesday afternoon to confirm that the program had been shut down, but said they offered very little information as to why it had been closed. The Department of Education was similarly unresponsive in giving reasons for the cancellation, but they did manage to get Silver enrolled in a new program at the 11th hour, he added.

“I still want to know what the problems are, why they pulled the plug,” said Stoller, who looked at about a dozen pre-K programs before choosing Birch. “We’re not really getting answers on that.”

Birch’s uptown location already provides special education classes for preschool students and a K-2 program for special needs students, but was expanding to include classes through the city’s universal pre-K program.

Others said they did receive a call from the DOE about Birch's canceled pre-K, but had little time to get their children into another program.

Laura Dallmann-Toledo has twin daughters, one of whom attended the preschool program for special needs students at Birch last year. She was thrilled to have her other daughter, Luna, join her sister in the same school.

“Last year, Luna went to a different school, and it was really a struggle for me to manage two schools,” Dallmann-Toledo said, noting that the programs had different daily schedules and vacation days.

The mother added that she got a call from the DOE on Monday afternoon to let her know about Birch's canceled pre-K and that a representative gave her a list of other schools. But when Dallmann-Toledo called the next day, the schools no longer had open spots, she said.

As a result, her daughter, Luna, did not attend pre-K Thursday.

"She was upset because her sister was going and she wasn’t,” the mom said. “She said to me, ‘But I’m not sick, Mommy.'"

Dallmann-Toledo hopes Luna will be enrolled at a new location by Friday, but said the process has been stressful, especially since she's a teacher who is also starting her own school year.

“The timing is awful. That the city could do something like that to parents and the kids,” she said. “Imagine me telling them all summer, 'You’re going to be together this year,' and now, 'No.'”

The city’s Department of Investigation told DNAinfo that Birch Family Services and Rainbow, another proposed pre-K provider that was shut down, were under investigation for integrity issues, but did not provide further details.

Birch did not return requests for comment.

One-hundred-and-twenty-five of the 265 kids affected by the closed sites had been placed at other schools as of Wednesday, with a guaranteed slot for the remaining students, officials said. The DOE did not respond to a request for information about how many students were enrolled at Birch’s uptown location or how many have since been enrolled in alternate programs.

Stoller said the DOE was helpful with getting his daughter placed into a new pre-K program, but noted that the new school is about a 20-minute walk from their house, as opposed to the two-minute commute they would have had to Birch.

He said said they will manage the longer walk, but wished the entire situation had been handled differently.

“It’s not a game,” he said. “You can’t just start moving things around. People prepare for their lives.”