By Sabina Mollot
Sara Curry Preschool at Little Missionary’s Day Nursery, a tuition-based but despite the name non-religious pre-school on St. Marks Place, is expanding for the second time in three years, this time to offer kindergarten and elementary school grades.
Eileen Johnson, the school’s director, said she’d been hearing from too many parents of her former students that they’re unhappy with public elementary schools, even so-called progressive ones. But with her preschool’s five-story building already at capacity, Johnson had to forget about adding classes for kids who age out of the program — that is, until now.
“When you have to say no to people all the time, then it’s like, ‘I really want to do this,’” she said.
For the next few years, Johnson plans to phase in additional grades up to grade 5. Next fall, there will be kindergarten and first grade, the following year second grade and the next year third. She’s considering dividing one of the school’s larger classrooms and plans to further utilize the basement (now used just for after school programming and art) to make this work. But after that, Sara Curry Preschool will need to get an additional small building.
“The goal is to get a little sister building nearby so we can accommodate everybody,” she said. “Or even an infant building.”
This would only be possible by fundraising, however, which is something the school already does a lot of, since Johnson said the tuition is under-market. Additionally, about 20 percent of the parents depend on some sort of tuition assistance. Next year, parents whose children attend for the full-five day schedule will pay $20,000, although there will be some tuition assistance available for the debut first grade class.
“There will be a lot of assistance,” Johnson said. “It’s a middle class neighborhood, but if you’re paying four thousand in rent, that’s $50,000 a year. We’re not catering to the people Sara Curry might have catered to but there’s a lot of struggling.”
Curry, the school’s founder, originally opened the institution to provide daycare to the Lower East Side’s immigrant families. She eventually became known as the Little Missionary. She secured the building that became home to the preschool (now nicknamed Little Mish) in 1901.
For the previous expansion, in 2014, the building underwent massive renovations. At that time, the school was preparing to double the number of students it served from 50 to 100. To do this, the school, which owns the property, had to evict a couple of commercial tenants whose rent had enabled Sara Curry to stay open when then tuition alone wasn’t enough. Those tenants were a graphic design firm and a Hare Krishna temple.
Once they vacated, the building had its plumbing and electrical wiring replaced and a new fire alarm system was put in. The roof was partially enclosed and turned into a play space. Three kitchens were built as well as two new bathrooms. In addition, the once-narrow staircase was widened to comply with current building and fire codes, and the main hallway brightened with a fresh coat of paint.
The hallways have since been adorned with framed prints of illustrated bugs and animals and there are now wall hangings and decorative rugs in the classrooms. At one time, the floors had more traditional preschool décor — colorful rubber mats that each bore a letter of the Alphabet. But Johnson said she preferred to have students feel at home.
“You can’t even sit down on the carpet without having to do something,” she said about the previous, more scholastic floor covering. “It’s not how kids learn.”
Still, parents aren’t sending their kids to Sara Curry for the warm, vaguely bohemian way the place looks. The preschool has developed a reputation for encouraging creativity.
“I want the curriculum to come from the kids,” Johnson said. “I want to bring in their ideas, like, ‘Let’s all go to the river.’ If they’re motivated, they’re going to work harder. I want them to be free agents.”
The curriculum also draws inspiration from a philosophy Johnson — who just wrote a book on the subject — calls emotional education. The goal of it is to get adults to listen to children when they talk about something they’re feeling and accept it rather than instinctively tell them what they need to do about the situation or tell them they shouldn’t feel upset.
“It’s about letting them express themselves, and say, ‘I can understand why you might feel that way,’ even if it’s a negative feeling,” said Johnson.
She gave an example about a recent lesson about war. The way she’d explained it to a student, ‘War is when things escalate. Maybe this boy hits you, then you hit him back and then everything escalates.’” A few weeks after that discussion, a student’s father told Johnson he’d gotten into an argument with his son when the boy refused to put away his toys. Before long the father’s voice was raised, only for the son to put a stop to it by saying, “Let’s not escalate this.”
In Johnson’s view, the simple act of talking out an emotions is helpful with conflict resolution and in preventing bullying. The obstacle in some cases is that “parents want to fix everything,” said Johnson. “It doesn’t help them. They need to develop their own coping strategy. If you try to fix it, it might make it worse. It’s better to say, ‘Okay, I get it.’ Let them have a moment.’”
Her book, also titled Emotional Education, is Johnson’s second book on child psychology. It was self-published in March and is now available on Amazon.
Her philosophy has apparently clicked with parents, based on the school’s growth since she came aboard in 2001. In the 1990s the once teeming pre-school had been struggling with a mere eight students left by the turn of the millennium. The school was surviving at that time only by the rental income. But in more recent years, the school has steadily grown, with even a few celebrity parents enrolling their kids, including Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz and comedian Jim Gaffigan. Other parents these days include many creative types, which for kids, means the occasional trip to the local art studio or bakery.
The student body comes mostly from the Lower East Side/Seward Park area as well as the East Village and Stuyvesant Town, where Johnson also lives.
For more information about the school, visit the website.