Little time left for ‘Little Room’

Special ed preschool saved
The Brooklyn Paper / Allyse Pulliam

A prominent special education program in Cobble Hill was all but snuffed out this week after yearlong relocation talks with the state collapsed.

The “Little Room,” a special-ed program within the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, will be forced to close after its three-dozen 3- and 4-year-olds graduate in August as a result of the latest failure to find a new home and sponsor — and parents are blaming the school.

“It’s really sad because every child benefitted from this program,” said Tamika Rodriguez, whose 4-year-old son, Judah, will graduate at the end of the school year. “They need to find a way, any way, to replicate the ‘Little Room’ somewhere else, or I can’t see where [special-ed] parents will turn.”

The troubles all started late in 2008 when Montessori School officials decided that its regular school program and its Little Room program could no longer fit under the Bergen Street roof. Those officials assigned a task force of parents and staff to find a new home for the program — which is currently state-funded and free — by December, 2009. But complications among the program’s would-be host, future director and the state Department of Education hindered the effort.

Montessori Head of School Dane Peters declined to talk about the problem, referring a Brooklyn Paper reporter to the school’s outside spokeswoman, Lupe Todd, who said, “I do understand what these parents are going through, but this isn’t about money, or even space. It’s about two schools growing under one roof — two schools that need to be separate.”

Todd’s comments are in direct contradiction with the Montessori School’s earlier position. Just over a year ago, Montessori officials said that the Little Room was too costly because state reimbursement rates don’t fully cover the expense of such a fine program.

Many parents say that the failure to find a new sponsor is the Montessori school’s fault. Matilda Garrido, whose son is a Little Room graduate, said parents found out about Montessori’s discontinuation of the Little Room program by accident, through a vague letter sent out by the school in 2008.

Later, the task force found a promising sponsor, the YAI Network — a special-education advocacy program — but school officials told parents they already had a different sponsor, Garrido said.

“We were led down a garden path that wasn’t a reality,” she said. “Their sponsor was never good to go. When [that sponsor] publicly backed out, [Montessori] gave YAI two months to find a space for these children.”

Todd said YAI wouldn’t promise to take immediate financial responsibility of the program, a state requirement. Garrido and other parents disagree, saying that YAI is still interested but needs more time to find a location.

YAI representatives refused to comment. In the meantime, some parents and elected officials, including state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-Brooklyn Heights), Councilmen Brad Lander (D-Park Slope) and Steve Levin (D–Williamsburg) and Assemblywoman Joan Millman (D-Carroll Gardens), are rallying behind the program in a last-ditch effort to keep it going.

“We’re still in communication with [the school] and the state,” said Squadron, who urged state officials to waive the financial responsibility requirements in this one case. “We’re trying.”

Squadron and parents sent Montessori officials a formal letter last week requesting more time to find a space for the Little Room program.