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A Brooklyn Heights Preschool Is Locked In Parent-Teacher Drama

What happened when the oldest nursery school in Brooklyn decided to become a little less old-fashioned?

Jessica Pressler

When you buy a home in Brooklyn Heights, you aren’t just purchasing real estate. The stately townhomes and converted carriage houses, with their window boxes of Algerian ivy winking over splendidly preserved original details—the Grecian columns, the soaring Romanesque windows offering a glimpse of curated furniture— connote a certain level of not just wealth and taste but respectability. These are houses not just for people who have money, but people who have values.

From the 19th-century sea captains with their “great broods of future bankers and fashionable brides,” as Truman Capote put it in his famous essay “A House on the Heights,” to the “urban, ambitious young couples” that came after, the neighborhood has always drawn families. “It’s a good place to raise children,” as Capote said.

Capote, of course, didn’t have children, though if he had, they would likely have attended the Grace Church School on Hicks Street and Grace Court. Adjacent to the Episcopal church, a Richard Upjohn–designed neo-Gothic structure, it contains what is known as “the oldest preschool in Brooklyn.” And until recently, for as long as anyone in the neighborhood could remember, the school was run by Hope Prosky, who was something of an original fixture herself. Over the course of her 37-year tenure, Prosky helped generations of children to “expand the cocoon of the little world of home to include and trust in the community.” So familial was the environment that a good number of its graduates returned years later with their own broods so they could partake in the same whimsical traditions they had as kids: the Japanese Kite festival, the annual Holiday Sing. Of course, New York being New York, many families also left, making room for new families, who paid ever-higher prices for the same handful of properties in the Heights. Even as the bankers got more bankery and the wives got more fashionable, the neighborhood, insulated by its status as a historic district, was unable to grow up, only out, and so its core remained much the same. This Peter Pan quality was part of its charm. Institutions like Grace Church School, where Prosky and her fellow teachers, who played “Oh! Susanna” on guitars and dressed up as Pilgrims every year on Thanksgiving, were exemplars of the kind of authenticity Manhattanites sought in moving to Brooklyn. “It was this sweet neighborhood school with this kind of loosey-goosey atmosphere,” recalls one transplant.

Then one morning in 2015, one of the school’s 3-year-old charges walked several blocks to her home, surprising her parents. Looseygoosey started to seem like a liability.

Not long after, Prosky announced her retirement, and the rector of the church, which oversees the school, met with the Grace Church School Advisory Board, a volunteer body made up of parents and members of the church. They formed a search committee to find a replacement. Under Prosky, Grace Church had functioned as a “glorified playgroup,” as one parent put it. The children pressed leaves into paper, explored textures, and danced the Wiggle Worm. The atmosphere had often been compared to a “warm bubble bath,” and while this was lovely, there were some who felt the school could turn up the temperature a notch. The ideal director, the board noted in its advertisement, would “embrace our traditions” while being “informed and guided by current research regarding best practice in the 21st century.”

After all, the world wasn’t a warm bubble bath.

THE WORLD WAS a simmering, seething cauldron, one that was only going to get hotter and harder to survive in. If this felt true in general, it felt especially true to the residents of Brooklyn Heights, whose small universe had recently gotten a lot more crowded. The glass towers that sprung up along the waterfront had filled up with wealthy families that seemed just as intent on getting their 4-yearolds into St. Ann’s or Packer Collegiate, one of the two private schools traditionally favored by Brooklynites with $40,000-plus a year to spend on setting their children on The Correct Path. On a clear day, looking out at the towers along the East River, you could practically see their tiny handprints smeared on the glass: the competition.

Now, even the wait-list for Grace Church started practically in utero, and though the school had long been considered a feeder to local private schools, this privilege, like all others, seemed in jeopardy. Even if children were lucky enough to land a spot in Grace’s coveted morning sessions, it was no longer a guarantee of future success. “You’ve got all of Dumbo, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Cobble Hill, and parts of Manhattan vying for the same number of spots there always was,” said one Grace parent. “The intensity is fierce.”

Of the ten candidates the search committee interviewed for the director position, Amy Morgano seemed like she best understood the predicament the parents were facing. As the founding director of Kaplan Nursery School, an upstart preschool overseen by the Sutton Place Synagogue, Morgano had done an impressive job of getting the students into competitive institutions like Dalton, Chapin, and Spence. She had attended the prestigious Bank Street College of Education, where she’d done a specialization in child and parent development, and spoke wisely about the “whole child” philosophy. Perhaps best of all, no one could accuse the board of trying to Manhattanize Grace because Morgano was from Brooklyn.

“Real Brooklyn,” though: She’d been born on the border of Canarsie and Flatbush. Not this Brooklyn, which in its contemporary iteration felt, to Morgano, almost like a parody of an upper-crust enclave. The women on the board—and it was almost all women— reminded her of some of the women she’d encountered at Bank Street, who had taught for a year, then gotten married. The “diamond-ring crowd,” she’d called them. They had names like Courtney and Blake and Hatsy, and their families sounded like they’d come straight off the Mayflower. Ashley Phyfe, married to a descendant of furniture-maker Duncan Phyfe; Vicky Schippers, whose husband’s family had been in the area since land was going for wampum; Christie Coolidge-Totman. As in President Coolidge.

Morgano was intimidated and not a little envious. She’d married young and raised three children before getting her master’s degree at 40. Now she was in her 50s and had answered the ad in part because the commute would be easier from her home in Park Slope, but the idea of a new challenge—a school that needed to be brought into the present—intrigued her, and she was pleasantly surprised that the salary it offered was commensurate with Manhattan. And while she wasn’t sure about these Diamond Ring Girls, with their shiny hair, perfect teeth, and scallop-edged Chloé flats, looking into their worried faces, she saw vulnerability she recognized. Money can shield people from a lot of things, but no amount stops parents from worrying about their children.

And it wasn’t like the moms of Brooklyn Heights were all Stepford clones, Morgano discovered at the cocktail party the parents threw for her after she was offered the job, held at the home of a family where the mother was a managing director at Goldman Sachs. It was in a renovated triplex on Schermerhorn Street and had a roofdeck overlooking the Manhattan skyline. “You know, I actually like them,” Morgano told her husband later. “They seem like a good, progressive group of people who have some of the very same ideas as me.” The parents were enthusiastic about the changes she’d proposed. They just had one major request: The school wanted Morgano to keep Hope Prosky on as an adviser. Morgano thought this arrangement sounded a little bit claustrophobic. But she said yes, of course. After all, she’d agreed to embrace tradition.

When the Grace Church School librarian, who we’ll refer to as Mary Smith, arrived in September, she felt a pang when she saw that Prosky was no longer standing at the gate greeting students the way she had for years. The new director was nowhere to be seen. Over the summer, Smith had asked for a meeting, but Morgano put her off, saying she was too busy. Inside, she saw why: Morgano had cleaned house. All of the furniture was gone. The tall, heavy bookcases had been replaced by lighter, lower ones. A teepee anchored the Twos room; the stainedglass windows filtered light onto an otherwise spare space. The kitchen, formerly a clatter of tea mugs and shortbread crumbs, had been wiped clean. Everyone around her was oohing and aahing, but Smith had an uneasy feeling that the director wasn’t going to be content with just replacing furniture. Fortunately, the library was still the same. Perched on the very top floor of the building, the Hope Library had been designed and built by a former Grace parent, an architect, and it was a magical little place with warm wood balconies and cozy window seats overlooking a rooftop playground. “An oasis of tranquility,” Prosky had called it at the ceremony where it was named in her honor, “where children’s imaginations can soar on a boat of endless discovery.”

Smith might have believed her fears about the new director were the result of imagination soaring, except the entire month of September came and went before she and Morgano crossed paths. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” the new director said.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Smith replied pointedly.

Morgano looked down at the books Smith was holding. “I love books,” she said, as Smith recalls it. “I would always pick a Caldecott winner to read to my classes.”

Later, the librarian repeated the conversation to the head Threes teacher, whom we’ll call Pat Jones. “Who says that?” Smith said, aghast. “You wouldn’t say, ‘Caldecott winner.’ You would say, ‘I love reading Make Way for Ducklings.’ ”

But Jones was calm. “Change is hard, Mary,” she said. “You have to sometimes accept change.” Jones was always calm—she spent her days wrangling mobs of 3-year-olds, so she had to be. “I think she has a lot of great ideas, and I am excited about learning from her,” she told her colleague.

SMITH WAS NOT SO OPTIMISTIC. Neither, it turned out, was Prosky, who’d found Morgano not to be as grateful for her advice as she might’ve expected. Things had gotten tense between them, especially after Morgano decided to do away with certain Grace Church traditions, like the Thanksgiving and Medieval Feasts. While it may have been true the Pilgrim garb was problematic and the Middle Ages were perhaps not developmentally appropriate material for 3-year-olds, some of the other choices she’d made felt ill-considered. “She took away our ability to go to potluck dinners,” said one teacher. “Some teachers liked them, but I loved them because you get to know the parents, and you get to see their little world, these tiny kids in these gargantuan houses.”

Morgano, who put a stop to the practice of listing teachers’ home numbers in the school directory and told teachers they could no longer babysit students in their off-hours, felt parent-teacher socializing was unprofessional. “She was like, ‘I want a wall,’ ” said one Grace parent, and while this sounded reasonable, it was confusing for some teachers from the Hope era, some of whom had been Grace Church parents, lived in the neighborhood, and belonged to the same institutions, like the Heights Casino, a preppy tennis club on Montague Street, which, Morgano would often point out, didn’t allow Jews like herself to join until the ’50s. “She used to call us ‘incestuous,’ ” recalls a former teacher. “I think she was referring to nepotism.”

Except Morgano herself seemed to have trouble with boundaries. Her fawning over the celebrities whose children attended the school, like Keri Russell, had not gone unnoticed in discreet Brooklyn Heights. “There was a night to meet her, and she only talked to Maggie Gyllenhaal,” one parent recalls (the conversation may have been only five minutes, but five minutes is an eternity when you are an anxious parent).

Hope Prosky, however, had never been impressed by celebrity. Once, when Paul Giamatti came into her office at the height of his Sideways fame, she’d squinted at his name and asked, “Are you related to the president of Yale?”

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July 8-21, 2019