The owners and operators of The Rainbow School — a pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds that operates out of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Sag Harbor Turnpike — announced last month that after 16 years of serving the Sag Harbor community, they will officially close the facility after the end of this school year.
The school was forced to close after it was announced earlier this year that the Sag Harbor School District will offer free full-day pre-k out of the Sag Harbor Learning Center starting in the fall.
Without the tuition income of its pre-k class — which accounts for more than half of its annual tuition revenue — the Rainbow School simply cannot continue to survive financially, Board President Emilie Bennett said earlier this week. The preschool is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and has used fundraising efforts to bolster its revenue over the years, but the majority of its funding comes from tuition.
Ms. Bennett said that closing is “bittersweet,” and that it was a hard decision to make for the board and director/teacher Jessica Spehler, but she said ultimately it was the right decision in light of the circumstances.
“It’s not easy, but deep down, I feel like it’s time,” she said. “We feel good about what we provided over the years. We wanted it to feel like home for the kids when they were there. We’ve done a lot over the years, and we’re happy and proud about that. It’s been a long run.”
The Rainbow School first opened its doors in September 2004 when Sue Daniels — who formerly ran the preschool program at the Tuller School in North Haven — and Donna Cosgrove joined forces, backed by parents, opening a new preschool after the Tuller School closed. The Rainbow School first operated out of the Methodist Church in Sag Harbor, and when that church was sold in 2008, the school started renting space from the Unitarian Universalist Church.
Operators of the pre-school, which is licensed as a daycare provider for 3- and 4-year-olds by New York State, knew for many years that the school district had plans to operate a pre-k program out of the learning center. The initial plan was for the district to offer half-day pre-k, and then contract with an outside daycare provider for after-care services. If that model had stayed in place, and Rainbow School had been awarded that contract, they could have potentially remained in business. But ultimately the district decided to earn a daycare license so it could provide an official full day pre-k program.
Ms. Bennett said she understands why the district sought to offer full day pre-k in house, and extolled the benefits of a full-day pre-k program that is accessible to everyone.
“Early intervention is huge, so for [the district] to have the pre-k in that building, they can provide for them and start them earlier with reading, sight words and everything else, and possibly find someone who might have speech problems or trouble hearing, and getting that taken care of is huge,” she said. “I don’t blame them, and I don’t want it to sound like we have any hard feelings.”
The people in the community who will lose out are parents who were hoping to enroll their children in the three’s class program at The Rainbow School, although Ms. Bennett said that thus far, they had only received calls from two families expressing interest in signing a child up for that class. That’s not totally atypical though, she said, adding that many families would wait until the late summer to enroll their children, which always added to the financial stress when it came to operating the school, because they were never sure exactly how many students they would have until shortly before the school year started.
Ms. Bennett said that some families had asked her why the school did not seek to change its licensing and provide care for children as young as 18 months old through 3, but she said the logistical challenges of changing to that kind of certification were too steep to overcome, and said the original intent of The Rainbow School was to be a pre-school, not a daycare center.
She did add that she hoped the district would make plans to one day include a three’s class in the learning center.
Ms. Daniels agreed with Ms. Bennett that the time had come for the school to close, and said she was proud of what it had accomplished over the years.
“I think that the Rainbow Preschool served the local community well,” she said. “When I started it my goal was to provide a happy and safe environment for children of local parents, and it was always the parents and board members who played a huge role at Rainbow. They were aids, they drove on field trips, and they fixed the copy machine more times than I can mention. One board member was the daughter of a plumber and every time we had plumbing problems, he would come and fix it. I can’t say enough about the parents. I can still see the day when we moved the school from the Methodist church to the Unitarian church, we had a caravan of more than 25 cars of parents helping us with the move.”
Ms. Daniels added that Jessica Spehler “did a wonderful job” taking over when she and Ms. Cosgrove retired.
“I think Rainbow had a good run,” Ms. Daniels added. “It’s time. There’s a full day pre-k now. I think we served a need at the time. I feel good about it.”
Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone said the district was thankful for what Rainbow did for the children of the community year after year.
“The Rainbow School has served our community with distinction for many years,” he said. “Families of young children have been so fortunate to have Rainbow’s safe and enriched learning environment here in Sag Harbor.
“Year after year, the children who attended the Rainbow School have entered our Elementary School with confidence, full of kindness and with a love of learning,” he added. “We will strive to carry on this tradition of excellence for the children who will attend our Sag Harbor Pre-K program.”
Ms. Bennett expressed her gratitude to the community at large, saying that both individual families and local businesses were extremely supportive over the years when it came to donations and fundraisers that helped the school stay afloat and thrive. She acknowledged the founding members — teacher/director Sue Daniels, nursery school teacher Donna Cosgrove, and board members Debbie Jacobs, Tricia Burke, Mimi Yardley, Christopher Engel, Janice Arbia, and Ms. Bennett— as well as current board director Jessica Spehler and current board members Beth Gregor, Margaret Wagner, June Haynel, Anya Scheehser, Heidi Tolley, Kathryn Menu, Erica Aubry, and Summer Romeo.