By Carrie Ann Salvi
Tuition, bake sales and an annual fundraiser used to suffice in funding The Rainbow School, a non-profit pre-school and nursery program that has educated children for over a decade in Sag Harbor, and most recently at its Bridgehampton home, the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse. Now the school is reaching out to its community of parents and friends seeking donations to keep the school afloat.
The Rainbow School, which educates three and four year old children from Montauk to Southampton, is in danger of closing, said Sue Daniels, the founder and long time teacher at the school, who retired after the 2013-14 school year. She remains on the school’s board.
“We discovered that our tuition is not covering our needs, salaries, rent, supplies, and utilities,” she said. “We are reaching out the public to ask for help.”
According to Ms. Daniels, the school’s financial troubles largely stem from an alleged embezzlement of several thousand dollars by a former employee in 2014. The thefts totaled $35,000 and were allegedly taken from the school’s accounts from January of 2013 to February of 2014. Southampton Town Police are continuing to investigate that case, and an arrest has yet to be made.
The school’s board has since adopted measures to protect its savings against any future breach, hiring a local accountant and bookkeeper to manage its finances.
Ms. Daniels said the school’s financial cushion also wasn’t greater as it has historically tried to keep tuition at affordable levels for working families.
“We’ve always had a focus of keeping a very, very low tuition so we can help the local families,” she said. Nearby preschools’ tuition can be as great as double the cost of The Rainbow School, which operates out of a large, colorful space in the ground floor of the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse, complete with ample outdoor playground space. The school moved to its Bridgehampton space from its original home in the former Sag Harbor United Methodist Church building on Madison Street, where Ms. Daniels opened the school in 2004.
Tuition for five mornings or afternoons a week is $5,500 for the school year for both nursery and pre-kindergarten programs. This fall, and hopefully before school starts, said Ms. Daniels, the school will extend its programs to offer a full school day for nursery and pre-kindergarten students for an annual tuition of $7,000. It is awaiting its approval from Suffolk County for a day care license before it can offer that full-day program, which it suspended late last year after learning the school needed the accreditation in addition to the State University of New York charter it has had since it first opened.
Any school program that operates for more than three hours a day must have a day care license through Suffolk County.
Ms. Daniels said the school is certain it will gain that license from Suffolk County – a license school director and teacher Jessica Spehler has been working overtime this summer to obtain.
“Applying for the Suffolk County licensing was a huge undertaking, so there hasn’t been much time for fundraising,” noted Ms. Spehler. “It was intense. I did it because I want the school to be here.”
“The licenser came, she loved the place, so we’re just waiting for our official approval,” she added.
“That has hindered us as well,” said Ms. Daniels, noting that the loss of full-day programming while the school works towards that license has impacted enrollment and amount of tuition the school can collect for its traditionally small class sizes of no more than 14 students.
Ms. Spehler explained that it is difficult for parents, who come from throughout the East End, to coordinate the other half of the day with nannies or nearby relatives. The school’s morning session begins at 8:45 a.m. and ends at 11:30 a.m. The afternoon session begins at noon with a 2:45 p.m. dismissal.
Many students are currently signed up for half day, but are hoping to change to full day. Ms. Spehler noted enrollment is still open.
Once that license is secured, Ms. Spehler plans to add an after-school and summer program at The Rainbow School, making it a year-round educational facility.
“It is so needed with so many working parents,” said Ms. Daniels.
“That is our main focus is helping out the families, said Ms. Spehler. In her first year she met many families that plan on coming back. “I know they need it. I wanted to push for it.”
Ms. Spehler was named the school’s director this year in a unanimous vote by the board after working at the school as a nursery school teacher. She works with teaching assistant Kaitlin Duran, whose own son attended Rainbow School. Ms. Spehler noted the school would like to hire an additional teacher, but needs the funding to do so.
“It’s a catch 22, that’s the situation we’re in,” said Ms. Daniels, who started teaching at the Hampton Day School in Bridgehampton, then teaching at the Tuller School in North Haven before opening The Rainbow School in 2004.
“Rainbow School is the pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow. It has been a wonderful experience for my daughter,” said Karen Deleski, a Sag Harbor resident. “The staff is professional and caring and goes above and beyond for each child. My daughter was in the nursery class and she is looking forward to her pre-k experience.”
The board’s objective is to promote the social, physical, intellectual and emotional growth of preschoolers with age-appropriate learning experiences and strong emphasis on arts and social play. Teachers use positive guidance techniques to enhance a child’s self-esteem.
The Rainbow School “enables children to grow individually by providing an environment rich in materials and an atmosphere that encourages explorations and discovery,” according to their mission statement. “Here at the Rainbow Preschool all children can feel safe away from parents, learn and have fun,” it reads.
Donations are requested, and volunteers would also be appreciated as well, whether it is services or ideas. For more information about the school, visit http://www.rainbowpreschoolsh.com or call (631) 537-0676. Donations can be sent to The Rainbow School, P.O. Box 2047, Sag Harbor, NY 11963 or made online at their secure Go Fund Me website.