Oh, Crap, We’re Old; Or, DadWagon Kids Growing Up!

September 26th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Health and (Un) Safety  |  15 Comments

Joanna Fan, who runs Sasha's preschool chain.

Astute DadWagon observers (there must be two or three of you by now) will have noticed that things have changed slightly around the site, both in recent weeks (we’ve been tweaking our design in anticipation of a bigger tweak) and over the now nearly two years of our existence.

God, two years! Can you believe it? It seems like just yesterday that we were… talking about the connection between sippy cups and impotence? the benefits of dirt? flirting with bartenders? I guess it’s not really that different from today.

One of the corollary effects of DadWagon’s senescence is that my daughter, Sasha, is now just about the age that Theodore’s JP and Nathan’s Dalia were when the blog launched. Which means I’m about to begin covering all of the subjects that those two have been maundering over since 2009. Awesome! And today’s subject is: universal pre-K!

Now, Nathan and Theodore have explored this quite thoroughly, with the former questioning whether 3-year-olds actually need an education, and the latter telling him he’s stupid. Between the two of them, I’m sure they’ve discussed everything I need to know now that Sasha is herself approaching the 3-year mark, but somehow, even though I read every word those dudes drunkenly typed up, none of it sank in.

Which is how I found myself, last week, at a pre-K/kindergarten workshop run by Joyce Szuflita, at some maternity-clothing shop on Court Street in Brooklyn. Frankly, the whole pre-K thing terrifies me: Somehow it feels like this is the first choice I’ll have to make for Sasha that will really start determining how she turns out as a person. I know that’s not entirely accurate, but the fear remains. At the same time, going into the workshop I was totally skeptical about the information I’d receive. After all, shouldn’t I be able to figure this stuff out myself, and not have to pay $25 for someone else to tell me?

And yet… dear readers, I learned! For example, I learned—at last!—the difference between Districts and Zones. I mean, these were terms I’d heard bandied about for years, but I didn’t realize they referred to different things. Now I know! And I guess I learned other things, too, although I’ve mostly forgotten them by now. Oh, right: gifted and talented. As Nathan remarked one whole year ago, G&T is evil. Or, maybe not evil, but strange: Preschoolers take an inane, inaccurate test of their intelligence/willingness-to-put-up-with-adults in order to get into an elite program featuring the same class sizes, same funding, and same curriculum as their ungifted-and-nontalented peers get.

The one real benefit, Ms. Szuflita said, is that the curriculum is more flexible. That is, if all the G&T kids can grasp fractions in a day or two (whereas their normal peers take weeks, if not months), then there’s more time for them to build an Indian sweat lodge. Um, okay.

In the end, the universal pre-K decision for me came down to one single thing: the school day is only six hours long, ending around 3 p.m. Since Jean works and I “work” too, this would not make things easy. We’d have to get a five-day-a-week babysitter, and the cost of that would probably just about equal what we pay to send Sasha to Preschool of America, which handles her from 8:30 to 5:30 and feeds her three meals a day (plus snack!). So, we’ll skip city pre-K, right?

Well, there’s one further complication: Joanna Fan, head of Preschool of America, was indicted and arrested about 10 days ago on charges she stole $2.5 million in federal funds. The money was supposed to be used for “nutritious meals for preschoolers” at the nonprofit Red Apple preschools, where she’s also executive director, but instead, the authorities allege, she and her husband, Ziming Shen, used “the money to make mortgage payments on several Manhattan condominiums and to benefit their private business interests, which include Preschool of America Inc., a chain of about a dozen for-profit preschools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.”

Here’s a bit more from the Times:

Audits by the New York State Health Department and the federal Agriculture Department since 2005 revealed a pattern of false submissions to the Agriculture Department, including lying about how many children were getting the meals, the complaint charges. For example, the complaint says, in January 2009, Ms. Fan submitted records claiming that 188 children had consumed 4,700 meals and snacks, when other records showed that 116 children ate 2,900 meals and snacks.

The complaint charges that in 2008, Ms. Fan issued a check for $200,000 from the federal lunch money account to make personal condominium payments, and also withdrew $110,000 to pay her personal income taxes. Between 2005 and 2010, the complaint asserts, $2.7 million went to Supermarnet, a company Mr. Shen owned, to provide meals to the preschoolers. But the complaint said invoices indicate the company spent only $24,000 for food during that period.

In all, according to the complaint, Ms. Fan stole approximately $1.8 million of program funds in 2008 and 2009. She acknowledged in a written statement to the Agriculture Department that she had taken the money, but stated that she had “borrowed” it, the complaint charged.

Okay, so how does a parent deal with this? There are two considerations, as far as I can tell. One is moral: Do we continue to support a school run by alleged thieves, a school where our daughter has allegedly benefited from funds meant for poorer children? Part of me is outraged here, but another part is shrugging its shoulders. (I guess that part is the shoulders.) I mean, what do you expect from mainland Chinese people? Give them money, and they’ll do what they want with it. And the school (at least Sasha’s branch) seems well-run: She loves the teachers and her classmates, and would be devastated if we suddenly switched schools. In other words, we have no stringent moral principles we abide by—whatever’s good for our kid is good for us. Fucking yuppies.

The other issue is more practical: If Joanna Fan and Zhiming Shen are forced to repay what they’ve stolen, how does that impact Sasha’s school? Would there be cutbacks? Tuition increases? Would teachers flee for more stable, less ethically compromised workplaces? Would some branches be closed entirely? Should we get Sasha into a pre-K program just as a backup?

The answer to that last question is, I think, yes. We’ll go through the whole rigamarole of visiting schools, applying to them, fretting over the G&T test, and maybe even arranging babysitters, even though in the end Preschool of America might go humming along and all this preparation might not matter at all.

At the very least, it’ll be good preparation for the real battle: getting into kindergarten.


  1. Chairman Mai says:

    September 26th, 2011at 10:41 am(#)

    Matt, the G&T stuff doesn’t apply to Pre-K, but it’s definitely something to be aware of for K-5 apps, which is coming right up! We should compare notes soon. You bring your spreadsheet and I’ll bring mine! BTW, we are skipping Pre-K drama and keeping Leo in 9-6 preschool. Saving our energies for next year…

  2. jzzy55 says:

    September 26th, 2011at 10:59 am(#)

    I appreciate that you’re being honest about your morals but I’d be looking for new childcare. This is a disgusting story. I work with children who are supposed to be receiving government largesse (ha ha) — foster kids, kids in underperforming schools with 99% reduce or free lunch. I couldn’t live with this. Your daughter will quickly love new teachers and new friends. In a few months she will barely remember P of A.

    And no, preschool is not the beginning of the fast track as long as it’s a decent program (any one will do) and if you (parents) are doing what YOU’RE supposed to at home. Preschool teaches kids how to “do school” and how to get along with others, primarily. Parents and family life are vastly more important than preschool in the lives of children from literate, stable homes. It’s only the children these criminals stole from who absolutely need preschool, the free food, the books, the educational toys, the opportunities to develop fine motor skills (scissors), social skills, problem solving, the predictable routines, etc.

  3. Matt says:

    September 26th, 2011at 11:07 am(#)

    You’re probably right, jzzy55. The thing is, I don’t relish the prospect of finding her another school—that is, finding her another bilingual English-Chinese preschool that lies between home and work, runs from morning till evening, feeds her three meals a day, and is relatively affordable. If anyone knows of such a place, please tell me about it!

  4. Matt says:

    September 26th, 2011at 11:12 am(#)

    Ah right, Mai, I knew that! I swear! But of course, it’s important to remember that it’s never to early to work yourself into a lather about how your child is going to do on standardized tests.

  5. jjdaddyo says:

    September 26th, 2011at 11:33 am(#)

    Regarding P of A: aside from your tuition dollars enriching (innocent until proven guilty) scumbags who steal from the poor and the taxpayer, why would you want to keep your kid in a school run by people like that?

    The general rule is: “Steal little, steal big”, or, “Tell a little lie, tell a big lie”. If stealing a few million from the Feds is the big lie, then what are the little lies they are telling?

    Not enough teachers per student for safety? Chaining fire doors shut? Skimping on cleaning, handwashing and disinfecting? Maybe rubber stamping teachers background checks to save money? You don’t know now and you probably don’t want to be surprised by their next indictment a few years from now.

  6. Matt says:

    September 26th, 2011at 1:19 pm(#)

    JJdaddyo, you are absolutely right! Except… As much as I loathe the (alleged) behavior of the people who run the chain, the school itself looks like a great place. I see them cleaning it all the time, I see the teachers in the classrooms (two, I believe, for 10 or 12 preschoolers), I see the degree to which the school involves parents on a day-to-day basis. On some level, I have to trust the evidence of Sasha doing well there for the past 18 months.

    Of course, that may all be because the alleged crooks were diverting money from the nonprofit preschools to make the for-profit ones (i.e., Sasha’s) that much better. Or because I’m wearing blinders. Either way, I promise I won’t be surprised by the next shocker.

    Oh, and the other thing: This is the BIGGEST preschool chain in NYC! WTF?!? If it goes down, where are all those kids supposed to go?

  7. jzzy55 says:

    September 26th, 2011at 4:03 pm(#)

    At the PK level, the ratio of teachers to students is mandated by state regulations. 12:2? I don’t live in NYS, but I expect that’s the basic, mandated ratio. 12:3 would be kvell-worthy because that means if someone has to run to the bathroom or the office or deal privately with a sick/hurt child, there are still two sets of eyes on the kids. The better ratio also means they can divide and conquer safely during toileting and transitions. Cleaning is also regulated to some extent (hard surfaces, bleach spray). Look, if your kid is thriving and you really aren’t in a position to change daycares what can you do?

  8. Matt says:

    September 26th, 2011at 4:06 pm(#)

    Thanks, jzzy55! That’s just what I wanted—someone to excuse my laziness and ethical laxity. I’ve sent my dilemma to the NYT’s Ethicist; let’s see what the response there is.

  9. Chairman Mai says:

    September 26th, 2011at 4:51 pm(#)

    Hi Matt, your situation is also tricky because of the language component. The Brooklyn Waldorf school (relatively affordable private school in Clinton Hill/BedStuy) offers “Mandarin as part of their language curriculum and afterschool and Saturday programs for children ages 18 months to 10 years old.”

    126 St. Felix Street, Brooklyn, NY 11238
    (718) 783-3270, http://www.brooklynwaldorf.org

    We are considering this school in case we can’t get into a decent public school. You might want to check this place out, they have a gorgeous facility and a good track record/reputation, etc.

  10. Matt says:

    September 26th, 2011at 4:56 pm(#)

    Interesting. The only frustration is that it’s still a school day that ends at 3pm at the latest. I really don’t want to have to curtail my afternoons of “work.” One place that I’ve just started to look into as well is the Ecole Franco-Chinoise, over in Fort Greene. They’re just getting going, though, and I can’t really tell from their site how much they focus on English, French and Chinese.

  11. jjdaddyo says:

    September 27th, 2011at 8:50 am(#)

    Let me go completely off-topic here for a minute to say: “Ecole Franco-Chinoise”? In Fort Greene? Dayum, son.
    When I went to Brooklyn Tech (in the late 70s), the only thing Franco-Chinoise around there would be if you stopped for a can of Spaghetti-o’s on your way back from getting an order of fried chicken gizzards at the take out.
    OK, old man reminiscence over.

  12. Matt says:

    September 27th, 2011at 9:42 am(#)

    JJ, I know exactly what you mean. In fact, I may do a Q&A with their administrators in which my only question, asked over and over again, will be: “But seriously, the ‘Ecole Franco-Chinoise’? In Fort Greene? Seriously?”

  13. jzzy55 says:

    September 27th, 2011at 2:07 pm(#)

    So I take it no one is rushing to send their child to a school serving China Criolla. Do they even have those in NYC anymore? Kind of borderline disgusting, but CHEAP. Often found near an SRO on the Upper West Side. Oh, am I also dating myself?

    Yeah let’s see what The Ethicist has to say. BTW have you polled other parents at your PofA? Because if Sasha’s friends leave, that changes the equation. (Note: parents lie about this sort of thing, in case you haven’t figured that out yet.)

    Am I ever glad I didn’t raise a child in NYC on our income. I had fabulous home daycare (taught by an MFA/master gardener who’s still our son’s dear friend and artist mentor) and a college lab school for PK-6th. All very affordable.

  14. jjdaddyo says:

    October 3rd, 2011at 12:10 pm(#)

    Comida Criolla en la casa! La Victoria China, 95th and B’Way, where, as a kid, I would order chicken crackling or picadillo with fried plantains, yum.
    Then that whole crew packed up and moved to a new location at 78th and B’Way and changed their name to La Caridad. The place was permanently crowded after that and full of nouveau Upper West Siders from Kansas and whatnot. Damn.

  15. Matt says:

    October 3rd, 2011at 3:09 pm(#)

    I used to get lunch at … Sam Chinita, I think it was called, on Seventh and 20th or something. Terrible but awesome. You know what I mean.

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