New York Magazine

THE BATTLE OF GRACE CHURCH

What happened when the oldest nursery school in Brooklyn decided to become a little less old-fashioned? A class riot among the one percent.

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. Loosey-goosey 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-year-olds 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

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