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The legacy of the 43rd Street Kids Preschool – much like the iconic Manhattan Plaza surrounding it – is a true New York City story. The Hell’s Kitchen school has seen generations of students pass through its doors — some of them going on to become teachers themselves or to enroll their own children — but today it closes, after almost 36 years in business.
“It’s incredible to think of the relationships that came into being here, and the hundreds of children who created art, learned to swim, formed friendships and grew to understand that sharing can be fun,” said Virginia Parks, school administrator for the center and a longtime Plaza resident. “As we close our doors, we’re amazed and proud that we have touched so many lives. It’s been a great run.” She blamed plummeting enrollment over the past few years for the closure after decades of service to the Hell’s Kitchen community.
After Manhattan Plaza — known as the “Miracle on 42nd Street” — opened its doors to tenants in 1977, “Many of those early occupants were new parents who soon discovered that they needed community, and a place for their babies and toddlers to learn and have fun,” recalled Virginia.
“There was little to nothing for young kids in the neighborhood back then, so those parents decided to create something, and it had to be something great,” she added.
The Manhattan Plaza Family Civic Association started with a few early education classes until interest grew, leading to the official launch of the school as a not-for-profit, parent-led cooperative organization.
Families quickly set to work building the school’s profile – raising money, building bookshelves, shopping for snack food, assisting in classrooms and holding “amazing” community potluck dinners, said Virginia. One of the earliest parent volunteers was Nancy Lilienthal, who found herself staying on long after her child had graduated.
“I have a degree in early childhood education, and so I became very involved,” said Nancy, who would go on to serve as the school’s Educational Director. “And now I’m the one who’s stayed here the whole time,” she laughed.
Like many Manhattan Plaza residents, Virginia had an arts background, and “because I was a dancer, I started teaching creative movement for a little while,” she said. “And then this opportunity opened up to come back and take over the administration – so I’ve been here as a parent, as a movement teacher, as a member on the board of directors and as an employee.”
Throughout 43rd Street Kids, the boomerang effect is strong. “We’ve had former preschoolers as counselors at our summer camp, former students who have become parents and taken their kids here, and many teachers who started out because their kids were in school,” said Virginia. “There are so many relationships like that over the years — it’s incredible.”
Nancy agreed. “My favorite thing about 43rd Street Kids is the number of wonderful people that I’ve met. There’s been a cross-section of famous people – performers in all different areas from Manhattan Plaza. My life has been enriched by getting to know all these wonderful people here.”
Alumni of the program think so too. Calliope Jiminez-Clark, who attended 43rd Street Kids in 1999 as “a very small and precocious toddler,” remembered “making laminated books full of my potato people drawings, snow cones we made ourselves during the summer months, and making some of the first friends I ever had. Friends I kept for many a year after, though I’m sad to say we’ve all ended up in different places now,” she said. “I remember our music teacher, whose name escapes me, but who I still see around the neighborhood from time to time.”
“A lot has changed. A lot has stayed the same. Some part of me thought that 43rd Street Kids was one of those things that would never disappear. It simply was. And yet, here we are, aren’t we? Thank you to all the teachers past and present. To everyone who made such a vibrant, loving environment for a child to grow up in. Maybe it’s a bit much to accredit my well-adjusted outcome just to you, but you certainly helped. You gave me the foundation for a childhood that wasn’t easy, but could have been much worse without the social and educational tools 43rd St Kids gave me,” she added.
Amanda Monaghan lives in Manhattan Plaza and has sent two kids to the school. She reflected: “43rd Street Kids has meant so much to our family and so many families in Hell’s Kitchen – a true hidden gem overlooking 42nd Street. In a big city, they miraculously maintained a small community feeling. The longevity of the teachers meant they often taught not only every sibling but also sometimes the children of their former students! The kids made lasting friendships but so did the parents. Farewell to this very special little school.”
Parents, students and student/parent/faculty alumni alike plan to gather to celebrate and honor the legacy of the school at an official farewell party in September.
Virginia plans to retire to pursue additional learning passions, but Nancy isn’t sure what her days will be like after the center closes its doors. The leadership at Manhattan Plaza has committed to keeping the center as a family and child-oriented space, though the official plans are still being finalized. Perhaps, said Nancy, she might find herself joining the next chapter of the building’s educational legacy. “I am still a resident so I might still be involved in some things,” she said. “We’ll wait and see!”