At Educational Alliance Preschool, Michelle Sarna Focuses on Community Building

Michelle Sarna with children at the Educational Alliance’s preschool.

Recently we caught up with Michelle Sarna, the new head of the Educational Alliance Preschool, to see how things are going after her first few months working on the Lower East Side.  The historic social service organization is undergoing a major transition, in part due to the gut-renovation of its flagship building at 197 East Broadway.   At the preschool, change is already in the air.

Sarna, who has advanced degrees in early childhood education and psychology, came to the Educational Alliance in September with a diverse background in public and private schools, college campuses, mental health clinics and synagogues.  She told us the goal in the next couple of years is to raise the profile of the preschool, fully integrating it into the community center that will be a focal point of the newly refurbished building.

During our conversation, Sarna noted that the Edgies program has always been unique. “It is very unusual to find a ‘for fee’ program that’s nestled in a social service agency that has such a long history of serving the vulnerable and unprivileged, really in the same complex,” she said.  This situation has allowed the preschool to serve families from all walks of life and has offered children exposure to all sorts of different cultures.

But its association with a large organization with a 125 year history on the LES has also meant the preschool may have been slow to carve out its own identity. So now that’s a major focus.  In her first year, Sarna has, among other objectives, been concentrating on reaching out to different segments of the surrounding community. “It’s very exciting for me because I think the Lower East Side is one of the last places in Manhattan where you can actually build community and have a neighborhood feeling, so the challenge and possibility of bringing together so many diverse families around a shared vision of nurturing and educating our children, building them up to be powerful and empowered citizens is such a noble challenge,” she explained.

One initiative she’s especially excited about is an inter-generational program that links up children with seniors involved in the Educational Alliance’s NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community).  It allows the seniors to “experience the joy of being around young children and also for our children it provides them a different perspective from someone who is older,” Sarna said.

Like its larger organization, the preschool has both deep Jewish roots and continues to be operated as a Jewish institution.  While they don’t officially track religious affiliations, Sarna thinks about half of the kids in the program are Jewish.  “We try to teach values in a universal way,” she said, while respecting each family’s religious traditions.   “I’m constantly surprised by the number of families who are drawn to the program because it’s Jewish even though they are not Jewish.”

Right now, you have to walk around to an entrance on Henry Street and walk up a flight of stairs to reach the classrooms, which are sun-splashed and decorated with lots of art work created by the kids.  Next year, when the Educational Alliance’s big renovation project is completed, the preschool will be conspicuously located on the ground floor, adjacent to the community center.  Sarna said, “the preschool will be in the hub of the community center, so parents will be able to drop off their children and then go to the exercise room or wherever, art classes, meetings. ”

“We’re introducing a lot of ideas very quickly, she said,” because I really feel families are thirsting for something that brings them together.”

The Educational Alliance offers half-day, full-day and extended-day options. You can find more information about their programs here.