Katarina Hybenova



Magdalena Waz



For better or worse, the development of Bushwick is an unstoppable force. Among the usual bars and restaurants that grow, and often times die, faster than grass in spring, is a small private school, Bushwick Montessori, which is set to open at an affordable housing complex on Knickerbocker Avenue this September.

The school’s full time tuition, a whopping $25,500 for 10 months, has enraged a group of local parents who demand “transparency and accountability regarding details of the available grants and financial aid.” The group pointed out that Bushwick’s median income is $42,369. The school has claimed it has scholarships and financial aid available for underserved and at-risk families. Bushwick Daily has taken a look at how affordable Bushwick Montessori really is.

The price of a Montessori education

Besides the emphasis on the independence of a child and respect for its natural development, schools using the Montessori method are also known for their high tuition. Currently, there are at least 20 Montessori schools in New York City neighborhoods, and the closest one, Williamsburg Montessori, charges $21,850 per year for full time tuition for a similar age group. Bushwick Montessori will be our neighborhood’s first.

According to the school’s director Becky Simkhai, Bushwick Montessori will accept 34 children between the ages of two and five in their first year and plans to be capable of accommodating up to 66 children in the future. Simkhai told us that they currently have 13 families enrolled at a discounted tuition rate as they offered incentives, a discount of up to 20 percent, to the founding families.

A Montessori school at an affordable housing complex

The school is operated by a non-profit organization Labor & Industry for Education, Inc. (L.I.F.E.) and is housed at the ground floor of 803 Knickerbocker Ave., also known as Knickerbocker Commons, which is an affordable housing complex built to environmentally friendly “passive house” standards. (“Passive” means that the building uses only 10 percent of the energy normally consumed by a building of its size). Knickerbocker Commons, which currently rents to low-income and disabled people, is owned by another non-profit, Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC), whose mission is to address the problems of low-income families. RBSCC has not responded to Bushwick Daily’s request for a comment.

On July 15, the parents sent a letter to L.I.F.E. “We are concerned about the lack of transparency of the forthcoming Bushwick Montessori School operated by L.I.F.E.,” read the letter provided to Bushwick Daily by the parents. “We believe that L.I.F.E is taking advantage of community resources under false pretenses and with no intention of honoring their own 503c mission statements or delivering on their promises to the community.” The community resource the parents say that L.I.F.E is taking advantage of is the community space within the affordable housing complex.

Bushwick Montessori classroom (All photos by Katarina Hybenova for Bushwick Daily)

No middle class kids, please

According to Jacki Rogoff, the executive director at L.I.F.E., which besides Bushwick Montessori also runs two other daycare centers in Bushwick geared toward low income residents, Bushwick Montessori is in the process of obtaining its license from the Department of Education (DOE).  

“This school is not for middle class children,” Rogoff told Bushwick Daily. “This building was built for low income, high risk children. When I was trying to explain this to the concerned parents, they thought I was being inconsistent and inconsiderate. But it’s not for middle class. We are not funded by any governmental agency at this point. We have to pay our rent, we have to pay our teachers, but it is also a building in which we are mandated to help the poor.”

17 seats for voucher and financial aid kids

After the license is in place, which as Rogoff assured Bushwick Daily, would definitely be before the school year begins, the school will open 50 percent of its slots to low income and at risks students through city’s ACS and HRAvoucher” programs as well as through a financial aid program through an agreement with a private foundation that funds L.I.F.E. Rogoff declined to provide the name of the foundation.

Rogoff said that the voucher students will pay no to very minimal tuition based on their economic situation. In order for a family to be considered, they have to apply through the system city has in place. After the city finds a family eligible for subsidized child care, the family will receive a voucher that can be used at one of the approved schools. Bushwick Montessori will be on the list once their license is in place, according to Rogoff.

Another option for the children of low income families or families who suffered a hardship is to apply for financial aid directly through L.I.F.E. According to Rogoff, the private foundation that funds L.I.F.E. is committed to making Bushwick Montessori “one of the most inclusive community groups ever.” Rogoff added, “You’re going to have children who are literally homeless sitting next to a millionaire’s kid, getting the same education. That is our mission for the school.”

The parents who reached out to Bushwick Daily claim that school administrators are offering this scholarship option with strings attached: a $39 application fee to determine eligibility. Rogoff said that the school is using an independent portal TADS  which collects documentation and assesses eligibility, and charges the fee for their services.

The remaining 50 percent of the students will pay the full or discounted tuition.

It does appear that scholarships will be available to half of the students at Bushwick Montessori, but it is already the second half of July, and parents looking to place their students in schools using the city’s voucher plan may not have enough time to wait for the licensing process to be complete.

Demand for a school this expensive may be higher than we would normally expect given the fact that a February 2017 study from Rent Cafe found that in the 11207 ZIP code alone–where the school is located–the number of wealthy renters (those making over $150,000 a year) increased from 193 in 2011 to 550 in 2015, a 185 percent increase. Bushwick Daily will be sure to check how the school is doing and how many voucher students received a placement come September.

From the left: Becky Simkhai, Jacki Rogoff, and Julie Dent at Bushwick Montessori

Julie Dent Learning Center

The Julie Dent Learning Center within Knickerbocker Commons, which houses Bushwick Montessori, has been named after the present chairwoman of Bushwick’s Community Board 4 and a longterm collaborator of L.I.F.E. Dent told Bushwick Daily she became the director of another one of L.I.F.E.’s day care centers in Bushwick in 1997, and that having the new center named after her was a “big honor.”

Dent told Bushwick Daily that “from the idea phase of this endeavor all entities involved […] have had the community in mind. The program is inclusive for all that are interested. As it related to gentrification, it won’t have a negative impact because the program is inclusive.”

Montessori tuition to compensate for the lack of governmental funding

The Audrey Johnson Day Care Center at 272 Moffat St. headed by Dent, which has been in the neighborhood since 1971, receives its funding from the city’s ACS, DOE, and the federal Headstart program, according to Dent. The program is specifically designed for low income residents and the children of families with income over a bracket set by the city cannot be accepted. According to Dent, The Julie Dent Learning Center was originally set out to be a similar center for low income residents, but “when you no longer are getting any money from the city, what you have to do is find another way of being sustainable, and that was Montessori. The tuition is what keeps your program afloat,” she said.

According to Rogoff the school’s rent at Knickerbocker Commons is market-rate. The landlord, RBSCC, didn’t comment on this.  

Bushwick Montessori bathroom 

L.I.F.E makes $9M in revenue a year

The parent group pointed out L.I.F.E.’s finances. According to the documentation every non-profit has to make publicly available, in 2014 L.I.F.E. had a revenue of over $9M and their expenses were a little higher than that. Jacki Rogoff made $183,300 as L.I.F.E.’s program director. Two other employees of L.I.F.E, administrative and executive director, made $259,409 and $174,599 respectively. Rogoff’s husband Richard Penzer is a board member and did not receive any compensation. “[Richard] is a real estate genius who is retired,” said Rogoff, and both Rogoff and Penzer said they don’t own any buildings in Bushwick, and their involvement “isn’t part of any grand scheme as the parents implied.”

New York law demands that non-profits are not created for financial gain and that its directors and employees receive not more than a reasonable compensation. Rogoff said that she believes her compensation is reasonable as she works long hours and as an attorney defends home-owners in foreclosure cases for free. (Foreclosure prevention is another prong of L.I.F.E.’s activities.)

Some will argue that this is another point of no return as far as gentrification goes, and others will suggest this kind of education option can be a positive for students who lacked access to alternative education options. Only time will tell whether or not Bushwick Montessori is able to effectively recruit enough low to moderate income students in order to fulfill its mission to serve the wide spectrum of the Bushwick community.

Cover photo by Katarina Hybenova for Bushwick Daily.