On Wednesday afternoon, a group of undergraduates gathered in the rain in front of Low Library to educate other students about Columbia’s choice to cut ties with Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center.

On Wednesday, December 7, at around 12:30 pm, a small group of students stood on the sundial with signs protesting Columbia’s plans to revoke the lease of the preschool, which was established by Columbia faculty parents fifty years ago and remains affiliated with the University. Red Balloon, on 125th Street and Riverside, is currently slated to be closed in August 2023, and will no longer be able to continue its status as a Columbia-affiliated early learning center.

At the demonstration, Bwog reporters spoke with Marlee Montgomery, BC ‘26, one of the handful of student leaders present protesting the preschool’s closure. According to Montgomery, Red Balloon is “the only affiliate Columbia daycare service with tuition under three thousand dollars a month.” The school serves families of all income levels in the Columbia area, making it crucial that the preschool is able to stay open. Additionally, “they also are one of the only high-quality childhood learning centers in Harlem that accepts ACS vouchers, [which are like] food stamps for childcare, so it really helps low-income families of color.” Red Balloon is also open from 8 am to 6 pm year-round, allowing it to support working-class families whose parents need childcare for most of the day.

According to the student protesters, Columbia is evicting the school over claims of poor communication and high turnover in leadership; however, Montgomery said that the preschool has been “established for fifty years and had the same director for thirty years.” Montgomery told Bwog that after the longtime director retired in 2019, one interim director passed and another had to leave because of terminal illness before the present director took on the role. Montgomery said, “It’s really grossly insensitive of those who have died and are ill for Columbia to try to leverage their turnover rate and their directors as an excuse to evict such an impactful part of the community.”

In a statement given to The City, a Columbia spokesperson claimed, “Last year, we made the difficult decision to inform Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center that we would not be able to continue their status as a Columbia-affiliated early learning center or to continue to offer our space to the center after August 2022,” and that University-affiliated learning centers “must maintain consistent leadership and adhere to other standards set by Columbia.”

“Even before [Columbia] sent the [eviction] letter,” Montgomery continued, “there has been really poor communication from the University to the daycare… when left to their own devices, Columbia will ignore the needs of the community.” According to Montgomery, Columbia did not schedule a meeting with Red Balloon’s director about the impending eviction until reporters from Patch wrote about the issue and put pressure on the University. “Columbia University,” she said, “is a corporation concerned with profits,” and it’s “a second priority, if a priority at all, to protect the culture and community in Harlem.”

Montgomery became interested in Red Balloon as part of a project in her first-year seminar class, “Performing Publics and Political Activism.” According to Montgomery, “we wanted to examine our role as students at the University and the gentrification of the wider West Harlem area.” Upon further research, her group learned about Red Balloon and its looming eviction. Montgomery referred to the preschool as “a pillar in the community,” representing a diverse group of students and staff. Because many of the students’ parents are Columbia affiliates, the preschool’s closure is “really an issue for Columbia families but also the greater Harlem community.”

Montgomery also spoke with Bwog about the demonstrating students’ grassroots movement protesting the eviction. She said that organizing the protest was “really difficult,” not only because she is in her first semester of her first year of college, but also because Columbia has placed limiting restrictions on student protests of this type. Despite emailing other student organizations to spread the word, Montgomery and her friends faced many barriers organizing their events due to existing University restrictions for independent student protests. “We can’t have a tabling event because you have to be a University-recognized student group,” said Montgomery. “There are prohibitions on balloons at tabling events.” In addition to their signs, Montgomery and the other student protestors held a bunch of red balloons. 

The goal of Wednesday’s demonstration, Montgomery said, was to “get word out to more student groups,” and highlight issues that Columbia “[slips] under the rug.” 

“Our goal is to motivate as much as the student body as possible to pressure admin because that’s our best route of access,” said Montogery. “As University students, we have an impact over the administration and what they think, even though our impact might be small.” 

In addition to speaking to students on College Walk, the student demonstrators shared a QR code link with additional information and resources about Red Balloon. News Editor Victoria Borlando and Events Editor Ava Slocum contributed reporting to this article.

Student protestors via Ava Slocum