On East 69th Street is typically reserved for show-and-tell, singing and Bible readings. Last June 24, however, the room played host to over 100 parents who had come to hear a more grown-up story from the school’s board of trustees: why Episcopal’s sprightly director, Cheryl Kelly, had just been asked to leave.
Many of the parents-who pay about $10,000 a year to send their child to the private nursery school, and who include such New York notables as Seagram’s former chief executive, Edgar Bronfman Jr., and Miramax The assembly hall at the exclusive Episcopal nursery school Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein-were perplexed. Ms. Kelly had been at the school for eight years and was known to be highly effective when it came to placing Episcopal kids into the city’s top private elementary schools, partly because of the strong rapport she had with kindergarten-admissions directors at places like Dalton and Spence. Indeed, prior to coming to Episcopal, Ms. Kelly had been admissions director and head of the lower school for 20 years at Spence.
“I asked some questions, but they were not adequately answered,” said Brinton Parson, a mother of two Episcopal students, about the meeting. “Cheryl Kelly was the reason I went there-she has an outstanding reputation for placement. I was very upset and disappointed that she was asked to leave.”
“We’re pretty much all type-A parents, and we felt like we were being talked to like children,” said an Upper East Side mother of an Episcopal student. “It was bizarre. They said they thought this was a terrific time to cut the cord, but they told us almost nothing.”
“The school is supposed to be this fabulous education start,” one parent said. “And now, where does this leave us?”
Those who spoke with The Observer said some parents were so upset about the board’s silence that they considered withdrawing donations they had made to Episcopal and had juggled the possibility of switching their children to other nursery schools.
But when Episcopal opened last month after the summer break, Ms. Kelly was indeed gone; the school’s former director of admissions, Judith Blanton, is serving as acting director, and the school has hired a consultant to help it find a new director.
Joy McLendon, the president of Episcopal’s 14-member board of trustees, said she was confident that Mrs. Blanton would do a fine job, and added that the former director’s work would not be forgotten. “We are grateful to Cheryl for her many fine contributions to the school over her eight-year tenure.” She added that she believed the unhappy families represented only a small faction. “On the basis of the calls I’ve received from parents, this is not a controversial issue,” said Ms. McLendon.
Ms. Kelly told The Observer that she was unable to comment for this article because of her resignation agreement with Episcopal.
While many Episcopal parents were huge fans of Ms. Kelly, others reportedly felt slighted by her unwillingness to be cowed by their social prominence. Some close to the school described a cultural clash between Ms. Kelly’s no-nonsense managerial approach and the school’s high-powered, favor-ridden social bent.
“She wasn’t someone to socialize with the parents,” said one Episcopal mother. “She was focused on the kids and wasn’t taken by the whole Episcopal scene. I think that’s something that some parents weren’t happy about.”
“She doesn’t like any shenanigans and name-dropping,” said a former Episcopal parent. “Some families didn’t call right away for applications, figuring they wouldn’t have a problem. And when they finally got around to it, she said, ‘Sorry, there’s a waiting list.’”
In 1998, when Revlon chairman Ronald Perelman requested that his daughter Caleigh be switched into the school’s morning session, Ms. Kelly refused. “Cheryl wouldn’t cave in to it,” said a parent. According to a Sept. 21, 1998, article in New York magazine, Mr. Perelman removed his daughter from school and hired private tutors until the following semester, when he re-enrolled her in the earlier session.
Ms. Kelly also reportedly rattled some parents by trying to broaden the number and types of schools to which Episcopal students applied-a move she felt was necessary in the wake of increasingly tight admissions odds at the city’s top schools. So she would suggest less familiar options like Grace Church School and even P.S. 6, in addition to more traditional favorites like Dalton, Brearley and St. Bernard’s.
Victoria Goldman, the co-author of The Manhattan Directory of Private Nursery Schools , said such broadening doesn’t go down well. “Parents want to believe they’re starting down the path to Harvard, Yale and Princeton,” she said.
“There have not been as many places open, and that creates tension and anxiety among the parents,” said Cynthia Bing, head of the school-advisory service at the Parent’s League of New York, which assists students with their applications to schools. “By and large, there are no kids from Episcopal standing on the Parent’s League doorstep looking for a school. But their school may not have been their first choice.”
Grace Ball, former director of admissions at the Riverdale School in the Bronx, said that Ms. Kelly encouraged Episcopal families to be open to options. “I was beginning to see more Episcopal parents at Riverdale,” she said. “That parent body wasn’t really ready to put kids on a bus, but she was pushing, saying, ‘Go look.’”
One mother close to Ms. Kelly said that on more than two occasions, parents and a member of the school’s board took issue with her placement recommendations for their children. Ms. Kelly was adamant about matching her students’ educational needs with appropriate schools, the mother said, even if that meant contradicting the wishes of powerful parents with top-tier schools in mind.
“Cheryl suggested that due to the student’s relatively weak E.R.B. scores [the nursery-school equivalent of the SAT's], that she not apply to a certain Manhattan kindergarten class,” said this parent. “Ultimately the child didn’t get into that school, and tension between that trustee and Cheryl lingered.”
But if some parents weren’t happy with Ms. Kelly, they didn’t stop donating money: Episcopal reported a steady increase in donations and assets over her tenure. The school’s assets, including investments and real estate, were almost $19 million in fiscal year 2000.
David Knowlton, an Episcopal parent who is also a trustee at the Berkshire School and Kenyon College, said he was neither surprised nor bothered by Ms. Kelly’s departure. “From my experience, I’ve always known boards to carefully and meticulously evaluate their decisions,” he said. “Even though most people never know what’s going on in trustee meetings, what is critical is the stage is set for an orderly succession. On the other hand, it is not unusual at all to have transitions every five to seven years.”
Ms. McLendon declined to comment on the reasons why the board asked for Ms. Kelly’s resignation, saying only that the decision was “ultimately not based on one particular issue at all; it was a variety of things.” She added that the decision was made “with a great deal of thought and discussion with all the parties involved, and over a long period of time.”
But a source close to the incident said that Ms. Kelly was not privy to the board’s discussions until early June, at which point she was asked to resign and vacate the apartment that the school provided for her before the month ended. According to Ms. McLendon, Ms. Kelly balked at leaving, and lawyers for both sides drew up a resignation agreement.
A brief article in The New York Times on June 19 reported that Ms. Kelly “agreed to resign at the request of the school’s board.” Ms. McLendon said she wrote a letter to The Times stating that Mrs. Kelly had actually refused to resign at first, but no correction was printed.
Some parents and teachers said they were also surprised because they received word about the resignation only after it was made-an unconventional approach among private schools, where gentler transitions and more advance warning are the norm.
“To parents and to Cheryl, it seemed really cold and harsh,” said Ms. Goldman . She noted the dismissal of Dalton’s headmaster in 1997, a departure announced four months in advance. “If this board had realized what the repercussions would be, I think they would have handled it in a more sensitive way,” she said.
“For parents with business backgrounds-who are used to boards that keep minutes at meetings, that have elections and accountability to their shareholders-this was hard to take,” said one parent, who called the board’s handling of Ms. Kelly’s resignation “alienating.” “There’s this feeling of a big gap between what the heart of the school is and what is going on with the trustees.”
Although several parents said they are pleased with Ms. Blanton as acting director, the most difficult part of the succession will be how it affects their children’s admissions to the city’s premier schools-which is, of course, why they’re there in the first place.
“Obviously, it will take some time for the new head to get to know us,” said Horace Mann admissions director Lisa Moreira. She added, however, that what’s most important for Horace Mann admissions is that “the quality of the material that we receive from the school doesn’t diminish.”
“Whenever there’s a disruption, I think it’s hard to get back on equilibrium and attract a permanent head, and that’s their main job now,” said Edes Gilbert, who was the head of the Spence School from 1983 to 1998. “It’s hard when these adult issues take over. People forget that these schools are really just supposed to be about the children.&