By Evan Triantafilidis
The abrupt announcement of the closing of the Queens campus of the United Nations International School (UNIS) has sparked outrage among parents who now are on a mission to save the school.
The K-8 International school in Jamaica Estates, often referred to as “The School of the UN,” was founded in 1947 by families who worked for the United Nations. Its sister school in Manhattan provides a pre-K through 12th grade education and automatically enrolls students from UNIS Queens once they reach 9th grade.
Ashiqur Rahman, father of a fourth grader at the school, say they were blindsided with the news earlier this month that the school would close following the current academic year.
“This school has been open for almost 75 years,” said Rahman. “It was a complete shock.”
In a letter sent to parents, the school cites a decline in enrollment and a deficit of nearly $2 million for the Queens campus as reasons for closing the school.
The school currently has a student body of 104 students, down 56 students from five years ago. The school says there are 38 students in the elementary school, with just four students enrolled in kindergarten, five students in 2nd grade and four students in 3rd grade.
UNIS executive director Dan Brenner says attempts have been made to keep enrollment steady, but to no avail.
“We have worked to reverse the downward enrollment trend in Queens,” said Brenner. “Our efforts have included multiple direct mailings to the community, large advertisements in local papers and key online educational spaces, production of a UNIS Queens marketing video shared with potential parents at the United Nations, consistent community fair presentations, open houses, and contact with local preschools.
“All of these efforts have not changed the downward enrollment trend,” he added.
The school announced that UNIS Manhattan will accept all UNIS Queens students currently enrolled in the junior and middle schools, as well as provide supervised transportation to and from the Manhattan campus.
However, families at a rally last week say a bus ride, ferry ride and half-mile walk to school is out of consideration for their children.
“Manhattan is not an option for us,” the mother of two students said. “We have to really think from scratch now, it’s a life-changing event for which we didn’t have any plan. We have our home here because of this school. We thought we were all set until middle school.”
Assemblyman David Weprin called for the closure to be put on pause until more options can be considered.
“It’s a real gem in our backyard,” said Weprin. “It reflects the diversity of Queens and New York City. it would really be a tragedy to lose that.”
“We love this school,” added Community Board 8 chair Martha Taylor. “They are exemplary students, we don’t want to see it go.”
Parents also say that the purported deficit of $1.8 million was shared for the first time on November 1, 2021, without corresponding data for the Manhattan Campus.
In the school’s 2019-2020 annual report, UNIS reports that 90 percent of its revenue was made through tuition, which costs around $40,000 per year per student.
Parents like Rahman acknowledge that issues related to the pandemic may have seen the departure of a handful of students, but many still believe the school can serve students for years to come.
“We have a lot of parents who started here because their parents were UN parents,” said Rahman. “They’re now putting their kids here because they love this school.”
Save UNIS Queens has sent a letter to the, Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres asking him to reconsider the decision.
Rahima Akhtar-Lasker, a fifth grader at UNIS Queens, wrote her own letter to Guterres.
“Please help us keep our school open so we can live up to our school motto and make a better world,” she said.
The school says efforts will be made for a smooth transition for students who continue their education at UNIS Manhattan by connecting them with student mentors on the Manhattan campus.
“Our intention now is to do everything we can to support children in continuing their UNIS education, even if it is not on the Queens campus,” said Brenner.