When you buy a home in Brooklyn Heights, you aren’t just purchasing real estate, you’re purchasing a lifestyle. The stately townhomes and converted carriage houses, with their window boxes of Algerian ivy winking over splendidly preserved original details — the Grecian columns, the soaring Romanesque windows offering a glimpse of curated furniture — connote a certain level of not just wealth and taste but respectability. These are houses not just for people who have money, but people who have values.
They’re also enormous, which is one reason that, from the 19th-century sea captains with their “great broods of future bankers and fashionable brides” (as Truman Capote put it in his famous essay, “A House on the Heights”) to the “urban, ambitious young couples” with their “Wall Street–whatever careers” that came after, the neighborhood has always been considered “a good place to raise children,” as Capote said.
Capote didn’t have children himself, though if he had, they would likely have attended the Grace Church School on Hicks Street and Grace Court. Located behind a bright-red door adjacent to the landmarked Episcopal church, the school is known as “the oldest preschool in Brooklyn.” And until recently, for as long as anyone in the neighborhood could remember, the school was run by Hope Prosky, who was something of an original fixture herself. Over the course of her 37-year tenure, Prosky gently encouraged generations of Brooklyn Heights children to “expand the cocoon of the little world of home to include and trust in the community.” So familial was the environment that a good number of graduates returned with their own broods to partake in the same whimsical traditions they had as kids: the Japanese Kite festival, the annual Holiday Sing. Of course, New York being New York, many families also left, making room for new families, who paid ever-higher prices for the same handful of properties. But even as the bankers got more bankerly and the wives got more fashionable, the neighborhood remained much the same. Insulated by its status as a historic district, it was unable to grow up, only out, and this Peter Pan quality was part of its charm for transplants from places like Manhattan. To them, Prosky and the fellow teachers at Grace Church — who played “Oh! Susanna” on guitars and dressed up as Pilgrims every year on Thanksgiving — were exemplars of the kind of authenticity they sought in moving to Brooklyn in the first place. “It was this sweet neighborhood school with this kind of loosey-goosey atmosphere,” recalls one.
Then one morning in 2015, one of the school’s 3-year-old charges walked several blocks to her home, surprising her parents, and loosey-goosey started to seem like a liability.
Not long after, Prosky announced her retirement and the rector of the church, which oversees the school, met with the Grace Church School Advisory Board, a volunteer body made up of parents and members of the church, and formed a search committee to find her replacement. Under Prosky, Grace Church had functioned as a “glorified playgroup,” as one parent put it. The children pressed leaves into paper, explored textures, and danced the Wiggle Worm. The atmosphere had often been compared to a “warm bubble bath,” and while this was lovely, there were some who felt the school could turn up the temperature a notch. The ideal director, the board noted in its advertisement, would “embrace our traditions” while being “informed and guided by current research regarding best practice in the 21st century.”
After all, the world wasn’t a warm bubble bath.
The world was a simmering, seething cauldron, one that was only going to get hotter and harder to survive in. If this felt true in general, it felt especially true to the residents of Brooklyn Heights, whose small universe had recently gotten a lot more crowded. The glass towers that sprung up along the waterfront had filled up with families, yet the number of schools remained the same. In the past, parents could pay their way into Grace Church, which traditionally served as a feed to St. Ann’s and Packer Collegiate, one of the two private schools traditionally favored by Brooklynites with $40,000-plus a year to spend on setting their children on The Correct Path. Now this privilege, like all others, seemed in jeopardy.
The wait-list for Grace Church started practically in utero, and even if children were lucky enough to land a spot in one of the coveted morning sessions, it was no longer a guarantee of future success. “You’ve got all of Dumbo, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Cobble Hill, and parts of Manhattan vying for the same number of spots there always was,” said one Grace parent. “The intensity is fierce.” On a clear day, looking out at the towers along the East River, you could practically see their tiny handprints smeared on the glass: the competition.
Of the ten candidates the search committee interviewed for the director position, Amy Morgano seemed like she best understood the parents’ predicament. As the founding director of Kaplan Nursery School, an upstart preschool overseen by the Sutton Place Synagogue, Morgano had done an impressive job of getting the students into competitive institutions like Dalton, Chapin, and Spence. She had attended the prestigious Bank Street College of Education, where she’d done a specialization in child and parent development, and spoke wisely about the “whole child” philosophy. Perhaps best of all, no one could accuse the board of trying to “Manhattanize” Grace because Morgano was from Brooklyn.
But not this Brooklyn. “Real Brooklyn,” as Morgano would put it. She’d been born on the border of Canarsie and Flatbush, a world away from Brooklyn Heights, which in its contemporary iteration felt, to Morgano, almost like a parody of an upper-crust enclave. The women on the board — and it was almost all women — reminded her of some of the women she’d encountered at Bank Street, who had taught for a year, then gotten married. The “diamond-ring crowd,” she’d called them. They had names like Courtney and Blake and Hatsy, and their families sounded like they’d come straight off the Mayflower. Among them were Ashley Phyfe, married to a descendant of furniture-maker Duncan Phyfe; Vicky Schippers, whose family had been in the area since land was going for wampum; Christie Coolidge-Totman. As in President Coolidge.
Morgano was intimidated and not a little envious. She’d married young and raised three children before getting her master’s degree at 40. Now she was in her 50s and had answered the ad in part because the commute would be easier from her home in Park Slope, but the idea of a new challenge — a school that needed to be brought into the present — intrigued her, and she was pleasantly surprised that the salary it offered was commensurate with Manhattan. And while she wasn’t sure about these Diamond Ring Girls, with their shiny hair, perfect teeth, and scallop-edged Chloé flats, looking into their worried faces, she saw vulnerability she recognized. Money can shield people from a lot of things, but no amount stops parents from worrying about their children.
And it wasn’t like the moms of Brooklyn Heights were all Stepford clones, Morgano discovered at the cocktail party the parents threw for her after she was offered the job. It was held at the home of a family where the mother was a managing director at Goldman Sachs, in a renovated triplex on Schermerhorn Street with a roof-deck overlooking the Manhattan skyline. “You know, I actually like them,” Morgano told her husband later. “They seem like a good, progressive group of people who have some of the very same ideas as me.” The board was enthusiastic about the changes she’d proposed. They just had one major request: The school wanted Morgano to keep Hope Prosky on as an adviser. Morgano thought this arrangement sounded a little bit claustrophobic. But she said yes, of course. After all, she’d agreed to embrace tradition.
When the Grace Church School librarian, who we’ll refer to as Mary Smith, arrived in September, she found the place transformed. Over the summer, Morgano had cleaned house. The tall, heavy bookcases had been replaced by lighter, lower ones. A teepee anchored the Twos room; the stained-glass windows filtered light onto an otherwise spare space. The kitchen, formerly a clatter of tea mugs and shortbread crumbs, had been wiped clean. Everyone was oohing and aahing, but it gave Smith an uneasy feeling. Over the summer, she’d requested a meeting with the new director, who’d said she was too busy for one. Now, she wondered if the director intended to replace more than just furniture.
Fortunately, the library was still the same. Perched on the very top floor of the building, the Hope Library had been designed and built by a former Grace parent, an architect, and it was a magical little place with warm wood balconies and cozy window seats overlooking a rooftop playground. “An oasis of tranquility,” Prosky had called it at the ceremony where it was named in her honor, “where children’s imaginations can soar on a boat of endless discovery.”
Smith might have believed her fears about Morgano were the result of imagination running wild, except the entire month of September came and went before she and Morgano had a proper conversation. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” the new director said.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Smith replied pointedly.
Morgano looked at the books Smith was holding. “I love books,” she said, as Smith recalls it. “I would always pick a Caldecott winner to read to my classes.”
Later, the librarian repeated the conversation to the head Threes teacher, whom we’ll call Pat Jones. “Who says that?” Smith said, aghast. “You wouldn’t say, ‘Caldecott winner.’ You would say, ‘I love reading Make Way for Ducklings.’ ”
But Jones was calm. Jones was always calm — she spent her days wrangling mobs of 3-year-olds, so she had to be. She urged her to give the new director a shot. “I think she has a lot of great ideas, and I am excited about learning from her,” she said. “Change is hard,” she said. “You have to sometimes accept change.”
Smith was not so optimistic. Neither, it turned out, was Prosky, who’d found Morgano not to be as grateful for her advice as she might’ve expected. Things had gotten tense between them, especially after Morgano decided to do away with certain Grace Church traditions, like the Thanksgiving and Medieval Feasts. While it may have been true the Pilgrim garb was problematic and the Middle Ages were perhaps not developmentally appropriate material for 3-year-olds, some of the other choices she’d made felt ill-considered to longtime teachers at the school. “She took away our ability to go to potluck dinners,” said one. “Some teachers didn’t like them, but I loved them because you get to know the parents, and you get to see their little world, these tiny kids in these gargantuan houses.”
Morgano, who put a stop to the practice of listing teachers’ home numbers in the school directory and told teachers they could no longer babysit students in their off-hours, felt parent-teacher socializing was unprofessional. “She was like, ‘I want a wall,’ ” said one Grace parent, and while this sounded reasonable, it was confusing for some teachers from the Hope era, some of whom had been Grace Church parents, lived in the neighborhood, and belonged to the same institutions, like the Heights Casino, a preppy tennis club on Montague Street, which, Morgano would often point out, didn’t allow Jews like herself to join until the ’50s. “She used to call us ‘incestuous,’ ” recalls the former teacher. “I think she was referring to nepotism.”
And, they noted, Morgano herself seemed to have trouble with boundaries. Her fawning over celebrities (like Keri Russell) whose children attended the school had become a subject of discussion in discreet Brooklyn Heights. “There was a night to meet her, and she only talked to Maggie Gyllenhaal,” says one parent. (In reality, the conversation may have been five minutes, but five minutes is an eternity to an anxious parent).
Hope Prosky, in contrast, had never been impressed by celebrity. Once, when Paul Giamatti came into her office at the height of his Sideways fame, she’d squinted at his name and asked, “Are you related to the president of Yale?”
Then again, one parent on a school tour back in Prosky’s day recalls the director chasing after a Roosevelt. As in those Roosevelts, so maybe it was just a different kind of celebrity she was impressed by, and those were fewer and farther between these days.
While old-line Wasps still gravitated to the historic district, the demographics of the neighborhood were changing. The Heights Casino was filled with arrivistes, like the family who bought a 12,000-square-foot six-story building on Willow Street, whose ad for domestic help — “Family of six is looking for an energetic, experienced, meticulous, detail-oriented housekeeper familiar with finely curated décor, antique care, silver, and fine china” — became the subject of much snickering after it appeared on a bulletin board at the club.
Perhaps nowhere was this shift more visually apparent than drop-off at Grace Church School, where Preppy Moms in tennis whites and Power Moms on their way to their jobs at white-shoe law firms increasingly found themselves jostled out of the way by Fashion Moms taking Mommy and Me pictures against the backdrop of brownstone Brooklyn. In the age of Instagram, Brooklyn Heights’ Wes Anderson aesthetic had new appeal, and Grace Church in particular had been discovered by Fashion. By the time Morgano signed on as director, the school was lousy with the children of stylists, editors, and designers. Of these, the unequivocal belles of the ball were two former Vogue staffers: stylist Jessica Sailer Van Lith and Sylvana Ward Durrett, the special-projects director in charge of the Met Gala, whose company, Maisonette, a sort of Net-a-Porter for children, elevated the entire Brooklyn Lifestyle to new, well, heights. The site, which was co-founded by Ward Durrett “at her kitchen island” in 2016, had taken to featuring models and “muses” from the Grace Church community in sun-dappled photo shoots. They’d lounge on statement couches while spouting très Brooklyn quotes like this one from Glenna Neece, a former model and the wife of Rag & Bone founder Marcus Wainwright: “A few days ago, Henry cut up an old pair of my jeans and put together a Viking ensemble!”
Unlike the members of the board, this new crowd didn’t seem interested in old-fashioned power and politics: They just wanted followers. In short order, Amy Morgano became one of them. Despite her presentation as a scrappy gal from Real Brooklyn, Morgano was as aspirational as anyone else in Brooklyn Heights, and soon enough she was following the members of the group she called “the popular girls” on Instagram and soliciting wardrobe and shopping advice from its members.
When Town & Country featured the school on a list of “prestigious preschools” favored by “Goyard-bag-toting parents,” its conspicuous mention of Morgano contributed to a growing impression this was a crowd the director was purposely cultivating. “She had a type she gravitated toward,” said one parent. “And in the process, she would gravitate away from others.”
Specifically, the bankers, lawyers, doctors, and assorted other non-sexy professionals who had long been the bedrock of the Grace Church community, who began to feel like they were being shunted aside for more glamorous newcomers. “I heard we had an old-time parent who gave a lot of money to the school — it’s not fair, but that’s what happens — who applied for their grandchild,” one former teacher confided. “Apparently they put in their application a day late, and Amy rejected them.” Morgano was by-the-book, but meanwhile, the daughter of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stylist was able to “roll in midyear,” according to a parent at the school. While there may have been other factors at work — someone had moved, opening up a spot — the optics rankled. “People were like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ ”
Morgano’s perceived preference for the new and shiny was also worrying some of the longtime teachers. In the winter of 2016, Smith heard something that disturbed the peace in her library aerie: A teacher survey had gone out, asking teachers about their hopes for the coming year, and she had not received one. She soon found out why: Morgano wasn’t renewing her contract.
“Hi, Mary,” one of the office administrators said brightly when the librarian came storming by to get her coat. “What a gorgeous day it is.”
“No, it’s not,” Smith snapped. “It’s horrible. I just got fired.”
For Prosky, this was a call to arms. The following month, both she and Smith wrote long letters to the board detailing the ways they felt the new administration was violating the ethos of the school. “In my 55 years I have never seen such imprudent practices as have occurred in the first year of this director’s tenure,” concluded the six-page missive submitted by Prosky. “I conclude that her job needs to be overseen with evaluations of her work in progress. Please do not reply to this letter, but rather, attend to the above concerns.” (Prosky declined to comment for this story.)
The committee was sympathetic, but not in the way the women had hoped. The letters were perceived as indicative of an inability to accept change. A member of the vestry was dispatched to inform Prosky that her contract was being discontinued, and while the conversation was “cordial” according to minutes from the board, the former director was said to be heartbroken. “She thought all these people on the board loved her,” said Smith. “And they did, but they were two-faced. They got change, but they got more than they wanted.”
“Hi Grace parents!” read the email. “The gala is now less than three months away and we are finalizing our live and silent auction items. We still have space for a handful of exceptional, mind-blowing items (think villa in italy for a week!), and we know you’ve been waiting until now to send us your best offers. Please please please don’t wait any longer! #Time’sUp!”
The biannual Gala and Auction at the Grace Church School has not traditionally been a lavish event: It usually takes place in the basement of the church. But in 2017, parents arrived to find the room transformed by the same hands as the Met Gala. Graceful hurricane lamps replaced the harsh overhead lighting, and waiters in tasteful uniforms refilled wineglasses at long tables decorated with peonies and roses while parents bid on auction items that included a dinner at the home of designer Jason Wu. Not long after a piece of children’s artwork sold for upwards of $10,000, Morgano stood up to thank the women who had made the evening possible. “You’re good-looking, you’re rich, and who knew — you’re kind as well,” she said.
Or maybe she said “generous,” or “successful.” People were drinking, and they can’t quite remember, but they do know that approximately half the room cringed in response. “It just didn’t feel like Grace,” one said.
The other half just took the compliment. After all, they were good-looking and rich. Chelsea Redick, who had co-chaired the evening’s auction, was in the latter category. Redick was new to the neighborhood. She and her husband, former Duke basketball star and Philadelphia 76ers player JJ Redick, had moved to Brooklyn with their two children in order to be closer to Chelsea’s identical twin, who lived in Dumbo, where they lived in a $4.25 million penthouse overlooking the East River.
To some, the Redicks were the apotheosis of the new element encroaching on the Heights. Renovations to their apartment included the installation of gold bathroom fixtures and wallpaper that was said to be custom-made to match the first Louis Vuitton handbag Redick gave his wife. Chelsea, who had attended the University of Central Florida, and her sister, were both blonde and dimpled and called one another “twinny,” came across to some as an aesthetic aberration. “They look like Sweet Valley High,” observed one Brooklyn Heights parent.
Morgano was a basketball fan, and she had been happy to make room for Redick’s 2-year-old son when the player’s agent called midyear. And she might have dismissed Chelsea as just a WAG herself if Chelsea hadn’t shown up on the first day, sweet and earnest and offering to help out however she could. Her own mom had volunteered at school when she was growing up, Chelsea said, and she had loads of experience doing toy drives and turkey drives for the various NBA teams her husband had been on. Plus, she said, that’s how you make friends.
“We crushed it,” Morgano once overheard Chelsea telling some parents after a fund-raiser.
There was a pause. “Does that mean … you did … well?” one of them asked.
Morgano laughed. She hadn’t known what “crushed it” meant either until she had met Chelsea. Improbably, they had become friends. On Chelsea’s part, they probably wouldn’t have hung out back in Orlando, but in Brooklyn Heights, where people could be polite to the point of being uptight, she appreciated Morgano’s brash sense of humor, the way she called it like she saw it.
Not everyone enjoyed these qualities. For instance: many of the longtime teachers at Grace Church. “There are some things you can think inside your brain that shouldn’t come out,” one of them used to tell the toddlers in her classes, and by all accounts, Morgano said a lot of those things. “She overshared in a really uncomfortable way,” says one former teacher. “She could not stop herself.” “She’s difficult,” Morgano would say to one teacher about another, even though they were friends. “Don’t waste your time,” she told a teacher who said she was thinking of enrolling in Brooklyn College.
Then there was the board. Once Morgano realized it was an advisory committee, and therefore not really the boss of her, she displayed significantly less patience with the members, especially Ashley Phyfe, the new board president, a blonde stay-at-home mom who, according to Morgano, thought she knew everything about education because she’d taught public school for five minutes (It was actually seven years.) The board was well-meaning but, Morgano thought, clueless, as evidenced by the activities of the Diversity Committee, which was formed in 2017, after the parent of a student who was the only child of color in her class pointed out the school’s blinding whiteness. A proposal to give “diverse” students the same special-consideration status as legacies, siblings, staff children and church members had stalled with the church, which was between rectors, and Morgano didn’t think some of the other solutions offered by the committee sounded practical.* “That sounds like more of an idea that would benefit your kids,” she snapped, when one parent suggested bussing children from other neighborhoods to Grace Church. The silence afterward was deafening.
“The thing about Amy Morgano is, she had no filter,” says one former Grace parent. She’d say the most inappropriate things. “Like, ‘That’s the kind of bag I wish I could have. But you don’t get that in my job.’ ”
Comments like these, in addition to Morgano’s friendly relationship with “The Vogue crowd,” as some parents called them, had an unsettling effect. One parent, after noting that Morgano’s office would fill up with fancy gift bags over the holidays and the end of the year, wrote Morgano a letter noting that, in the past, parents had given a “collective gift,” and argued for gift reform.
“I agree a collective gift is best,” Morgano responded. “However, I cannot insist parents follow the guidelines given.”
The parent was incensed. Still, his child was graduating, so he decided to let it go. Others were not as easily mollified, and believed that Morgano was perhaps “overly solicitous of Chelsea Redick,” as one parent observed, quickly adding, “Not that I care or anybody cares at all.” When an image of Morgano with JJ Redick at a Sixers game surfaced on Instagram in February 2018, eyebrows went up. “This is the person who was like, ‘I want a wall,’ ” says one parent. “People were like WTF.”
The main concern, of course, was exmissions. As the director of the school, Morgano had an enormous amount of power over the futures of Grace Church children. A note or a phone call from a director could make or break the future for a 4-year-old. “And she made sure everyone knew it,” one parent put it.
Each spring, Grace Church School holds an annual exmissions meeting, where the parents of Threes, soon to be Fours, are invited to learn about the stressful process of applying to kindergarten the following year. The meeting takes place in the basement — the same room the gala is normally in — although in this case, no one is having fun. Parents who have been through the terrifying gauntlet are invited to share their experiences, and the director gives an overview. “This is the first time in your life you are not a consumer,” was how Morgano liked to open the event. All the control belonged to the elementary schools. For parents accustomed to control in every aspect of their lives, the prospect was terrifying. “You’re like, palms sweating, edge of seat,” one says.
In 2018, Chelsea Redick was in the audience, scribbling notes as one mother, a lawyer, offered time-management tips for private-school interviews, which usually have to be done with both parents. “I know everyone is busy, two parents working,” she was saying when what was later referred to as The Incident occurred. “So what I would suggest is, pre-clear windows of time in your calendars in advance, so that when a school says, ‘How is a meeting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday?,’ you don’t have to check with your partner.”
It was at this point that Redick, perhaps thinking of her husband’s travel schedule, made a face that indicated grave distress. At which point Morgano, according to people in the meeting, leaned over and said to her, out loud, in front of everyone: “You don’t need to worry about that.”
Morgano would later clarify that she meant for this to apply to all parents whose extraordinary jobs kept them out of pocket for periods of time, be they a basketball player, a brain surgeon, or Peter Sarsgaard. But it’s unclear if anyone heard that justification over the furious rushing of blood in their ears.
In March 2018, Grace Church installed a new rector. The Reverend Allen Robinson, lately of St. James’ Church in Baltimore, was “the first black rector in [Grace Church’s] 170-year history,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle. And the poor man had no idea what he was about to walk into.
Parents were still up in arms about the exmissions meeting. “She said this in a room of the most highly stressed parents in the world,” one parent said.
“All of us walked out like, ‘WTF is going on,’” said another parent, pointing out that many of the parents, though not celebrities, were powerful in their own fields. “A lot of these people are used to having their asses kissed. They’re not used to being ignored.”
Fanning the flames was a new tidbit on the birthday-party circuit, which was that Chelsea Redick was joining the board. Supposedly the family had donated a total of $150,000 — a staggering amount for a tiny nursery school— and Redick had hinted, in return, that something should be named after the family. A gym, maybe. Or the library. (The Redicks say they don’t discuss their private philanthropy but deny that Chelsea ever made such a request.)
Ashley Phyfe had been a little reticent — there were a lot of worthy candidates, and Chelsea was new to the school. But how hard could it be? It was nursery school.
That summer began early for Morgano, who took the last few weeks off school to help her pregnant daughter with child care. This meant she’d miss Goodbye Day, one of the last remaining Hope Prosky traditions, in which children gathered in front of the church piano to perform songs like “You Are My Sunshine” for their parents. It was always an emotional event. But the parents in Pat Jones’s Threes class were surprised when the teacher, who was usually so calm, started sobbing.
When Jones recovered, she explained to the parents and children that she was very sad because this would be her last year at Grace. After 12 years, Morgano had declined to renew her contract. “Some of the things she told me was that I am hard, cold, and lack in outward warmth,” she later wrote in an email to parents. “She said that I have made parents feel I don’t like their children and my learning environment and curriculum isn’t based on what is known about 3-year-olds. I was speechless.”
Suddenly the Reverend Robinson, who had barely settled into his new job, was inundated with emails from parents he didn’t know about a teacher he’d met maybe once. He reached out to Phyfe, who told him that Morgano had informed the board of the decision back in March. The director had given a number of reasons: She found Jones’s demeanor cold, with children and parents alike. She felt Jones preferred children who were “complacent” to those who were more work. And she could be inflexible: For instance, she’d denied Maggie Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard, a separate parent-teacher conference after he’d missed the first one because he was away on a shoot. Since then, Phyfe had met with Jones and found her version of events was a little bit different. (Among other things, she said refusing a high-profile parent wasn’t a decision she would ever have made “without the director.”)
Going forward, it was decided, it might be wise to put some controls on the process. At a meeting with Morgano in July, Phyfe and another board member planned to suggest ways the director might create more “awareness around personnel changes,” according to their notes, including implementing a formal teacher-review system. After all, if you terminate somebody, they want to know why.
The meeting went smoothly enough. Morgano was receptive to the idea of a teacher-review process. In fact, Morgano said, she had conducted a formal review of Jones, which she would show them in the fall. From there, they moved on to the other agenda items, which included a discussion of healthier snack choices—the children were eating far too much Pirate’s Booty—and “sensitivity around the director’s use of social media,” as the agenda delicately put it. Morgano’s relationships on Instagram and otherwise with certain members of the Grace Church community might have led to a “perception of preferential treatment of certain families,” and some of the other parents had tied this to what they perceived as her lackluster response to their requests for help with exmissions. One of the ways Morgano might make all families feel a little more optimistic about the coming school year, they said, would be if she sent out a “Welcome” letter highlighting the active role she intended to play in every family’s exmissions experience. “We need a win,” they said. They were smiling and nodding, and Morgano smiled and nodded back, but later, when she thought about it, she felt resentful at being bossed around like the hired help.
She fired off an email: “Thank you for sharing what you have learned from other parents regarding the stressful process of applying to kindergartens,” she wrote. “Any perception that we have not been responsive is simply untrue.” Therefore: “We have decided not to send additional communication regarding exmissions to our Pre-K families. To do so would somehow legitimize those who make unfounded, anonymous complaints in the hallways or playground!”
School started on September 11, 2018, and has gone very well,” read the minutes from the first board meeting of the school year. “All preschool heads meeting with the Department of Health to discuss requirements like teeth brushing … Exmissions under way … Diversity Committee focused on community outreach … Hatsy Dresher and Vicky Schippers spearheading outreach to Church members … Amy conducting formal reviews for teachers by January.”
In fact, things were not going very well. The previous week, Phyfe and another board member had checked in with Morgano about the goals they’d set over the summer. When the conversation came around to the formal review of Jones she’d promised to show them, Morgano dithered, launching into litany of complaints about the former teacher, how she was resistant to change and didn’t really understand 3-year-olds and would complain about kids who didn’t do exactly what she wanted. Phyfe and the other board member were still wondering where the review was. Morgano looked exasperated. She couldn’t show it to them, she said, because one of the children who was mentioned in it was Phyfe’s. There was a brief, shocked silence during which Phyfe turned a variety of colors. Then Phyfe stood up. “Have we covered the agenda items?” she said smoothly. “Then I think we should stop.”
Morgano later apologized. But after that, Morgano noticed Phyfe stopped saying hello to her in the mornings. A few days later, Morgano posted a Tupac Shakur quote in an Instagram caption: “You can spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months over-analyzing a situation; trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could’ve, would’ve happened. Or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the fuck on.”
One bright spot in December was the Book and Toy Fair. In the past, the fair had been small and churchy and full of old ladies selling handmade ornaments. This year, Chelsea Redick was co-chairing and had organized a pajama party and a band for the kids downstairs, while upstairs parents shopped, sipped wine, and participated in a raffle for high-end toys that she claimed raised three times as much for the school than in previous years. In other words, they crushed it.
Later that night, Morgano Instagrammed a picture of Redick in the school office astride one of the tall stuffed giraffes from the raffle. “What happens at GCS stays at GCS,” read the caption. Scrolling through their feeds, some of the Grace Church parents who followed Morgano were horrified: “It was like Notes on a Scandal,” said one.
“I mean, none of this was hidden,” another complained. “This was very open. Which is what made it so upsetting. If you are going to do this make it more discreet, so it’s not so upsetting.”
“Oh my god,” her friend interjected. “That’s not your quote.”
Over the holidays, Morgano had heard some disturbing news. Phyfe had been conducting exit interviews with teachers who’d left the school during Morgano’s tenure, and the stories they’d been telling weren’t pretty: Morgano had created an environment of fear at Grace, they said. She’d driven rifts among members of the teaching staff and had made comments that suggested some of the older teachers who had left the school had been purposely pushed out in order for Morgano to make room for younger ones. “Young teachers tend to fawn over their director,” one of these teachers said. “I think she liked that fawning over her a lot.”
Phyfe hadn’t mentioned this when she and two other board members came in to discuss the results of the teacher survey, although they had pointed out that opinions of Morgano among the staff were mixed. One teacher had said she felt like she was “walking on eggshells” around Morgano. As the board presented pie charts suggesting areas of improvement, Morgano felt a bit like bringing up an observation from the earlier parent survey — “VERY White WASP-y tone deaf and often cringeworthy pretentious parent group” — but she felt like she was walking on eggshells herself.
“Happy New Year!,” Morgano commented on Chelsea Redick’s Instagram on New Year’s Eve. “I love you — whoops, I’m fired.”
Redick, who assumed the director was joking, lol’d. But Morgano really was worried.
Since this past fall, there have been certain rumors going around our school,” read an email several members of the board received on January 16, 2019. “The teacher survey administered in October 2018 was a good start to furthering the current progress of the school and providing an outlet for future feedback.” However, it went on to say: “We are extremely concerned that the results of the survey do not reflect the support and appreciation the majority of our teachers feel for Amy as our director.”
The letter was signed by five young teachers, all Morgano hires, which seemed especially suspicious to those members of the board who had heard about the divide within the staff. They consulted with the rector, who decided it would be best to hold a meeting for all of the teaching staff. The idea was transparency, but one of the board members, an attorney, drew up an NDA that she asked the board members present to sign, so that the teachers would feel secure that nothing they said would get back to Morgano. By morning, it already had.
“Chelsea said if it was a drinking game and she had a shot every time Ashley said ‘I’m an educator,’ that she’d have been drunk,” Morgano wrote of the meeting in an email to the authors of the original letter, in which she thanked them for their support and encouraged them to reach out to Chelsea Redick, who she said was planning to speak with the rector on her behalf.
If this was true — and a spokesperson for Redick claims the drinking-game joke is “a fabrication” — she didn’t have a chance before the missive found its way into the hands of Phyfe and board members aligned with the president, who were furious at what they saw as Redick’s betrayal and Morgano’s attempt to manipulate the situation. Something, they decided, needed to be done.
An emergency off-site meeting was convened the following day, January 22, 2019. When Chelsea Redick arrived at the Brooklyn Trust Company Building on Pierrepont Street, the home of one of the members, the 17 other members of the board, along with the rector, were gathered in the top-floor owner’s lounge. The mood was grim. Someone had brought in bagels, but no one touched them as, for the next three hours, the fate of Morgano was debated. Evidence of Morgano’s alleged inappropriate conduct was produced, including portions of the teachers’ survey, Phyfe’s exit interviews with teachers, and emails that included the “drinking game” email. Redick’s name had been blocked out on the page, and her friendship with Morgano was not directly addressed. But according to someone present at the meeting, around the time they began to discuss the director’s inappropriate use of social media, Redick began to cry, and she didn’t stop until well after the board voted 16-2 in favor of removing the director from her position.
Redick did not, as promised, follow through with telling Morgano what happened at the meeting. Morgano didn’t find out until the following afternoon, when she was summoned to the rectory, where she found the Reverend Robinson sitting with one of the junior church wardens. “Effective immediately, you are terminated,” he told her.
“Why?” Morgano asked.
“We’re not going to discuss that,” said the junior warden. It was the end of the school day, but teachers were still puttering around the building when the warden escorted her to her office to gather her things, and outside, parents with strollers were idling on the curb where Morgano found herself put out. Even after everything, she was stunned. Later, when she opened the separation agreement the warden had given her, she almost laughed: The school had offered her just $10,000. Apparently, not a single one of them had any idea what it costs a normal person to live in Brooklyn.
“We are writing to let you know that Director Amy Morgano will be transitioning from our school, effective immediately,” read the letter from the Reverend Robinson and Phyfe that parents received later that evening. “We recognize that you may have questions and we assure you that this transition comes only after careful thought and reflection, and with the best interests of our students and highly capable caring faculty in mind.”
It was true: There were questions. But with NDAs on top of NDAs, no one was willing to answer them, and in the absence of information, rumors swirled. “If they’d just fired her in June, no one would have noticed, but they did it in such a melodramatic way it makes everyone think something must have happened,” said one parent. Morgano herself never got an official reason for her firing. But a few weeks later, she found a clue in an unmarked envelope in her mailbox: the word KARMA, spelled out in stickers on Grace Church stationery. She wasn’t sure who the sender was, but she had a couple ideas.
After she was fired, Morgano retained a lawyer, Doug Schneider, who has been in communication with the Grace Church School regarding the circumstances of her termination. “Ms. Morgano has been the director of three different pre-schools and an early childhood educator for 25 years,” he told New York in a statement. “She took over a struggling Grace Church School and in a short time built it into the prestigious school it is today. The way she is treated was shameful and we look forward to vindicating her legal rights and her reputation.”
The school responded to this with a high-powered law firm, Schulte Roth & Zabel, as well as a crisis-management expert best known as the former spokesman of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It seems that sweet Grace Church understood how best to prepare its children for a cruel, competitive world all along. “What I find to be kind of comical is that Amy does not understand why she was fired,” says Pat Jones, the former head Threes teacher whose dismissal had tugged heartstrings on Goodbye Day. “As she wrote in one of her social-media things, #meanrichpeople. Does she really think it was mean rich people? I don’t think she has any idea that I never really went away. That I played kind of a big hand in a lot of this.” Calm and controlled as ever, Jones went on: “I think Amy assumed, because I am quiet, she was going to tell me she wasn’t renewing my contract and I was going to walk away quietly. I refused to walk away quietly. The minute Amy started telling me these lies about why she was not bringing me back, she had a fight on her hands that she was never ever going to win.” Jones had spoken to Phyfe and the members of the board “many times,” she said. “I spoke up, and I didn’t go away, and I kept coming back again and again and again. I just kept the ball rolling. I just kept giving those stories to the board. And I was prepared to take this further and further. I was not going to go away until [I saw] the result that I wanted. I would accept nothing less.”
It’s unclear if the Redicks will be returning to Grace Church school in the fall; JJ just signed with the New Orleans Pelicans. The school has hired a new director. This time, it went with a candidate who came from closer to home: a former Grace parent who’d served on the board during the Prosky years. The rector offered a placid statement from the former Bloomberg spokesperson. “During the school’s administrative transition this winter, our great staff ensured that the children’s joyful classroom routines continued seamlessly. We look forward to starting a new school year in September, and welcoming our students and families who will continue to enjoy the level of caring, expert teaching, and sense of community for which Grace Church School is known.” The bubble bath roils on.
*This passage has been updated to clarify the specifics of the proposal, which according to the school passed as soon as the new rector was in place, in advance of the next school year.
*This article appears in the July 8, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!