Sister Margaret joins the mayor’s new universal pre-kindergarten initiative

Sister Margaret McDermott has another busy morning schedule, and is already making plans on her computer. “I feel that the earlier you can get the children to teach them, the better the opportunity they’ll have,” said Sister Margaret, the director of the Tolentine Zeiser Community Day Care Life Center. “I absolutely love the program. I think it has given a great foundation to our children and it is going to make them successful with God’s help.”

Sister Margaret
Sister Margaret’s pre-k center at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in the Bronx is participating in the city’s universal pre-k initiative. (School-Stories/Andrew Johnson)

Sister Margaret’s students are among the city’s 51,000 universal pre-kindergarten students, 3,300 of whom are  being taught in schools run by the Catholic Church– in this case, St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in the Bronx. Teachers from the religious schools attend local colleges, such as CUNY’s Lehman campus, to get certified for the program. The programs ease overcrowding, though it is impossible to cure that problem altogether. Kym Vanderbilt, who oversees teachers in several parochial Pre-K schools in the Bronx, said Mayor Bill DeBlasio needs the facilities of religious institutions for the Universal Pre-K to succeed, due to burgeoning demand.

“He’s using the Catholic schools because he needs the space,” said Vanderbilt. “There is no room in the public schools.” In the 10 schools that Vanderbilt supervises, including Sister Margaret’s, she has witnessed considerable success. “The directors have been really happy with the teachers and with the program in general,” Vanderbilt said. “In the Bronx, I have not heard one complaint about the Catholic schools.”

Complaints arise, however, from the other direction. Some religious institutions object to rules requiring that religious texts be excluded from the city’s pre-k curriculum. “It is a public school program,” Vanderbilt said. “So, I think it’s really up to each program to decide whether or not they are comfortable living within the guidelines.”

Sister Margaret in Black and White.
Sister Margaret has taught thousands of children for over 37 years.

Sister Margaret has worked for over 37 years with thousands of children inside the three-story, brick complex on the tree-lined block of University Avenue near the Harlem River. “When I see some of the children I knew when they were little boys and girls and they come back and they have been a success, those are key moments to me,” Sister Margaret. She has seen many of them turn into accomplished professionals in fields such as computer science, psychology and acting.

She has lived her entire life in this neighborhood. Sister Margaret was born in University Heights to a laborer father and to a mother who cleaned rooms at New York University. Both were immigrants from western Ireland. She came of age in a time when the the neighborhood was largely white and Irish. Now, it is primarily Latino.

Sister Margaret grew up in a three-room apartment with her parents and her two brothers and three sisters. “I kept at it and I had a good example to follow,” she said of her humble beginnings. Her parents were devout Catholics. She also attended several Catholic schools and was taught primarily by Dominican sisters. “They were teachers who taught during the day, they had basketball teams, cheerleaders, all kinds of things,” Sister Margaret said. “They were very dedicated to their work and they were very dedicated to God. They did everything with little or no pay.”

The single-minded commitment of the nuns inspired her; made her, eventually, want to join them. “I loved the nuns,” Sister Margaret said. That’s why I entered the convent. I wanted to be like them.”

When she announced that she was joining the convent, her parents were not happy. “My mother wanted to be a grandmother,” Sister Margaret said. However, her parents eventually got over it. “They saw that I was happy and I was going to be happy, they were going to be happy.”

Now, her day starts by greeting parents and their kids, mainly black and Latino children, at the door as they enter the building. “I think it is very important,’ said Sister Margaret. “I want to meet and get to know all of the children and all the parents in the morning when they come in. It’s just very important to me because each one is special and I just like to be there and meet them in the morning.”

Sister Margaret  with the kids.
Sister Margaret with her students. .

She also assists the people who work in her office, including college students who help out as part of their program’s graduation requirements.

“She is not bossy, she is actually friendly,” said Kimberley Dale, a social work intern. “Sometimes you don’t want to be at home so you come here to get that comfort.”

Sister Margaret helps to make the school’s daily schedule flow properly, in order to reduce the burden on the staff and children. “She worries about people,” said Darren Reed, an administrative assistant. “She cares for people.”

Over the years she has recruited people to work with her from the community.  “It does not matter if you are a woman, a man, a child, you can come to her at any time and she is there to help,” said Carmen Irizarry, who has worked at the school for 25 years. “You can ask anyone. She has dedicated herself to this community.”

Sister Margaret goes home at night to the church boarding house next door, along with one other nun. She originally worked with 22 others, at a more flourishing time. She then gets up in the morning to continue her work. A septuagenarian, Sister Margaret imagines a time when she may no longer be able to do this work.

“In 10 years, I do not know if I will be sitting in this chair,” she said. But she does hope that the school continues to educate future children in the community.

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