NEW YORK — Four children are playing quietly and contentedly in a brightly colored room in a private nursery school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. They are about to teach the grown-ups a lesson.
One of them, 4-year-old Carmen, the bright, healthy daughter of a successful architect, is the sort of child you would expect to find in a school in this wealthiest of New York neighborhoods.
But at Merricat's Castle Nursery School, children of privilege mix with children of poverty and disease. Her playmates this afternoon are Jason, 5, who was homeless until a year ago; Saidah, 5, who helps care for a sick and impoverished mother; and Shira, 4, who has a deadly, crippling disease.
Jason is using wooden building blocks to make a house. It is his favorite pastime.
Carmen and Saidah approach Shira, a plump-faced, balding cherub who was born with a rare immune system disease and is deaf. Carmen gestures emphatically in sign language and points to the boy with the blocks.
"Shira, he wants to play with you," she says out loud.
Nods Her Approval
Shira's fat cheeks crease in a smile, and she nods enthusiastically. She helps Jason build his house.
Gretchen Buchenholz, the director of Merricat's Castle, founded the school 11 years ago on the premise that all children can thrive and learn from each other, given the chance. From the beginning, the nursery school and day-care center accepted handicapped, abused and disadvantaged children. For the last three years, it has been seeking out homeless children as well.
Slightly more than half the children fall into one of those categories. The rest include the cream of the crop from the Upper East Side.
"We were absolutely convinced that kids could be 'mainstreamed,' " said Buchenholz, "and that if you had the right mix of kids in the room, and the right number and quality and type of staff in the room, and the right equipment and a lot of craziness and some courage, you could really help a handicapped child thrive and reach his potential."
The effort is neither easy nor cheap. Leslie R. Williams, an associate professor of early childhood education at Columbia University's Teachers College, says most schools would like to take in disadvantaged children but lack the resources. Among those schools that can take in such children, disadvantaged students generally account for only 10% to 20% of the total, she said.
Merricat's Castle maintains a full-time staff of 18 for slightly more than 100 children. It also has a large part-time contingent of nurses, doctors, social workers, psychologists and crisis-intervention specialists.
The school is on the second floor of a French Gothic church building on a quiet block lined with town houses and apartment buildings. Just around the corner is Elaine's, the restaurant where celebrities hang out.
Visitors enter the school through a fenced-in garden planted in honeysuckle and magnolia. After that, Buchenholz tells them, "just follow the noise."
Tuition--for those children whose parents can afford it--ranges up to $6,000 a year. In addition, the parents hold fund-raisers, and there is some support from private foundations.
Buchenholz, an impassioned crusader who has founded soup kitchens and lobbies vigorously on behalf of the homeless and handicapped, believes Merricat's should receive public funding as well. She sees her school as a national model and is suing the state for money on behalf of "at risk" students.
'Ends Quickly in Death'
"Childhood ends quickly," she said. "In many cases, it ends quickly in death. We are in a great hurry to do something substantial and meaningful to bring relief to these children who are suffering."
Where government will not step in, Buchenholz does. When she discovered the plight of the city's thousands of homeless children, who follow their unemployed mothers from the streets to barracks-style shelters to seedy welfare hotels, she began rescuing them.
Buchenholz has single-handedly taken several families out of the hotels, found them apartments and enrolled their children in her school. Sometimes she seeks them out; sometimes they turn up at the school "the way sometimes cats do."
One night, after attending a meeting of advocates for the homeless, Buchenholz decided to get a firsthand look at one of the city's emergency assistance units, where homeless families sleep on chairs as they wait to be assigned to shelters. It was there that she found Jason, the boy with the building blocks. He was with his mother and three siblings.
Shocked by what she saw, Buchenholz says she made "some kind of silent, inner commitment that I would get them help."
'Begging for Food'