En EspaƱol Know Your Rights
Source: Daily News
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Mayor de Blasio’s plan to expand pre-K faces funding, staffing challenges as students, parents stand to benefit

It’s an audacious goal — providing full-day prekindergarten to 53,000 city kids by September, double the number in the programs now.

Mayor de Blasio is betting enormous political capital on a dramatic expansion of pre-K in the city — the centerpiece of his promise to create equality though public education.

As tens of thousands of parents desperate to find a spot for their 4-year-olds begin a daunting application process on March 3, a Daily News three-part series will examine the state of pre-K in New York City.

We will report on the system as it exists today, a patchwork of programs with a severe shortage of slots; the challenges the new administration faces in reforming and enlarging it by this fall; and the waste and abuse that have plagued some pre-K programs in the past.

For de Blasio administration officials, the fight to expand pre-K goes to the core of their commitment to erode inequality.

“Students who have all-day pre-K perform much better in the rest of their school years,” Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said. “Many middle-class parents send their kids to private preschools, so this is an issue of equity.”

She said the administration is determined to create a universal standard for preschools.

“No matter where you are in the city of New York, your kids are going to be getting the same outcomes — particularly when it comes to social, emotional and academic needs,” she vowed.

The expansion and effort to equalize standards would be a godsend for parents — but it presents an enormous challenge for City Hall, which has just months to find all the classroom space and hire all the staff to fulfill de Blasio’s ambitious mandate.

Funding is still in dispute: de Blasio wants to tax the wealthy to raise $340 million for the expansion, while Gov. Cuomo wants to use funds in the state budget. They also differ on how high the bill will be for the ambitious proposal.

Despite the looming challenges, officials promise that this year, thousands more parents will have access to the programs that experts say set children off on the right path in school.

“It’s going to be dramatically different,” said the chief strategy officer at the Education Department, Josh Wallack, who is overseeing the rollout.

“There are going to be many, many more opportunities, and folks are going to feel that.”

In the current school year, city parents had access to 20,000 full-day pre-K slots, 26,000 half-day slots and 12,700 day-care seats for 4-year-olds that are partially funded by parents.

The programs are primarily funded by grants of $3,600 per child from the state government, with another $3,600 on average coming from the city and other sources.

“It’s going to be dramatically different,” said the chief strategy officer at the Education Department, Josh Wallack, who is overseeing the rollout.

“There are going to be many, many more opportunities, and folks are going to feel that.”

In the current school year, city parents had access to 20,000 full-day pre-K slots, 26,000 half-day slots and 12,700 day-care seats for 4-year-olds that are partially funded by parents.

The programs are primarily funded by grants of $3,600 per child from the state government, with another $3,600 on average coming from the city and other sources.

The Education Department operates about 40% of the programs in city classrooms, using unionized teachers and assistants to run classes of 18 to 20 kids.

The rest are administered by local nonprofits such as churches and community centers.

Seats are awarded using a complex system that gives priority based on where students live, how they rank the programs on their applications and whether they have siblings at the school.

But there is an uneven distribution of preschool programs across neighborhoods, and the quality is uneven, too.

Advocates [including Make the Road New York] say the city would be doing an enormous service if it can address these inequities.

Right now, “where there is the greatest need, there are the fewest full-time universal pre-Ks,” said education activist Jim Devor, who was president of the District 15 Community Education Council in Brooklyn until June.

He said pre-K quality in his district varies, with “pretty good to outstanding” efforts in elementary schools and weaknesses in Head Start and programs provided by community-based organizations.

City officials estimate 73,000 kids a year would attend free, city-run pre-K programs if given the chance.

They aim to offer 53,000 seats by September and slots for every kid by January 2016 at a total cost de Blasio pegs at $750 million.

It’s a staggering challenge that means adding 2,000 new classrooms with 2,000 new lead teachers, plus converting 26,000 half-day programs to full-day and raising the quality of programs that aren’t yet up to speed.

Parents have a lot riding on the success of the mayor’s plans.

For many, succeeding at navigating the complex pre-K system means being able to hold a job. And they believe it means a brighter future for their children.

Gabriela Vivas, 33, and her husband, Daniel Cruz, 34, of Bushwick, are hoping their son Gabriel Cruz, 3, will be able to go to pre-K in Bushwick in the fall.

“I went looking for a pre-K in my neighborhood,” Vivas said. “They said, ‘Registration opens on March 24 but it’s not sure that we’re taking the child. You have to apply and the government will decide.’ So Gabriel might not go to pre-K. I don’t know what to do. I’ll teach him at home but it’s not the same.”

She said she had planned to take a part-time job. “But school might not happen. So my plan is out. To give someone $30 a day to take care of Gabriel, if I’m going to make $200-250 a week cleaning houses, plus money for the train? I’d break even.

“I didn’t know it was so hard for kids to go to pre-K,” she said.
Parents who have seen their kids benefit from pre-K extol the system. Silvia Cervantes, 31, of Bushwick, said that the classes her son, Jhail, 5, took last year in Brooklyn helped him learn language skills.

“Before, he couldn’t write and needed speech therapy. Before, he said it was hard, I can’t do it,” said Cervantes.

“Now he is in kindergarten and is a star scholar in school. The benefit is clear, I’m so happy.”

But Cervantes worries that if universal pre-K doesn’t become a reality, her 18-month-old daughter Jhaelyn could lose out.

“I will need pre-K in the future so I can work and she has somewhere to go. For my son, it was helping, so I want her to have that help too.”

While the mayor and governor tussle on funding, officials scramble to execute de Blasio’s sweeping plans and parents begin to apply without knowing for sure how many seats are in play, community organizations that will handle about 60% of the new slots are waiting on approval from the city to expand.

Melissa Fischetto, educational director at A To Z Center Too in Jamaica, Queens, said that kids in the program are exposed to reading and math, pick up social skills and learn to be independent.

“Pre-K makes a world of difference,” said Fischetto, whose program seeks to go from 20 full-day seats to 90 seats. “We’re laying the foundation now that will insure their future.”

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