Downtown Notebook: Notes from the front lines of pre-K

Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers Pre-K recruitment Downtown.
Downtown Express photo by Josh Rogers
Pre-K recruitment Downtown.

BY JOSH ROGERS   | I woke up last Sept. 4 with a plan. It was the first day of public school in the city, but I knew the chances  my 4-year-old son would be in class somewhere that day were slim to none.

Slim was actually overly generous.

“You can’t do that,” P.S. 11’s lovable crossing guard shouted at me after she realized I was serious. I had just told her literally in passing that I was going to try and enroll my son in pre-K there that day.

I knew she was right, but when I’m not being a curmudgeonly editor, I actually have an optimistic side. I had also heard from a few parents over the years who were able to finagle a pre-K spot in another Chelsea neighborhood school, P.S. 33, despite being officially rejected. But I soon found out that either it was a loophole that has been closed, or I didn’t try hard enough.

Either way we were turned away at both schools that morning after waiting in two long lines of parents sorting out school bus problems, something which I now assume is a first-day school ritual.

Had the city’s pre-K number crunchers looked at our file that day they would have been confused.

We were already signed up for what perhaps was called at that time a pre-K “CBO,” a community-based organization which has been central to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s massive expansion of full-day pre-K seats. (By my count, the name has been changed at least twice, and as we go to press they are now called “NYCECCs,” New York City Early Education Centers.

The full-day program roughly doubled last year just a few months after nearly $300 million from Albany money came through, and it could expand by another 40 percent or so this year to over 70,000 children.

As it turned out, that same fateful Thursday was our CBO’s (just call me old school) open house and our first chance to meet the program’s director and teachers.

I was not concerned over the summer that the school had not yet gotten its furniture or supplies, but my wife and I did want to meet the people who would be responsible for our son before he attended.

Class for him was not scheduled to start until that Monday, although his school did not have the permitting problems that delayed some other openings. I was surprised they were able to hire what looked to us to be a high-quality staff.  My son was happy to check out the room’s new toys and meet the teachers.

So with the family on board, we were in for real. We told our nursery school that we were dropping out, losing one month’s tuition, but saving the next nine.

We were unusual among our peers. My son’s close friends all applied for public pre-K spots, but all stayed in their private schools.

The only families I knew who enrolled in full-day pre-K, were either zoned for P.S. 33 — we’re one block out of the zone — or had a sibling in P.S.11, which only has 18 spots. Our number there was in the low 20s so had every accepted child declined to enroll, we were still unlikely to get a seat.

The story was more pronounced further Downtown, where some schools actually lost pre-K seats because of kindergarten overcrowding. Many of the full-day seats available in Lower Manhattan went to those with siblings already in the school, who have the highest priority.

An analysis by WNYC’s SchoolBook last year found that in parts of Lower Manhattan, there were only six seats for every 100 4-year-olds.

Chinatown was the one exception where there were more seats than 4-year-olds, so principals and others did outreach across the city.

I was getting weekly calls from the city about pre-K programs. Some were recorded, including one from de Blasio, but others were live people.

With a year to plan this year, the D.O.E. was able to find rooms even in Lower Manhattan.

The new Peck Slip School, has made 12 rooms available, two as part of the school and 10 in a separate pre-K center, which will be able to stay only a few years as the school fills out.  The city is also opening a center in its Tweed headquarters on Chambers St., and in a few existing private nursery schools Downtown.

I wonder if they will all fill up. The application deadline is at the end of the week, but programs with space will still be taking students. Josh Wallack, the D.O.E.’s  chief strategy officer, told me this week, that he thinks the final number this year will be over the 70,000 goal, but “the main thing is to make high-quality pre-K available to everyone who wants it.”

Many of the parents I’ve talked to about pre-K, would have loved to have had their child enrolled, but only if they expect their child to stay for kindergarten. Otherwise, it would’ve meant switching schools twice in two years.

Wendy Chapman, a parent leader at Tribeca’s P.S. 150, said the small school community goes through an annual angst with pre-K parents upset to be waitlisted for kindergarten under a fresh application process.

“We have had a crisis every year and there’s at least one family that takes it very personally and ends up leaving our school because they are so angry,” she said at a Downtown school meeting last week. “Try and tell a 4-year-old you can’t stay….

“ ‘Just hang on ‘til August, it always works out,’ ” she’s tried to tell disappointed parents, often to no avail.

City officials at the meeting of Assemblymember Sheldon Silver’s School Overcrowding Task Force said they would take a new look at the priorities, but they are reluctant to put families who lose the pre-K “lottery” at a disadvantage the next year.  

Another concern is that some of the programs don’t have afterschool programs, making it undesirable to many families with two parents working full time.

“We’ve made one very significant positive step but we know we can’t meet every single need of families right way,” Wallack said in a phone interview.

Some of the community-based organizations are no doubt worried about filling up. At my son’s school last year, they had to lay off his terrific head teacher and others because of low enrollment. Then there were other staff changes with a few weeks of uncertainty until a new director/head teacher came in.

This year, they have much more competition as nearby P.S. 340 on Sixth Ave. is offering 72 full-day seats, when in its first full year it had none. The school apparently wanted full-day but was denied. When I visited as a prospective kindergarten parent a few weeks ago, there were only about a dozen children present in one of the half-day pre-K rooms set up for 18.

Wallack said there has been a change of heart this year and the city is willing to open spots for  a year or two as more space is found down the road.

That attitude would have helped us last year, but all things considered, my son’s had a good school year and we’re up nine months tuition.

Josh Rogers is the editor of

Downtown Express.