Parents Demand Seats in Upper East Side Pre-K “Desert”

Irina Goldman, a frustrated parent of a four-year-old with no neighborhood pre-K option yet available for next fall, spoke out an April 17 event attended as well by (left to right) State Senator Liz Krueger, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Councilmembers Dan Garodnick and Ben Kallos (both partially obscured), State Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Assemblymember Dan Quart, and Public Advocate Letitia James. | OFFICE OF CITY COUNCILMEMBER BEN KALLOS

BY JACKSON CHEN | Each day, Irina Goldman consults a printout of local schools and their contact information. Going down the list, she calls or emails them to find out if there’s any movement on the several Upper East Side pre-kindergarten programs that her four-year-old daughter has been waitlisted for. And the schools’ responses are the same.

“You’re still 252,” Goldman recalled of one school’s reminder of her daughter’s spot in the waitlist. “Every day I’m calling the eight schools. I’m getting sick over it.”

Goldman is a mother to just one of the hundreds of four-year-olds seeking a pre-K seat on the Upper East Side but waitlisted due to a scarcity of available spots. According to the Department of Education (DOE), there were 461 available seats in the area from East 59th to 96th Streets, between Central Park and the FDR, for the 698 applications it received. The agency added that not every application was for an UES seat, and applications don’t equate to families committing to a school.

For Goldman and other parents who have not secured a seat, it’s a daily struggle trying to figure out their children’s educational fortunes for the next school year.

“It sounds dramatic,” Goldman said. “But when you’re the one going through it and you don’t know where to put your four-year-old, it feels important.”

Every school has an individual waitlist, the UES mother said, adding that her daughter, Sophia, was number 45 in their zoned school at P.S. 290 on East 82nd Street. But after speaking with the school reps, she said even 45 seemed like an unreachable number.

Alternatively, Goldman, who lives on East 83rd Street, said she was offered a pre-K seat in the Financial District. However, the 45-minute commute from the UES seemed to pose a safety issue on top of being a logistical nightmare.

“We didn’t accept that seat because it’s physically impossible,” Goldman said. “I also don’t feel comfortable being that far away from my four-year-old. What if there’s an emergency?”

Goldman’s account rings true with many other parents dealing with waitlists. According to Maria Mulic, an East 80th Street resident, her son, who is also zoned for P.S. 290, was offered a spot in the Financial District.

“We’re obviously very disappointed not to get a spot in the zoned school,” Mulic said. “What I was outraged about was that the administration feels that it’s acceptable for a child to go 45 minutes each way, that they consider this a viable option.”

Mulic has given up on the applications process after the Round 2 deadline that just passed on May 9. Instead of dealing with the UES’ pre-K desert, she said, she’s likely to enroll her son into a parochial school that comes at a steep cost to her family.

But for others, like Goldman, paying for private school was outside of their financial means. Stuck with no real solutions, Goldman and other UES parents are left appealing to the city for more seats.

“It’s a very stressful process, and I feel helpless,” Goldman said. “It’s not just me, there are a lot of people on the Upper East Side in the same position as me, and no one knows what to do.”

The parents do have allies in government, including UES City Councilmember Ben Kallos, who is pressuring the city to address the situation. Following an April 30 rally with city and state elected officials, Kallos recommended that parents keep pushing by writing to the DOE and the mayor, while including his office in the loop.

According to Kallos’ count, there are more than 900 kids trying to squeeze into 596 seats in his district, a count that differs from the DOE’s due to his including Roosevelt Island and Midtown East.

The councilmember noted that the city has had overall success in increasing the number of pre-K seats and has recently bolstered the area’s seating capacity to 618 through increasing class size to 20 from 18 in addition to introducing 180 new seats. But for the 2017-18 school year, the councilmember noted, the DOE’s seat count for the area shows a net loss of 22.

“The problem is that the DOE has started taking seats away this year,” Kallos said. “That was the last straw because as long as they were increasing seats 200 at a time, I felt like they were doing good work. But as soon as it got to a point where we were losing seats, I felt they were no longer acting in good faith.”

Kallos said the city should return the seats recently taken away while also approaching private pre-K providers for partnerships.

“If it was my word at stake, I would pay whatever it was worth to make sure every kid had a seat in their neighborhood,” Kallos said.

Goldman suggested raising the class size limit even further to 22 to accommodate those left without schools. While not ideal, leaving 300 children without pre-K education seemed like a worse option to her.

The DOE is aware of the ongoing problem and said it is working on several options to address seat scarcity. According to the department, the School Construction Authority is also in “active negotiations to secure additional pre-K sites on the Upper East Side for coming school years.”

“We continue to take steps to add more seats and meet local demand,” Will Mantell, a DOE spokesperson, said in a written statement. “There is a free, full-day, high-quality pre-K seat for every four-year-old in New York City, and our pre-K enrollment specialists will work with families — across the Upper East Side and all five boroughs — to find the best pre-K seat for their child.”

DOE will also be putting out a request-for-proposals this summer for fall semester seats and is planning to engage the UES community as a part of that.

As for immediate answers, parents are left to their own devices, constantly phoning the schools their children are 10th or 100th in line for.

“I don’t know what the next steps are, you hear that things will open up, but as of now nothing’s happened,” Goldman said. “I’m really calling constantly, but like I said, there’s nothing they can do.”