The rocky road to pre-K

Downtown Express photo by Milo Hess A young protester joined Moms Demand Action marchers across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall Park Saturday. They’re calling for tighter restrictions to our country’s gun laws.

BY JOSH ROGERS  |  Pre-K is like many things in life — you’re either in or out  — so you might think there’s just two stories to tell, but really there are many more than that.

Talk to Principal Alice Hom at Chinatown’s P.S 124 and she’ll tell you that she still has a full-day pre-K classroom to fill, and there’s only a few days before the first enrollment deadline, June 20. But she’s confident the last 18 spots will be taken by a mix of families. Some have not yet registered for their spot, others are on the waiting list, still more are  outer borough people who work nearby and who have been coming in the last few days.

It’s not surprising that Hom will not only be able to offer seats outside of her school’s small zone area, but also entirely out of sprawling District 2, which includes almost all of the broad Downtown area as well as parts of Midtown and the Upper East Side. Chinatown will be an oasis of pre-K this September as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s large expansion of full-day seats.

But even with the expansion, nearly two out of every five of families who applied, including mine, were not offered any public school seats anywhere (we’re waitlisted at six). The number of waiting 4-year-olds, 37 percent, has to be much higher in Downtown Manhattan which so far has seen minimal expansion outside of Chinatown, even in places where there’s room. 

Chinatown actually has more full-day seats than it does eligible children  — 145 spots for every 100 children  — according to an analysis done by WNYC’s SchoolBook. But the two other Lower Manhattan sections grouped in the survey only have 6 spots for every 100 4-year-olds.

P.S. 234 Pre-K?
That’s why Catherine McVay Hughes, Community Board 1’s chairperson, asked last week if a pre-K classroom could be opened in Tribeca’s P.S. 234, which typically has long kindergarten waiting lists, but this year is under-enrolled by 27 kindergarten students  — potentially freeing up one classroom.

The Dept. of Education’s Drew Patterson shot her suggestion down immediately saying you couldn’t count on the space permanently.

“The other thing with opening pre-K in a single year when a room is available is what happens next year when fewer kids opt to go to private school,” he asked Hughes at the June 13 meeting of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s overcrowding task force.

Actually what would happen next year is that the pre-K students would apply for kindergarten, and a whole new crop of families would be denied a pre-K opportunity at P.S. 234 — but they also wouldn’t have been promised one. So it was far from clear what the problem was that Patterson was identifying.

D.O.E. officials have been adamant so far about not creating temporary spaces with one notable exception — Silver, who wields much power in Albany, got them to open one temporary full-day pre-K class at Spruce Street School.

It’ll only be one year because the Lower Manhattan school community has been pushing for years for the D.O.E. to stick to the plan to grow the school into a K-8.

Still the Spruce addition did not give much chance to Lower Manhattan families without a sibling in the school.

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising that our 4-year-old didn’t get a pre-K spot in a local school,” Victoria Grantham, a Tribeca mother who contributes to this newspaper, told me. “There were very limited options in terms of full day programs (only two were relevant for us) and there were very few spots within those schools.”

As it turns out, the P.S. 234 idea is not workable, primarily because the principal, Lisa Ripperger, is looking to fill the space with more kindergarten students. Like some other principals in the city, she is far from excited about opening pre-K.

“That’s a separate budget — that’s federal money so it’s not supportive of anything else in the school and yet it takes resources,” she said at Silver’s meeting last Friday.

But there are District 2 schools which did want full-day pre-K seats and were denied. 

“The D.O.E. missed an opportunity to maximize the pre-K seats in district programs,” he said in a phone interview this week. “We made repeated requests to open these seats in April, May, and June and there hasn’t been any movement.” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the district’s Community Education Council.   

The city is still scrambling to find 8,000 more full-day seats to meet the mayor’s goal of over 53,000 this September, so perhaps they are about to move. An Education Dept. official told me on background that some of the seats to come will be in public schools, which many parents say they prefer to the private school options the city is creating. 

Goldberg has been leading the charge to expand pre-K in the district for years. He has dubbed the area a “pre-K desert” and said P.S. 340, a brand new building on Sixth Ave. and17th St. with some un-programmed classrooms, is a prime spot to open some full-day rooms.

“P.S. 340 has three half-day sections, they wanted three full-day sections and they were rejected,” Goldberg said at a C.E.C. meeting Tuesday night. 

Siblings Blocked
The school is centrally located to accommodate parts of the “desert,” such as the West Village, with 9 seats for every 100 children, Gramercy with zero seats for its 196 4-year-olds, and the neighborhoods in and around Chelsea, which has 17.

P.S. 340 also might be a source to help solve a sticky situation for a group of perhaps a few dozen families who have been slighted at P.S. 41 and 3 in the Village, and P.S. 116 on E. 33rd St.

At P.S. 41, 18 children with siblings in the school were rejected for half-day spots, shortly after they say the school promised them one. 

Adding to the muck, is that these same rejectees next year will jump ahead of the children admitted ahead of them to P.S. 41 pre-K this year. If there were to be a waiting list for next year’s kindergarten class, the new pre-K families could be bounced from the school even if they are within the zone, because many do not have siblings.

“What we’re being told now is your 4-year-old has to go to school somewhere else and then he or she will be grandfathered in kindergarten starting next year and there’s no educational justification for that,” said Maud Maron, one of a half dozen P.S.41 parents who attended the C.E.C. meeting Tuesday night.

The old kindergarten waitlists did not return this year at Tribeca’s P.S. 234 in part because the school was able to add two additional classes for a total of seven.    Downtown Express file photo by Julie Shapiro
The old kindergarten waitlists did not return this year at Tribeca’s P.S. 234 in part because the school was able to add two additional classes for a total of seven.
Downtown Express file photo by Julie Shapiro

She has two children in the school, but was denied a spot for her youngest because the city changed the school zoning lines a few years ago.

She and other parents at the meeting said during the rezoning debates, the principal said the sibling rules would apply, and as recently as this month, they say they got an email from the parent coordinator saying they’d be able to register.

But apparently the Dept. of Education never extended the sibling rules to pre-K.

The C.E.C.’s Goldberg said the city has quietly agreed to change the rules for next year, essentially admitting their mistake, but the D.O.E.  declined to respond to most questions for this article. 

Shino Tanikawa, the C.E.C.’s president, said the Education Dept. is trying to shift the blame onto to them, but added the D.O.E.’s Elizabeth Rose, who was in charge of rezoning at the time, did not disclose any exceptions. 

“There was no mention of ‘for kindergarteners’ or ‘for first graders, not for pre-K,’” Tanikawa said. “She said clearly siblings would be grandfathered in so they would stay together.”

Private Pre K’s & Chelsea
The sibling rules have a decided effect in the P.S. 11 zone, where I live, since the school only has 18 pre-K seats. The only family I know that got accepted there has a sibling in the school, and I understand all of the spots go to brothers and sisters of students.

“It’s easier to get into Harvard than P.S. 11,” said one friend in a similar situation as me.

My other neighborhood school, P.S. 33, also three blocks away, has two full-day rooms, so elder children in the zone are typically accepted, but we’re one block out of the zone.

The D.O.E. has been pushing what they now call Community Based Early Childhood Centers as an alternative.

The mayor even called me a few days before my rejection letter to tell me no matter what the results of the public school application, there are other good options available.

Under other circumstances, I would have of course been flattered and would no doubt have tried to speak with him more about pre-K and other city matters, but the call was a recording.

One of the private options near me continues to get reimbursement for half-day classrooms there, but they were denied a full-day approval by the city. On a visit, a school leader told me another of their locations elsewhere in the city was approved, and they got a form rejection email from the city denying them a spot without any info.

It seemed like a fairly good program and I couldn’t guess why they were rejected, particularly since another program a little further away was accepted even though they have not yet set up their space, or hired a director or teachers. 

Harry Hartfield, a D.O.E. spokesperson, said the private pre-K’s all received “rigorous” scrutiny, but he said he would not discuss any particular decisions.

So many of us, the 37-percenters across the city, wait.