One month into the new school year, parents and community education leaders say that the rollout of universal prekindergarten on the Upper West Side is going smoothly—despite a summer of hurried preparations and highly publicized doubts.
During last year's mayoral race, Bill de Blasio made providing quality early childhood education to every child in the city a hallmark of his campaign. September tested whether de Blasio could follow through on his promise to find seats for 53,000 pre-K students.
“We haven't seen any issues in District 3,” said Joseph Fiordaliso, president of District 3's Community Education Council—which covers Morningside Heights, West Harlem, and the Upper West Side. “It's something I strongly support. Not all families have the means to send their kids to a private pre-K.”
Especially when some of New York's most popular private pre-K programs cost over $30,000 a year and boast acceptance rates of less than five percent, it is no surprise that many families feel the need for an increase in public pre-K seats.
“The city robs you with private pre-K,” said Jill Dugan, who prior to this year sent her two kids to a twice-a-week pre-K program because that was all she could afford.
With the new pre-K seats, however, Dugan was able to send both of her kids, Morgan and Luke, to a public pre-K program at P.S. 145.
“Now I don't have to pay,” Dugan said. “We're really lucky. I feel like we hit the lottery with getting into this program. It's free, all-day, and five days a week.”
Parents also said that universal pre-K provides a safe, reliable option for child care since each program must meet the city's standards. This past spring, only 60 percent of programs applying to be part of the universal pre-K program were accepted, DNAinfo reports.
“You got to be careful who you leave your kids with,” said Latiesha Staton, who has daughters in pre-K and second grade.
Without universal pre-K, Staton said she would have had to enroll her daughter in another daycare program—an option she is “not too fond of.” Instead, she found a free pre-K program right across the street from the Frederick Douglass Houses where she lives.
“I love it,” Staton said. “Thank god they had an open spot.”
The city added over 4,200 of these full-day pre-K spots for this fall, which is 26 percent more seats than existed in the previous school year. Although necessary for universal pre-K, the expansion also raises concerns for K-12 schools that have already lost space due to being forced to share buildings with charter schools—a trend in recent years as the number of charter schools in the city increase.
“It's a good thing, but it exacerbates the existing space crunch,” said Noah Gotbaum, vice president of Community Education Council 3. “Our schools are generally in demand and overcrowded.”
Meanwhile, preschool teachers who work with two- and three-year-olds asked for a raise last week on par with the one the city gave to their colleagues who teach 4-year-olds in May, DNAinfo reported. To attract and retain high-quality educators, the city announced a $7,000 salary increase for those who teach four-year-olds at community organizations contracted by the city last April.
Now, one month into the rollout of UPK, teachers of 2- and 3-year-olds still feel slighted. After de Blasio approved an extra $42 million for school bus driver salaries in August, pre-K teachers are pressing for pay that matches that of their colleagues.
Despite these issues with space and salaries, many parents and public officials celebrate what has happened this September as a major step in improving early education in the city.
“I think [the city] did an absolutely magnificent job,” Gotbaum said. “Most of de Blasio's critics were expecting UPK to fail, and in fact, it's been a success.”
Ilene Altschul, superintendent of District 3, described the implementation of UPK as “smooth.”
“Kids are happy. Parents are happy,” she said.