If it goes off without a hitch, it may be the shining moment of Mayor de Blasio’s term in office so far. If it doesn’t, it could be a black eye to any chances of a second.
As summer winds down, a new school year prepares to start up, and with it, 50,000 new prekindergarten students, the first class of the city’s universal pre-K program who will be entering the classroom for the first time on Sept. 8.
“Full-day pre-K will be transformational,” de Blasio said Monday in Richmond Hill, adding that the goal is to allow all children in New York City, no matter what neighborhood they come from, to go into kindergarten on equal footing.
“I think as years go by, we will see a lot more kids going into kindergarten ready,” he added.
There has been little criticism from within city politics on the concept of universal pre-K — even de Blasio’s Republican opponent Joe Lhota supported the idea — but there have been concerns, usually centered on the questions of how to pay for it, where to locate these classes and what kind of quality will they be.
The cost issue was taken care of, at least for now, when Gov. Cuomo decided to fund pre-K through the state budget, a deal struck after he rejected de Blasio’s proposal to raise taxes on higher incomes to pay for the program.
Sources in the de Blasio administration and in the state Legislature have said they expect the tax plan, which needs Albany’s approval for the city to implement it, to be revisited if Cuomo’s funding proves to be not sustainable.
Space is a huge issue. Several parents and community education council members from Central and Northern Queens have said they cannot implement a pre-K program due to lack of space, and some schools have actually had to cut programs in the past due to such constraints.
Because of the space issue, many programs are being held outside of schools, including at libraries, religious institutions and community-based early childhood centers across the city.
Holding pre-K classes in private buildings, however, has unearthed another major issue — health code violations.
Earlier in the summer, the administration received some unwelcome press when it was discovered that dozens of proposed pre-K sites had numerous violations.
Last week, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the city Department of Education gave an update on the status of those violations.
“We have worked very hard to ensure ... to make sure every child is learning in a safe and healthy environment,” Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said in a telephone press conference last Friday with Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett and Deputy Health Commissioner Daniel Kass.
Buery said that the number of sites with violations in need of immediate correction- dropped from 33 citywide to just 12 over the last few weeks, and violations that require corrections to be made within two weeks dropped from 76 citywide to 28.
Buery added that hundreds of more minor violations were begin worked on in a “quick and rapid manner.”
The Department of Health is teaming up with the Department of Buildings and a 20-person team from the FDNY dedicated to issues involving pre-K sites.
Bassett said sites that have serious violations, which can include improper inspection of fire extinguishers, food stored at the wrong temperatures or missing paperwork, can be shut down until the issues are remedied, and students will be placed at another location.
“We know from a health perspective how critical pre-K is for a healthy life,” she said. “We take very seriously that child care centers are safe.”
Inspections will continue as an “ongoing process,” Bassett said, adding that the city will initiate a new program aimed at helping sites clear violations faster and preventing them in the first place.
The new program, which is expected to be in place by November, will help sites get the assistance they need to bring themselves up to code, fix violations quickly and take preventative measures, including more inspections initially to improve their performance.
“We’ll be hiring staff soon and ramping up,” Kass said. “The first move is to identify sites that qualify for this program.”
Regarding space as the program grows, de Blasio said Monday that the city is allocating $1.3 billion toward constructing new school buildings for the 2016-17 school year and beyond that will add space for pre-K or free up room in existing schools for the programs.
“We have made a huge financial commitment to this,” the mayor said.
He acknowledged that many of the locations are in poor and minority communities, many of which did not have pre-K before this year. Among them is the Saratoga Family Inn in Springfield Gardens, which is home to dozens of homeless children.
For those who are still looking to enroll their students, it is not too late. There are still pre-K options available across the city in schools and CBCs. Parents of 4-year-olds are encouraged to reach out directly to their local public school to see if there are spaces available. They can also visit nyc.gov/prek or text prek to 877877 to learn about other free full-day pre-K options.
Additionally, the DOE has stationed enrollment specialists at fairs, outdoor concerts, movie nights, NYCHA family days and other public, family-oriented events to speak to parents and get them the information they need to apply for pre-K seats for their 4-year olds. Elected officials are also hosting pre-K office hours throughout August to inform parents for their options.
The DOE added that, if necessary, pre-K enrollment will continue past Sept. 8, when the first classes are scheduled to be held.