The outcome of the May 29 vote that gave Mayor de Blasio 10,400 universal pre-K seats in September was never really in doubt; nevertheless, the mayor was jubilant the next day when he discussed passage of his signature initiative in Queens Village.
De Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery spoke excitedly on a visit to the A to Z Center Too, one of 204 community-based prekindergarten providers approved last week by the Panel on Educational Policy.
“This very location ... here in Queens is now available to parents for application starting right this minute; it’s happening as we speak,” de Blasio said after he toured the classrooms, met the staff and sat down to chat with some of his smallest constituents.
An estimated 4,500 seats will be in Queens, with Flushing and Jamaica slated for more than 500 apiece. De Blasio and Buery said the majority will be in low-income neighborhoods, where they said the availability of free, full-day pre-K will be a great benefit to working parents.
The administration said it is on track to have more than 53,000 seats by September.
“Quality pre-K works,” James said. “And we also know, unfortunately, that comprehensive UPK programs are often not accessible to low-income residents throughout New York City. Too many low-income families, too many single mothers are left with the options to leave their young child with family members, with neighborhood sitters or in often-underfunded or underground childcare centers.”
A to Z has been on Jamaica Avenue since 2007. Co-director Michael Budhoo said he and his wife, Bernice, also have a facility in Richmond Hill.
State Sen. James Sanders (D-Jamaica) and Councilmember Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) also were on hand.
The folks from City Hall were joined at the podium by a group of parents. Jasmine Farrier of St. Albans, a mother of three, said she already had signed her 3-year-old daughter for prekindergarten in her neighborhood school.
“However, it’s a half-day,” she said. “And I found out that A to Z had slots available for full-day, so I rushed over immediately.”
De Blasio said he has no trouble with parents applying to multiple programs; indeed, he encouraged families looking for just the right fit for their children, schedules and other needs to do just that.
He said, for example, it might be more convenient for a working parent to have a site closer to work than home.
He also said that the scope of the undertaking will require some flexibility as things move to September and beyond.
“We ... know that year one is different than year two,” he said.
De Blasio said the screening progress is a rigorous one, with community-based groups being held to high standards and levels of oversight.
“The key to remember is that whether the pre-K program is in a public school or whether it’s in a community-based early childhood center, what you have to remember is that it is a quality, high-quality program,” the mayor said.
Less than 48 hours after the tour and press conference in Queens Village, the Daily News published a story detailing tens of thousands of violations at more than 1,100 private providers of daycare and pre-K since 2009.
The worst offenders profiled were in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and a followup story said at least part of the problem were understaffed and overworked inspectors.
But the paper also said the de Blasio administration waited three months to provide a list of health code violations that was requested under the state’s Freedom of Information law.
De Blasio and Buery discussed inspections and enforcement at some length on Friday. Both men stressed the term “high-quality” as often as they mentioned the word “free.”
“That’s why not everybody’s approved,” Buery said.
He added that in cases where some places have been turned down, or told they need licenses or upgrades to their facilities to be reconsidered in the future, they are doing so and actively seeking out the appropriate agencies to get approval.
Buery said all applicants need to pass muster with the state and city Departments of Education, the FDNY, plus the city’s Building and Health departments.
He and the mayor referred a question about how frequently the community-based groups would have to be recertified to de Blasio’s press office, which did not respond to a subsequent email requesting the information.
Buery said city agencies are prepared to bring all necessary resources to the task.
“When [de Blasio] says UPK is his priority, believe me, every commissioner hears that,” Buery said. “I hear it and understand it. And so everyone is working together to make sure that we are up and running and ready to go in September.”
Buery said 204 applicants were approved by the PEP, 70 percent of which are currently providing some sort of pre-K services to the city’s Department of Education.
De Blasio added that some of the approved agencies have the space and equipment on-site from previous contracts with the city, but had to curtail or halt their programs when the administration of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg cut funding over recent years.
De Blasio said in many cases, a community-based group can have resources such as health and dental screenings, social services and other things that a neighborhood school would not offer.
De Blasio also cited Central Queens specifically when he said community-based groups will play a vital role in overcrowded school districts where it will not be very easy to expand the inventory of city-run classrooms.
Community Education District 24 in Central Queens has the most overcrowded schools in the entire city. He also mentioned Lower Manhattan and Staten Island.
“One of the biggest challenges in this process is because first of all, this is New York City, so all space is at a premium,” he said. “... Central Queens, obviously, is the number one example. ... If you’re experiencing overcrowding already it means you’re maximizing your school buildings, which puts on pressure when you’re trying to create pre-K programs to find additional space.
“We’ve found in some instances — a lot of instances, thank God — there are good community-based options nearby,” he said.
Not that every parent is always guaranteed placement in the most geographically convenient setting.
“It may be a zone or two over. It may be a mile away, it may be a mile-and-a-half away,” the mayor said. “But what I have heard from a lot of parents, emphatically ... is, parents will go to some trouble to get quality education for their kids. And, oh, by the way, if it’s free, they’ll go to even more trouble.”