While the debate over universal prekindgarten has been focused on how a plan would be funded, another issue is arising among parents and officials — where would these classes be held?
Queens schools are the most overcrowded in the city, and that is without most of the schools having a pre-K program, and some are wondering if the city Department of Education has a plan for where to put these students when and if universal pre-K is mandated citywide.
The DOE estimates that around 53,000 children across the city would be eligible for pre-K under the mayor’s plan, but the numbers have not yet been broken down by borough.
“Full-day pre-K would be good if you can do it for everybody,” said Nick Comaianni, president of the community education council in District 24, one of the city’s most overcrowded. “If you can find the room and they had the money, then it would be OK.”
He noted that some of the schools in District 24, which includes Corona, Elmhurst, Maspeth, Middle Village, Glendale and Ridgewood, had to cut pre-K due to lack of space.
“From what I got from speaking to people, they don’t know if they’re going to have enough room for full-time pre-K,” Comaianni said.
Isaac Carmignani, president of the CEC in District 30, which includes Astoria, Jackson Heights and Long Island City and is also one of the city’s most overcrowded, said locating pre-K classes is his “biggest concern.”
“They’re going to have to be real creative when looking for space,” Carmignani said.
In District 27, which covers South Queens and the Rockaways, space is also a problem,
“There’s no room,” said Michael Duvalle, a member of the CEC in District 27. “The schools are overcrowded to begin with and we’re not building new schools. The real estate is not available.”
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), chairman of the Education Committee, held a hearing on Feb. 11 on the proposal for universal pre-K during which Schools Chancellor Carmen Fari–a testified.
“It’s the first question that I asked at the hearing,” Dromm said.
One of Fari–a’s suggestions is to utilize community-based organizations that have existing pre-K programs or wish to take part in parts of the city that are overcrowded including districts 24 and 30. In the long term, all future new school buildings would be constructed to include space for pre-K classrooms.
“I don’t know exactly how much capacity they can handle,” Dromm said. “It’s in the process of exploration.”
Duvalle said many of the pre-K programs in District 27 are in CBOs and utilizing them would “alleviate” the problem, but a permanent solution needs to be found to keep them in schools.
“The plan should be to keep [using CBOs] until you find the room in schools to move them in,” he said.
Carmignani noted that there were a number of CBOs that sought to expand or create full-day pre-K in the past, and the mayor’s plan would not give them the opportunity to do so.
“I don’t know if this will be enough,” Carmignani said of utilizing CBOs. “We’ll have to see.”
Beyond CBOs, he expects the DOE to start looking for space in places where they usually haven’t, including seeking expansion of school buildings.
Comaianni said one problem with CBOs is vetting them to make sure they meet the standards. He noted that the organizations the city deals with now are vetted, but the expansion of pre-K may mean new organizations will apply to open pre-K with city money.
“We have to be careful to make sure that the organizations that will be doing this are reputable companies,” Comaianni said.
Transportation would also be a problem, Duvalle noted, if the city decides to bus students to parts of their school districts that are less overcrowded and can fit pre-K classes.
“Bus transportation has a lot of problems already,” he said, noting issues with workers not showing up and ongoing negotiations over union contracts that led to a strike last winter.
Both noted that the plans from both de Blasio and Cuomo see a rollout of several years before pre-K is implemented citywide. Though the mayor wants to start rolling out pre-K this coming September and have the entire city in the program by 2016, the governor’s plan would delay it a year.
Dromm said he believed it could be implemented starting this year.
“I think we can get this set up in September,” he said. “The passion and determination is there and I will do everything I can do in my role as Education Chairman to help move this forward.”
But implementation may mean areas in the city where space exists will see pre-K before areas like districts 24 and 30 where fitting new classes would be a problem.
“They’re not going to have this figured out in District 30 or 24 this year,” Carmignani “Even two years is a stretch. But I don’t mind hoping. We’ll help anyway we can.”