Private Nursery Schools Brace for Competition From Free Pre-K Seats
BROOKLYN — When two new public pre-K programs opened in the Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens area recently, one of the neighborhood's highly regarded private preschools felt an immediate impact.
The Maple Street School — which costs $1,757 a month — struggled to keep its 4-year-olds when some families jumped ship to the free programs at P.S. 770 and P.S. 705, said Wendy Cole, Maple Street's director.
Because of this attrition, Cole now accepts nearly all 4-year-old applicants to ensure her school has enough children enrolled. The cooperative preschool's board will also soon discuss whether to use more of the $60,000 it raises in scholarship funds to keep 4-year-olds in the preschool, she said.
"We try to get people to fall in love with us so they don't want to leave," Cole said. "We lose some kids, and for some kids it's a good reason. [We're] not free."
As thousands more free seats become available this year through Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan for universal pre-K, many private preschool programs may face similar enrollment challenges to Maple Street, school admissions consultants said.
Interest in free pre-K seats has spiked this year, with more than 21,700 families submitting applications for the public school programs as of last week, a 27 percent increase compared to the same time last year, according to Department of Education officials.
"It will have a major impact on the private nursery schools," said educational consultant Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC.
"Up until this point there have been so few choices available [for free programs]. I think that many [private] nursery schools will end up having openings at the end of the process, especially in afternoon classes."
Sue Weinstein, founder of Park Slope's Beansprouts preschool, is bracing for the change by discouraging families from enrolling if they are also trying to score a pre-K seat at a public school.
But families that stick with Beansprouts may end up being pleasantly surprised: The private school submitted its own proposal to offer universal pre-K, which could mean discounts for families who have already registered and put down deposits.
"We did it because we wanted to support our families and our children," Weinstein said of submitting the application.
"We spent hundreds of hours preparing a strong document. But we don't know what anything means until the process is fully vetted."
Some private preschools already offer publicly subsidized half-day UPK seats, allowing them to give a tuition discount or rebate to families, but it is not immediately clear how the process will work this year with de Blasio's planned UPK expansion.
Families are also trying to prepare for the changes in pre-K this year.
Since many private preschools require deposits — and sometimes tuition — to be paid before public programs send out acceptance letters, parents struggle every year with whether to secure a private school spot or gamble on receiving a seat in public pre-K.
For example, Maple Street School, like the majority of private programs, follows the deadlines of the Independent School Admission Association of Greater New York and requires a deposit in March, months before the city sends out public pre-K acceptance letters in early June.
"You really want to know who's coming and you don't want to know in August, you want to know in spring," Cole said of the reason for Maple Street School's March deposit deadline.
Experts predicted that the mayor's promised influx of new pre-K seats would have a bigger impact on parents' choices next year, rather than this year, because families are waiting to see how the rollout works.
"The possibility that the mayor will add seats late in the game will be unlikely to change many parents' behavior this year," said Joyce Szuflita, who runs NYC School Help which assists parents in finding schools for their kids in Brooklyn.
"Would you walk away from your current private program to take a chance on a program that may or may not exist next year, that you haven't seen and to which your are not guaranteed entry?"
Aronow, though, believes parents facing a tight financial crunch may choose to switch from private preschool to public pre-K if they win one of the thousands of new seats de Blasio is creating.
"Those parents who value a private pre-K school or who don't want to even consider the uncertainty for one more year, will sign their contracts and be happy," Aronow said.
"For those for whom money is a concern, some are willing to sacrifice a deposit and some are hoping for the best in the spring."
Enrollment in free public pre-K programs is open through April 23 with decision letters sent in early June and pre-registration from June 9 through 20.