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Private School Pre-K Discounts Might Be Collateral Damage of de Blasio Plan

By Amy Zimmer | January 3, 2014 7:37am
 The elimination of little-known discounts at private nurseries might be an unintended consequence of de Blasio's pre-K push.
Future of Private Preschool Discounts in Question
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BROOKLYN — In the costly and competitive world of private preschool, some parents have been able to catch a price break.

But the future of these little-known city-financed discounts may be an unintended casualty of Bill de Blasio's plan to give every 4-year-old New Yorker a pre-K seat — and may actually add another hurdle to achieving universal pre-K (UPK), insiders say.

A handful of the city’s most sought-after programs — such as Prospect Heights’ Montessori Day School of Brooklyn and Park Slope’s Chickpeas Child Care Center — get subsidies by participating in the city’s existing pre-K program.

These nursery schools offer 4-year-olds free “half-day” seats — which equal 2.5 hours of class time — while parents foot the bill for the remainder of the school day. The subsidy enables the school to give parents discounts of roughly $3,000 per year, which has been a boon for middle-class families shelling out upwards of $20,000 per year for preschool.

While the details of the new mayor's plan to find enough space for all the city's 4-year-olds are still being finalized, some insiders say it would be a smart idea for de Blasio to take advantage of existing seats in private schools.

However, many private school directors who currently offer half-day pre-K said they have reservations about taking on the mayor's push for full-day pre-K programs — which would total 6 hours and 20 minutes each day — for fear it would affect their curriculum and prevent them from being able to pay their bills.

In order to take advantage of the city's subsidy program, schools have to offer pre-K seats for free. Going from a half-day to a full day would would mean private schools would have to forgo a bigger chunk of their lucrative tuition from parents, if they wanted to receive public financing.

"My guess is that [the]  full-day [subsidy] wouldn't cover my expenses," said Eileen Shannon, director of the Open House nursery school in Cobble Hill, which receives half-day pre-K funding for roughly 32 children. "It's not just the staffing. Public schools don't pay rent, and rent in this area is significant."

The school has been offering discounted pre-K seats for more than a decade, allowing parents to pay $20,760 a year instead of $23,272 for a five-day-a-week schedule, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

"There are definite hoops to jump through," Shannon said, noting that in exchange for the funding her staff has to submit mounds of paperwork to the Department of Education, attend teacher trainings and have increasingly been asked to follow new Common Core standards. But for Shannon, the benefits of the government subsidy were, to date, worth the administrative cost.

"My families pay taxes, why shouldn't they benefit?" she said.

That’s also why Meryl Thompson, the education director of Lefferts Gardens Montessori, signed up for the program, which allows parents a rebate of roughly $3,000 a year for their $1,600-a-month tuition for five days from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.  

Stacy Roupas, educational director of Park Slope's Brooklyn Free Space, applauded the new mayor for focusing on early childhood education, but said de Blasio might lose support from private schools if he insists on a standardized curriculum — especially one that has increasingly focused on test preparation, even for pre-kindergarten students.

"We want to be able to have our children explore in a hands-on way," she added, explaining that her program would prepare children for school through learning about independence and sharing, rather than by preparing them for tests.

Brooklyn Free Space — which currently gives eligible families a $382 a month rebate off of the $1,440 per-month tuition for five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — would most likely not participate in a full-day pre-K program, she said. They could not afford to sustain their arts and other enrichment programs based on what the city would pay for a full day, Roupas said.

She said the city's full-day rate would also not allow the school to offer the same individualized attention. The Brooklyn Free Space has a ratio of 17 kids to three teachers, while public schools have 18 children with one teacher and an assistant, she added.

While some private schools are mulling possible exits from the program under de Blasio's watch, others are considering whether it makes sense to sign up for the first time.

Denise Cordivano, head of school at the Battery Park City Day Nursery, said her school would consider participating, depending on funding, DOE requirements and whether the school could keep its “identity."

Parents would still have to make up the cost difference, since they offer a 10-hour day — roughly four more hours than the standard full-day pre-K.  

“We are looking at [whether] it's something where we can help parents and give the opportunity so children don’t have to stay home with the nanny or themselves. We look at what the community needs," she said. "I can't exist without the community."