BROOKLYN — As the de Blasio administration focuses on building free pre-K programs for 4-year-olds, some advocates worry lesser-known programs serving younger, low-income children are taking a hit.
The Administration for Children's Services' Early Learn program — which serves 32,000 kids as young as 6 months in high-need areas across the five boroughs — is facing a host of obstacles.
They include the mounting cost of health and liability insurance, declining enrollment and changes in how service providers are paid, according to school directors.
Unless the city addresses these issues, some community-based organizations that run Early Learn programs say they will be forced to close their doors this fall.
"Early childhood education has clearly become a citywide priority," said James Matison, executive director of the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society that runs five preschools for low-income children.
"What concerns many leaders among the community-based organizations and advocates is the sense that so much energy and funding is being focused on the UPK effort that other critically important early education programs are being left high and dry."
One foundering Early Learn program is Park Slope’s ACE Early Childhood Center, which has been operating for more than 35 years, but has struggled with Early Learn's recent policy changes, including a new funding scheme that reimburses organizations based on the number of students enrolled rather than the organization's capacity.
At the same time, the city added new eligibility requirements for Early Learn — parents must show six pay stubs from a job that pays at least minimum wage — which has made it more difficult for families to enroll, particularly those who work low-wage jobs for cash, director Michelle Rehfeld said.
As a result of these changes, ACE is down to just 34 students this year even though the center can hold 55, leaving an entire classroom empty.
Rehfeld is behind on rent, has struggled to pay her staff and has not taken a salary this month — and she's not sure whether she'll be able to keep her doors open this fall, or if she'll have to merge with another center.
“Everything is in arrears,” she said.
Another issue affecting ACE and other Early Learn programs dates back to the Bloomberg administration, which forced community-based organizations to shoulder their own health insurance costs in 2012 and their own liability and workers' compensation costs in 2013, advocates said.
"The issue was that we — all childcare centers — never had to pay these [insurance] costs at all with our meager budgets before, and now that our budgets are still meager, we have to pay for it all," Rehfeld said. "Combined with the under enrollment, that is the major issue."
Another disparity between universal pre-K and Early Learn is in teacher salaries, with the city's pre-K teachers getting a salary boost under de Blasio while teachers of younger children will see their salaries remain the same, advocates said.
"These issues must be addressed quickly if the high-quality objectives of the mayor for early childhood education are ever to be a reality," said Matison, from Brooklyn Kindergarten Society.
Ana Aguirre, executive director of East New York’s United Community Day Care, has also struggled with the city's new enrollment requirements for Early Learn.
"Many of the people working in bodegas, barber shops, beauty salons might be making minimum wage with tips, but you send the documents to the city and don’t qualify," Aguirre said, noting that ACS sometimes took two months to process paperwork.
In the meantime, rather than turn those students away while waiting for their paperwork to be approved, United Community Day Care often takes them in and "absorb[s] the loss" before city funding kicks in, Aguirre said.
United Community has also been walloped by the roughly $40,000 the nonprofit had to pay for workers compensation and liability insurance this year, Aguirre said.
“All of these issues affect your enrollment rate and therefore your ability to pay all of your expenses,” she said. “It put a lot of pressure on day care centers.”
The de Blasio administration and ACS have been meeting with education leaders and advocates to find ways to support early childhood education, city officials said.
Overall, Early Learn centers are operating at 88 percent capacity, according to ACS, with 34 of the 364 sites across the city serving less than 75 percent of their contracted capacity.
"As a city, we have supported expanding child care through every possible avenue," ACS spokesman Christopher McKniff said.
The agency "diligently" assists centers with efforts to increase enrollment and provides fiscal oversight, he said, noting that the agency is working with the most struggling centers on individualized enrollment plans.
Many early childhood education providers say they're determined to find a way to survive.
“Closing is not an option," Rehfeld said. "I’ve put my heart and soul into this place and my meager finances."