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Your Guide to Free Pre-K Programs as Enrollment Begins

By Amy Zimmer | March 16, 2015 7:34am
 A pre-K class at the  Early Childhood Education Center at Brooklyn College.
A pre-K class at the Early Childhood Education Center at Brooklyn College.
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DNAInfo/Amy Zimmer

MANHATTAN — Parents can begin registering their 4-year-olds for pre-K starting Monday.

The de Blasio administration has made pre-K expansion the cornerstone of its agenda and it was widely considered a great success, but the ambitious ramp-up in such a tight time window left many families last year scrambling until late spring and even into the summer for programs.

Some growing pains will likely continue this year, as the city is expected to roll out more seats after the application process opens — and even perhaps after it closes on April 24.

"Every year, [the process] will be better," Josh Wallack, the DOE's chief strategy officer said at a pre-K announcement last month, explaining that a new streamlined process will help many parents know about offers for "the large majority" of seats earlier this year.

Families can now rank up to 12 choices on a single online application for public school and community-based early education centers. Of the current programs, an estimated 60 percent were in community-based early education centers, according to DOE officials.

Previously, parents could apply to public schools on one application and then had to fill out separate applications for every community-based organization they wanted to attend. (Charter schools will still require a separate application.)

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Also, an online directory will be updated in real time, school officials noted.

Still, universal pre-K has some hurdles to clear.

The city had wanted more than 70,000 free pre-kindergarten seats for 4-year-olds next September. But as of Monday, roughly 60,000 "full day" seats were listed in the Department of Education's pre-K directories — which means the city is nearly 10,000 seats short.

And even as the city added new seats and surpassed its goal last year of enrolling more than 53,000 4-year-olds in free pre-K programs across the city, there were still public schools that got too many applicants and had to put children on waitlists.

Competition was fierce for spots in the most desirable schools and overcrowded districts, like Windsor Terrace's P.S. 130, Kensington's P.S. 230, the Upper West Side's P.S. 87 and Astoria/Long Island City's P.S. 122.

These were among the 37 schools so popular that only kids who had siblings already in the building were given offers, according to the DOE's pre-K directories.

(That was up slightly from the year before, when 30 schools had pre-K classes only filled with siblings.)

On the other hand, 37 public school programs had some empty seats. That was down significantly from 2013, when 157 schools remained unfilled after the first round of admissions.

The DOE did not include any data in its directories for how competitive it was to get into early education centers, since this is the first year that the community-based programs are part of the same application form as the public school seats.

The new application process with both public school and early education centers will likely be "very helpful," said Robin Aronow, of School Search NYC. "It saves families a lot of time."

But Joyce Szuflita of NYC Schools Help, who advises Brooklyn parents, urged families to always contact any early education center before ranking them on applications.

"Some may give seats to those students already attending their programs, so there might not be any seats available, or some may already be full because they took applications in the fall. Some might be need-based," she said. "It's always good practice to contact them individually."

Now that the application process for pre-K is unified, the DOE has established a slightly different set of admissions priorities for early childhood centers than for public schools. They weigh the following criteria in this order:

► Current students already enrolled in an early education center's class for 3-year-olds.
► Siblings of current students.
► Students of families who receive free or subsidized services from the organization operating the center.
► Children speaking a language other than English that the center specializes in serving.
► All other students.

DOE officials expect to send offers on May 29 and pre-registration will be from June 1 – 19.