MANHATTAN — The city's 1.1 million students headed back to school Wednesday morning, ready to start a new year that, once again, includes a major pre-K expansion for 4-year-olds.
For the first time ever, there will be enough free "full day" seats for all of New York City's 4-year-olds, adding onto last year's expansion for a total of more than 70,000 slots.
Already, 65,504 kids are enrolled in pre-K programs around the city, whether in public schools or community-based early childhood education centers, making New York's pre-K program larger than the entire school district of Boston.
And the number of pre-K students is "literally growing by the hour," Mayor Bill de Blasio said, kicking off the first day of school in Staten Island.
Families have until October to enroll for pre-K, he added, noting that the program is a big boon for parents, who pay an average of $10,000 a year for childcare costs.
"Pre-K is literally the foundation for each child and each family and for the change in the school system as a whole," de Blasio said. "Imagine that now every child starts with that strong foundation. We couldn’t say that at any other time in our history.
"Prior to the mayor's pre-K expansion, the city offered just 20,000 free "full day" seats.
Also, for the first time ever, city schools will be off for Muslim holidays and Lunar New Year, and this September, there will be no week longer than three days for the first three weeks of school with the upcoming Jewish and Muslim holidays.
Mom Carol Blades, who dropped off her son, Leonard, 7, to start second grade at Bedford-Stuyvesant's P.S. 54 on Wednesday morning, said she was pleased to be making the dropoff.
"It was a long summer, so I’m glad he’s back in school," Blades said, adding "It's great because they have a STEAM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), and he’s very good in math."
Leonard Blades, who's been attending the school since pre-K said, "I'm most excited about going to the gym, doing math and playing with my friends."
Anika Romain, whose 4-year-old daughter Kihanna Preval is in pre-K at the school, was pleased that the curriculum would include science.
"They start offering technology for the kids beginning in pre-K and they have a lot of activities for them," she said. "It’s a good change."
However, few kids — and parents — were looking forward to the standardized tests that have become increasingly used to evaluate students and their teachers.
Parent Nelson Duran, who has two daughters at Williamsburg's P.S. 147 — which opened the city's first dual-language Japanese program this year — said the testing is "stressful." He added that his daughter Sophia, 10, eventually got used to the pressure — but it took years for her to acclimate.
"It's not easy seeing a third grader stressed out," he said. "At the end of the day, hopefully it's for their benefit."
At Harlem's P.S. 242, where the clocks were fixed for the first day after being broken for two years, Elyssa Smith, in second grade, was overjoyed to see friends she missed all summer.
But she said she could do without the homework that comes with school — "especially homework that I already did last year," the second grader said.
On the Upper East Side, at the highly regarded P.S. 6 — where Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña was once the principal — parents were ready to participate.
"Everyone is optimistic on the first day,” said Karel Ruy, a mother of a fourth grader and kindergartener at P.S. 6. "We see what the strengths and weaknesses are. As Upper East Siders, we focus on the weaknesses but try to fix them."
For example, she helped start a science fair program this year at the school, she said.
“The grass is always greener on the other side, and we tend to steal what we see at other schools," Ruy added.
In Crown Heights, mom Shondell Mason trekked with her fifth grade daughter from East Flatbush to the KIPP AMP Middle School because she felt her area's traditional public schools weren't doing a good enough job, especially with reading.
She pointed to the charter school's principal, who was outside greeting families, saying, "She walks to the corner store, gets the kids. She shakes every kid’s hand. [Th]ey let you know your kids were late. They call. They’re on top of it. Communication. And that’s what we need — communication."
City officials lauded several programs kicking into high gear this year.
Some 130 new Community Schools — including 94 Renewal Schools — opened their doors Wednesday with extra services to support struggling students, like an extended day for more instruction, additional tutoring and health clinics that have such services as counseling or free eyeglasses.
There are also 126 PROSE Schools that applied to bypass DOE and teacher union rules — including adding longer school days and not being subject to the standard student-teacher ratio — in order to include innovations like small group learning or more flexible schedules.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is celebrating her 50th first-day-of-school, commended teachers for "working tirelessly to make a difference."
"I wish everyone a wonderful year of learning," she said. "Let’s get to work!"
Reporting was contributed by: Camille Bautista, Serena Dai, Nicholas Rizzi, Leslie Albrecht, Nikhita Venugopal, Gustavo Solis, Katie Honan, Shaye Weaver, Rachel Holliday Smith