MANHATTAN — Even though the school year has started, the city's free pre-K programs for 4-year-olds are seeing a lot of fluctuation in enrollment, directors say.
There are still openings at more than 475 programs across the city, according to a recent list of pre-Ks with empty seats posted on the Department of Education's website.
The districts with the greatest number of programs with remaining seats include Staten Island and northeast Queens' Districts 29 and 30.
Programs at public schools will enroll families on an ongoing basis, while programs at childhood early education centers will enroll families on a case-by-case basis after Oct. 7, DOE officials said.
Whether your child is already enrolled or you're looking to get one of the remaining seats for this year — or even if you're already thinking about next September — here are some tips to help you evaluate what program will work for your family:
1. Look up a program's safety record.
Certain critical violations — like blocked fire exits or the inability to document that staffers had appropriate background checks — could result in a center being shut down if the problems aren't remedied quickly, city officials said.
More minor violations — usually related to administrative oversights — can be addressed within 30 days. These include issues like unavailable staff immunization records or food that doesn't meet nutritional guidelines.
2. Go a step further: Evaluate whether the center is safe for your child.
Different families have different thresholds for what violations might mean scratching a program from their list, said Suzanne Podhurst, editor-in-chief of Noodle, a site that helps families tailor public and private school searches based on their needs and interests.
You might want to check if a center uses "children-friendly" pesticides or if there's evidence of vermin, experts said, or what snacks the center serves.
If your child has a food allergy, for instance, find out the program's policies.
"You want to make sure it's taken seriously," Podhurst said.
She also advised parents to ask how they are notified when unexpected or unwanted things happen, like a child is injured or gets sick.
"Some schools are strict and you have to pick up your kid within 60 minutes," she said.
3. Be sure to ask about student/teacher ratios and staff certifications.
There should be at least two adults per 18 students in pre-K classes for 4-year-olds, according to state regulations.
Directors of programs must be state-certified teachers. Head teachers should also be state-certified or at least working toward their certification, according to state guidelines.
Parents should ask programs about their teachers' credentials to find out how many head teachers are state-certified and the average number of years teachers have in the classroom.
The expansion of pre-K has affected some early childhood education centers, especially those with city-funded programs that serve low-income working families, which are being drained of experienced certified teachers fleeing to better paying jobs at public school pre-K programs, directors said.
4. Observe how teachers engage children.
Do teachers get on the floor with the kids? Do they ask open-ended questions? Do they listen?
They should be doing all that and more to engage children and should also be guiding kids to interact respectfully and constructively with their peers and adults, early education experts say.
Parents should also ask about disciplinary methods and how teachers say "no" to children, Podhurst advised.
"Some teachers are really skilled at redirecting children. When it works, it tends to be effective," she said.
5. Look for an emphasis on play.
Instead of having preschoolers doing worksheets to learn their A, B, Cs and 1, 2, 3s, many early childhood experts champion learning through play both in the classroom and outside, with ample opportunities for children to access materials independently and make choices.
Problem-solving and higher-order thinking develop through play and project-based experiences, with teaching and learning balanced between teacher-facilitated time — in small groups or the whole class — and child-initiated learning experiences, DOE early childhood officials explained.
It's also important to ask about the structure of the day and find out what kinds of activities kids are doing, how many times they go outside every day and whether they have any enrichment like music and art.
6. How do teachers communicate with parents?
"Preschool more than other levels of school is more about whether it's a match for your children as much as your family," Podhurst said, noting that families should feel welcome in the classroom and learn how they will get updates from teachers.
The DOE emphasizes that programs should be promoting a "two-way sharing of information between families and staff," officials noted, with teachers collecting info from families at the start of the year about their kids' interests, talents, unique health, safety, and learning needs and create culturally appropriate ways for families to share their insights and concerns about their children's development.
Bringing families into the early childhood education setting is a crucial component of helping kids develop their social emotional skills, Brooklyn College professor Mark Lauterbauch said.
"[Working on] social emotional skills gets forgotten in kindergarten a little bit and by first grade is pretty much forgotten, but UPK still has this strength of looking at the whole child and the family," he noted.
7. Find out how things are going by asking your child specific questions.
Don't simply ask your child how their day at school was. Instead ask them specific questions, experts advise, like: Did you draw a picture today? What's the most interesting thing you learned? What's the funniest thing that happened?
The DOE's early childhood experts encourage families to review art or other materials sent home from teachers that often can spark conversation starters.