MANHATTAN — Jeannine Jones recently began touring pre-K programs to help make an informed decision for the Universal Pre-K application process, which opened this week and runs through March 4 for all families with children who turn 4 in 2016.
The mom, who lives on the border of Inwood and Washington Heights, was impressed by several early childhood centers. But her heart was already heavy: She didn’t realize until going on tours that her daughter had slim odds of getting in.
Non-public school programs with UPK seats give priority to kids who already attend their centers as 3-year-olds. If they have any remaining slots, those will then go to the Department of Education’s lottery system.
For families in the know — who have their eyes on some popular private or nonprofit preschools that have signed up with the city to offer UPK — they’ve started their search when their kids are 2, shelling out tuition for the 3’s program so they can get their foot in the door for a free seat the following year, many said.
“What I didn't take into account was that there are many guaranteed slots for parents able to pay hefty tuition for 3's programs at these schools,” said Jones, a television prop stagehand who works weekends while her husband works as a stagehand during the week.
They couldn't afford to send their daughter to a program at age 3, she said.
“This is incredibly discouraging as the lottery is already competitive,” Jones said.
When she toured Spuyten Duyvil Preschool, a private nursery school just over the river in the Marble Hill section of The Bronx that’s popular with parents in Northern Manhattan, she was told that the program would probably only have a total of six seats available for incoming pre-K students.
Spuyten Duyvil Preschool’s director Judith Menken confirmed that there will likely be few spots for new applicants seeking to enroll their 4-year-olds in the fall class, which offers 40 free full-day seats that run from 8:40 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The school’s 3-year-olds — whose parents have been paying $8,800 for the year — get first dibs on those seats. There are more than 30 of them, many of whom will likely choose to stay on, she said. Their tuition fees help subsidize the UPK program since the city's rate doesn't cover all of the program's expenses, Menken and other private preschool directors said.
Menken said she's not looking forward to turning down incoming 4 year olds, adding that in prior years, they were able to take more new students because they offered 70 seats, which ran half days.
She said she will be watching closely what the make-up of this fall's UPK class will be in terms of diversity as a result.
“We value the many kinds of diversity we have,” Menken said. “It remains to be seen what that's going to look like in a year or two.”
Like Jones, many parents in Upper Manhattan and The Bronx — as well as across the city — are unable to afford tuition at private early education programs, only a handful of which have opted in to the city's UPK system.
For example, New York Preschool TriBeCa which is located at the NY Kids Club, offers free UPK for 4-year-olds with preference given to already enrolled students. It charges $20,600 for students enrolled in its full-day 3-year-old program.
At the Brooklyn Explorers Academy in Downtown Brooklyn, a progressive literature-based program where all meals are all free of GMOs and farm-to-table, there are 20 total seats for 4-year-olds. Its 3-year-old early education program charges $26,400 for the full-day five-day-a-week program.
Robin Aronow, an admissions consultant who helps Manhattan families through School Search NYC, said that with so few seats available in private preschools that have signed up to do UPK with the city, parents might want to manage their expectations.
“I don't think parents can get their hopes up about them,” Aronow said, adding that many schools may have only agreed to UPK so they could retain existing students rather than attract new ones. She said she's heard from private preschool program directors that they have seen some of their 4-year-old students leave to pursue free programs.
“I do understand, however, that there is an advantage to those whose children were in those programs earlier,” she added.
Giving priority to current students makes sense, many experts say.
“Young children need consistency and stability in their lives. Keeping them in the same preschool for multiple years helps them feel comfortable with the same adults, become more self-confident and learn routines,” said Jim Matison, executive director of the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, which runs five highly regarded nonprofit programs for low-income families in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Brownsville.
“Teachers get to know children better and are able to adapt classroom instruction and routines for those they have been with for extended periods of time,” he added.
The Education Department has said repeatedly that all of its programs are high-quality, regardless of the provider.
With roughly 70,000 seats, all of the city’s 4-year-olds who want a seat should get one, and last year 84 percent of families got one of their top three choices, according to DOE data.
"Every full-day program must deliver high quality instruction. They're all held to the same high standard, and they must past a rigorous review process before being approved," DOE officials said.