BROOKLYN — The Brooklyn Sandbox preschool opened its doors in the South Slope in September of 2014, the same year that Mayor Bill de Blasio began his Pre-K for All expansion to provide free “full day” pre-K to all of the city’s 4-year-olds.
About 30 percent of the 4-year-olds who registered at Brooklyn Sandbox ended up never attending the school, moving instead to free programs elsewhere, according to founder Sonja Neill-Turner, who created the child-centered, play-based program.
That left her scrambling to transition what was left of the incoming class into a mixed one with 3-year-olds. She then got rid of the 4’s program completely the following year to focus on the younger students.
With Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to expand free pre-K to all of the city’s 3-year-olds by 2021, Neill-Turner and many other private preschool directors are worried that what's left of their early education programs will take another body blow. The city has said it plans to place half of the free seats for 3-year-olds in public schools, leaning on community-based preschools to make up the rest.
“Hopefully, the city takes a more comprehensive approach so administrators can feel a part of the expansion,” said Neill-Turner, who did not enlist to join the city’s Pre-K for All program for 4-year olds because the contracts didn’t pay enough for her to support her highly-skilled teachers. She said she also had heard horror stories from other small, private providers about needing bridge loans when the city’s payments were late.
De Blasio's latest “3-K for All” program, as it’s called, took many people in the early education sector by surprise — including both private preschools with hefty tuition as well as EarlyLearn centers that serve low-income working families, they told DNAinfo New York.
Programs that participate in the current Universal Pre-K system, for instance, only found out about the expansion to 3-year-olds when the mayor held his press conference. They were expected to have a briefing with city officials on Thursday, many said.
“I hope they do a post-mortem on rollout of [Pre-K for All] and not just from families' point of view, but also the school communities that have helped [the city] get them their 70,000 seats,” Neill-Turner said. “I think if the city were to do [the 3’s program]in a meaningful way, they would need the private preschools, but if that were to happen, they would have to truly understand the costs.”
Her school’s tuition is about $20,000 a year for five days a week, 9 hours a day (which is longer than the 6 hours and 20 minutes of “full day” public pre-K), and she said she couldn’t make ends meet on the roughly $10,000 per student that the city pays pre-K providers to join the program.
Many private preschools that opted to become part of the Pre-K for All program have told DNAinfo that the only reason they are able to stay afloat on the city's limited 4-year-old stipend is thanks to the tuition they get from their program for 2- and 3-year-olds.
“The money that comes in from the younger classes and private programs we have, like chess, help pay for it,” Judith Mencken, director of Spuyten Duyvil Preschool, a private nursery school in the Marble Hill section of the Bronx that’s popular among Inwood residents, said of her Pre-K for All contract.
“Obviously, philosophically and morally, we support having more programs and the city is taking steps in the right direction. It’s way ahead of other parts of the country on this,” Mencken said, but she had a lot of questions.
She wondered, for instance, whether the city would allow seats for half-day, or 2 hours and 30 minutes, since a full day might be long for many 3-year-olds. Currently the city refuses to subsidize half-day programs for pre-K providers.
Since the classes are required to be smaller — they’ll be capped at 15 — for younger kids, Mencken wondered whether the city would increase its student stipend.
However, she praised the city for “not rolling it out like the 4’s program, which was way too fast.”
The city rolled out tens of thousands of pre-K seats in the span of several months, but will take several years to go citywide with the program for 3-year-olds.
It will start with the city’s EarlyLearn preschools — those with city contracts, serving low-income working families — and with two of the city’s poorest school districts — South Bronx’s District 7 and Ocean Hill/Brownsville’s District 23, officials said.
The city will need about $700 million in state and federal funding to continue to expand the program citywide, the mayor said.
But the city will need to make some inroads to convince private schools to get on board with the 3-year-old pre-K initiative. The city relied heavily on existing preschools to help provide enough seats for its universal pre-K rollout for 4-year-olds, with 60 percent of the seats in early childhood centers.
Eileen Johnson, director of the East Village’s Little Missionary’s Day Nursery, said she's concerned that the city's rollout will have the unintended consequence of pressuring younger and younger students to become focused on academics and achievement rather than play-based-learning.
“It’s very sad to see what some of the public schools are doing in kindergarten that’s completely age-inappropriate,” said Johnson, whose school didn’t join the Pre-K for All program because it didn’t want to have to change its curriculum and implement the Department of Education’s standards. “I’m worried they’ll push that down even more.”
She said the city would support families better by providing them with vouchers or tax breaks for existing quality programs — ones that are already strictly regulated by the city’s Department of Health — so families could go to the schools “they like,” she said.
Susan Kuhlmann, co-founder and director of Building Bridges Preschool in Brooklyn Heights, said if the city changed the rules on curriculum, she might consider enlisting in the city’s efforts.
“We don’t discourage families from looking into UPK, but our program is just outside the box of the regular classroom experience,” she said of her program that focuses on social emotional development.
Because they offer something different — as well as half day programs for those families who can manage that with their schedules — she’s not worried… yet.
“The [3-K for All] is four years away from happening and there’s no real plan in place, so we’re not feeling nervous at this point,” she said. “But once they roll out the program, we may have a concern or two."