The city’s Pre-K For All program has received plenty of praise from early childhood education experts. But its rapid expansion and underfunding of community-based preschools have several businesses teetering on financial collapse.
Business at Riverdale Nursery School and Family Center on Waldo Avenue used to be good, according to its director, Susan Smelin. The non-profit private preschool had plenty of clients willing to pay outright for their children to attend.
Universal pre-kindergarten administered by the city’s education department debuted in 2014, but few of Riverdale Nursery’s families were interested. As a result, Smelin didn’t add the publicly funded program.
But things changed. All children, no matter their income, are eligible for Pre-K For All and 3-K For All — a free early education program for 3-year-olds. It became an unbeatable deal for parents. Families can choose city-run pre-k programs, or from participating charter, private or parochial preschools.
“People aren’t going to pay $15,000 for a 4-year-old class if they can get it for free,” Smelin said.
Parents began choosing universal pre-k, leading to lower enrollment at Smelin’s facility. She decided to apply for a contract to get the program in her preschool, but it was denied. She was told there just wasn’t the demand in her area, even though parents brought the idea to her.
Finally, with a little help by then state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, Smelin got her pre-K slots approved last year. But then again this year, she was denied until Councilman Andrew Cohen intervened.
Though she won the contract, Smelin still had to negotiate hard with the city for fair pay for her teachers. All universal pre-k teachers — whether employed by the city schools or through charter, private or parochial schools — must have the same training and certification. But community-based preschool teachers, Smelin said, receive a much lower pay and fewer benefits through the Pre-K For All program.
A third of her students are part of Pre-K For All. And while there are a number of parents interested in sending their kids to Riverdale Nursery next year, Smelin says her contract is only for 22 seats. If the city doesn’t approve additional spots next year — and fewer families pay out of pocket — the financial loss may be too much for Riverdale Nursery to keep its doors from being locked permanently.
“We actually had to decide this year whether we would remain open, and we decided to try for another year,” Smelin said. “But that’s going to be a year-by-year decision.”
Yet, Smelin isn’t ready to give up. She and more than 50 other community-based preschool directors have sent letters to Mayor Bill de Blasio and school chancellor Richard Carranza, urging them to stop building so many city-run preschool centers and to treat their businesses fairly.
Alice Mulligan, spokeswoman for the group and director of Our Savior’s Lutheran Preschool in Brooklyn, said when universal pre-k began, the city recruited community-based preschools to expand so the city could accommodate the 70,000 children brought into the program the first year.
“There was a whole different feeling,” Mulligan said. “It felt like a partnership.”
But in recent years, the city has gone “hog wild,” snapping up storefronts to convert into high-capacity preschools, many of which are near existing community-based centers. Directors feel the city also has placed too many students into public schools that already are overcrowded.
A group of directors met with deputy chancellor Josh Wallack and his staff about their concerns last November, Mulligan said. Wallack admitted the city had too many freestanding pre-k centers, but said the city had no plans to change tactics or close centers.
Approximately 60 percent of pre-K and 3-k students are enrolled in community-based preschools, said Isabelle Boundy, the education department’s assistant press secretary.
When a family applies for pre-k, they provide the city with a ranked list of where they would like to be placed. They can choose up to 12 schools in any combination of eligible public, charter, private or parochial schools.
“More than half of the families choose a (community-based preschool) as a top choice,” Boundy said. “The majority of families get their top-ranked school.”
The education department works with these preschools to maximize enrollment. School officials decide how many pre-k seats to add to a community, she added, by analyzing the most recent information like the number of applications, registrations, enrollment information and seat supply in the program.
The city plans to begin soliciting proposals from child care facilities interested in contracting with the city for a Birth-to-Five program beginning next year.
Birth-to-Five is a free early education program for children of low-income families, preparing children to enter kindergarten.
While the education department works with community-based preschools to maximize enrollment, the system can be improved, Boundy said. Next year, preschools will submit a proposal for an overall contract value. This method is expected to guarantee community-based preschools receive fair funding that doesn’t depend solely on enrollment.
This new funding method will offer “an opportunity to make adjustments to the number of seats in each community, based on where we see demand,” Boundy said.
Mulligan hopes that enough activism will prompt change saving struggling preschools across the city like Riverdale Nursery School.
“All we can do is speak up,” she said, “and hope something good happens.”