Preschools ready for next fall’s free 3-K expansion

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Many parents have longed for the opportunity for their children to see the inside of a classroom for the past year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But come September, more of the city’s youngest learners might have the opportunity to do so.

Mayor Bill de Blasio says he’s expanding the city’s free pre-kindergarten program to include 3-year-olds. Known as 3-K, the program aims to help prepare children just past the toddler stage for kindergarten, like it already does for 4-year-olds. And while it might take a while before 3-K is as “universal” a program as the city’s free preschools, he hopes that adding some 16,000 3-K slots to the city’s existing 24,000 and expanding the programs to more school districts will help put a dent in that goal. 

de Blasio announced the expansion at Phyl’s Academy Preparatory School in East Flatbush, which already offers 3-K. But if the mayor has anything to say about it, Phyl’s Academy won’t be as unique.

“This is an example of what we’re going to be able to do all over the city,” de Blasio said last month. “All 32 school districts in the city will now have 3-K.”

It was just seven years ago the city welcomed its free pre-kindergarten program. And by 2019, it seemed to pay off as its students scored higher on standardized tests than their counterparts who didn’t attend pre-K, according to reports from the mayor’s office at the time.

That was welcome news for potentially expanding 3-K. Adding the proposed 16,000 seats would mean the city would be able to offer a total of 40,000 slots for the city’s 3-year-olds to attend school for free.

It’ll mean a lot of work for new schools chancellor Meisha Porter. She hasn’t even been on the job a month yet and already has overseen the return of high school students to their buildings along with this new 3-K expansion. But she says she’s happy to do it, believing the sooner the city’s youngest learners can experience the classroom, the better.

Parents and guardians “know just how quickly our youngest children learn — from birth to age 5 is a critical period of growth, and 90 percent of brain development happens during this time,” Porter wrote in a recent op-ed. 

“Our 3-K and Pre-K for All classrooms are full of joy and discovery, and they offer the perfect environment for children to learn to problem-solve, ask questions, and explore the world around them as they grow.”

More 3-K seats are an exciting prospect for early childhood educators throughout the city — including Mego Gojka, the managing director of BedRock Preschool. And to her, more early access to free education is only one of the positives of the new expansion.

For one, students who attend 3-K and pre-K tend to be a step or two ahead of their peers who didn’t attend, Gojka said, as evidenced by some of the mayor’s early data. They might perform higher on standardized tests, but they also tend to have a grasp of some of the foundational skills they need in kindergarten.

“They know all of their academics, such as the alphabet, uppercase and lowercase, recognizing numbers, phonemic awareness, (and) decoding skills,” Gojka said. “Some are reading, even in kindergarten.”

But the benefits of attending 3-K and pre-K aren’t just academic. Often, students who attend both will develop more social-emotional skills than their peers who didn’t, Gojka said. And offering two years of schooling before kindergarten might only help the students further in this regard.

“They have this ability within, just to negotiate with their friends, to regulate their emotions, to actually have conflict resolution strategies, even,” Gojka said. “And then, even simple things, like following directions and then transition within a class — moving from one activity to the next. Those are often maybe not thought about as much, but it’s just as important as the academics.”

de Blasio hasn’t yet shared how 3-K will roll out, although he expressed confidence the program could be offered in every district. 

That means schools like BedRock could soon offer 3-K, at least the way Gojka sees it, since it already offers free pre-K for some of its students. As a result, BedRock is pushing to win some of the 3-K seats, but now all its teachers can do is wait for the slow wheels of government to turn.

Many on the outside might just see this simply as a school adding another program, but bringing in free 3-K is nothing short of exciting for Gojka.

“It’s a win-win situation for children, and also working families,” she said. “They really need us, and I think even within the classroom, it’s going to create the potential for a diverse environment and … investment for the future for children.”

But even if BedRock isn’t ultimately selected, Gojka is still thrilled the free 3-K program is becoming a reality across the city — that is, if the mayor keeps his promise.

“In the end, it’s education,” Gojka said. “It should be available for all. It should be free, and for all. And honestly it’s great that we’re moving toward that direction.”

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