Brooklyn Boro

Universal pre-K expansion threatens critical partnership, school directors say

March 21, 2019 Paul Stremple
House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (center) visited Brooklyn on Wednesday to tour a pre-K program at P.S. 123 in Bushwick with Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Education officials. Photo courtesy of the office of Nancy Pelosi
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Universal pre-K may be among the mayor’s most prominent policies, but directors of community-based NYC Early Education Centers — which service the majority of the city’s pre-K students — say it could force them out of business.

Forty-two directors of Early Education Centers in Brooklyn and Queens signed letters urging the mayor and schools chancellor to consider the financial impact of expanding pre-K and 3-K. These local preschools say universal pre-K expansions have siphoned off “thousands of students,” making them unable to fill their rosters.

There are currently around 70,000 students enrolled in pre-K in the city, an increase of about 20,000 since the mayor took office. But since de Blasio’s Pre-K for All initiative launched in 2014, enrollment in NYC Early Education Centers has fallen by more than 1,000 students.

NYC Early Education Centers are privately-run, community-based organizations that receive city funds to run and maintain programs. They were an early model for making pre-K services accessible to all New Yorkers, and still handle the majority of pre-K students.

While a 1.5 percent drop in enrollment may seem marginal, each student represents around $10,000 out of the operating budget for a community-based school, meaning a potential million-dollar loss for the schools.

Smart Start Early Childhood Center in Bay Ridge has a contract for 48 students, but only enrolled 42 this year, said Carolyn Capizzi, the school’s educational director. That meant a $60,000 hit to their budget.

“Our concern is there are so many seats they opened up in this district,” Capizzi said. “Way more seats than there are 4-year-olds.”

District 20 has one of the largest pre-K programs in the city, District 20 Superintendent Karina Costantino told the Brooklyn Eagle in 2017.

After providing early childhood education through “all sorts of administrations” since founding the school with her sister in 1999, Capizzi is faced with a sobering reality if her school remains under-enrolled: making cuts to the program.

“We’re the backbone they built pre-K on years ago, back when they needed us. Now it feels like they’re giving us the boot.”
Carolyn Capizzi, director of Smart Start Early Childhood Center

A recent report by Class Size Matters claims that while local preschools are faced with empty desks and dwindling income, the Department of Education has inserted pre-K programs into 352 schools already operating at capacity — leading to overcrowding. In District 20, where Smart Start is located, 92 percent of public school pre-K students are in overutilized schools.

Currently, the DOE helps community-based schools maximize their enrollment through a centralized enrollment program and targeted outreach in 10 different languages, connecting families to local programs, a DOE spokesperson told the Eagle.

But relying on better marketing or communication to protect these programs is “unacceptable,” according to Councilmember Mark Treyger, chairman of the education committee.

“That’s so insulting,” Treyger said. “These [community-based programs] have been there longer than the DOE has been there.”

He said that the community schools, which expanded their programs to help in the early days of universal pre-K, shouldn’t be told to re-introduce themselves to communities they’ve been serving since before the initiative existed.

Directors at community pre-K centers have urged the city to help boost enrollment at their schools, and move kindergarteners from over-crowded schools into open seats at the DOE pre-K centers. The directors see the shuffle as mutually beneficial: continued viability for community pre-kindergarten and reduced overcrowding at nearby schools.

Directors raised the issue to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack last year, but they say their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

“It’s hard to even get the DOE to engage in a constructive dialogue on this issue,” Treyger said.

Though it doesn’t appear the DOE will be shuffling kindergartners to pre-K centers and pre-K students to community-based schools, there will be further expansion.

The city’s proposed five-year capital plan allocates about $150 million to build more pre-K and 3-K centers. Two will come to Brooklyn, in Gowanus and Sunset Park, adding an estimated 270 pre-K seats by 2024, while centers in Corona and Queens Village will add 306 and 405 pre-K and 3-K seats, respectively.

“The DOE and School Construction Authority haven’t been very transparent and straightforward on how they project identified seat need across the city,” Treyger said. He’s been asking for more information on the process for years, he said, as the DOE opened a slew of new facilities.

School directors like Capizzi welcomed new capacity to the pre-K system at first, but with multiple pre-K centers in the district — including one just down the street — she’s beginning to feel squeezed out.

“We’re the backbone they built pre-K on years ago, back when they needed us” Capizzi said. “Now it feels like they’re giving us the boot.”

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