The pre-K Crisis on the East Side News

| 10 May 2016 | 10:46

City Councilmember Ben Kallos, in a press release sent out last week, touted that he had wrangled 90 more seats for pre-kindergarteners on the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-k initiative.

That was the good news.

The bad news is that Kallos’s efforts brought the total number of available spots to just 515 for the 2,118 four-year-olds in the district. When the program was first rolled out in 2014, the neighborhood -- one of the few in Manhattan not to go for de Blasio in the mayoral race -- was allocated just 123 seats for a program billed as way to provide UPK to every kid in New York City.

“So many parents come to me with small children and just say, ‘I can’t afford to live in the neighborhood and I can’t afford childcare in the neighborhood,’ and I don’t want to lose families,” Kallos said. In this instance, Kallos worked with parents to compile a list of 90 children who needed space in a pre-k class. He then convinced Roosevelt Island Nursery to take on 54 of them and Manhattan Schoolhouse on the Upper East Side to take on 36.

Part of the problem is a lack of current census information tracking how many young kids there are. A 2014 WNYC report counting 2,118 four-year-olds in Kallos’ district -- and cited by him in his news release -- is now outdated, and Kallos said he has gotten nothing useful out of multiple Freedom of Information Law requests for accurate information. His first request, filed in December 2015, was denied in early February, but his second, filed in mid-February, did.

“Right now all I know is the number of four-year-olds in 2014, but I don’t know how many there are (now),” Kallos said. “I also don’t know how many applicants there are. We definitely know based on the fact that we’ve heard from parents that they aren’t being offered seats. … I’ve had to resort to Freedom of Information requests.”

Shino Tanikawa, president of the Community Education Council District 2, criticized the rollout of universal pre-k in general. “This whole pre-k initiative seems to have been put together rather hastily,” she said. “I know that in lower Manhattan the mayor added a whole bunch of new seats … while we didn’t get enough on the Upper East Side. I think the problem is that this administration should’ve really taken the time to plan this right.”

School district 2 is, geographically speaking, the largest in Manhattan, and Tanikawa could not speculate on why the Upper East Side in particular was allotted so few seats when district 2 as a whole was granted so many. She also expressed concern with the availability of kindergarten seats, which will become scarcer than ever when the first round of universal pre-k students move up this fall.

Kallos encouraged parents to get organized early in order for their child to have the best chance at a pre-k seat near them. “Based on information I’ve received from the Department of Education, there appear to be twice as many applicants as there are seats being offered,” Kallos said. “Any [parent] that has a one-year old, a two-year-old or a three-year-old … should work with my office, with other parents, with providers, to get their providers online so that they can be guaranteed a seat in their neighborhood.”