Hope and Hesitation Around the Bronx on Pre-K Eve

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Parents and children lined up Wednesday outside the Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus on Fordham Road to get last-minute help finding a UPK program.

Marguerite Ward

Parents and children lined up Wednesday outside the Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus on Fordham Road to get last-minute help finding a UPK program.

At Theodore Roosevelt Education Campus on Fordham Road on Wednesday, families stood along the sidewalk waiting to enter the main registration site for all Bronx pre-Kindergarten students. Workers in orange vests went through the line, checking the paperwork for each child before sending them inside to a large auditorium where parents and school officials bustled about.

For some, the process was painless. Walking down the stairs from the registration site, one mother by the name of Allyson Lisbey smiled and said to her daughter, “That was easy! Right?” Her daughter, Amya Williams, didn’t have a spot secured in pre-K before walking into the site. But now she does.

“The person I was dealing with inside was very sweet. I did not have a spot in my zone, but he helped me find another spot. He found a head start program in Bathgate for my daughter,” Lisbey said. Four-year-old Amya was all smiles.

In the hours before New York City schools opened Thursday, parents, teachers and administrators were still scrambling to organize the new universal pre-kindergarten program that is bringing 4-year-olds – more than 50,000 or them – into new classes. Teachers were going from one conference to the next, pre-K school telephone lines were ringing off the hook, and parents were lining up to make sure their kids were registered—while contemplating what the program would mean for their children and themselves.

Getting suited up

For some moms and dads, pre-K plans were still in limbo as the first day of school drew near. After nine pre-K sites were shut down because they did not meet city standards, hundreds of children had to be re-located to other sites. Thirty-six other sites will have delayed openings.

A few parents, like Arta Gilaj, whose son turns four this December, were only just hearing about UPK. Gilaj visited the offices of Community Board 7 on Wednesday to learn more about the program from Adaline Walker-Santiago, the chairperson of CB7 in the Bronx. Walker-Santiago, once a HeadStart director, found the encounter with Gilaj fortunate, if not a little shocking. “It’s surprising to see a parent who doesn’t know,” she said. “People have been lined up at Webster to register their kids for school.”

Parents were in other lines as well. The queue of parents waiting to get into Flynn & O’Hara Uniforms at Westchester Square stretched down the block and around the corner. Flynn & O’Hara sell uniforms for public and private school students from pre-Kindergarten up to high school, and parents had come from around the city to outfit their children. For many parents with students about to enter pre-K, this was their first time buying school uniforms.

Near the end of the line, Carmen Gaovan and her husband Ricardo Rodriguez waited with their 4-year-old son Igor, who was about to start pre-K at St. John Chrysostom School in the South Bronx. St. John Chrysostom is a private Catholic school, but it provides free pre-K through the city’s program.

Igor was in the market for some blue pants. Gaovan said he’s excited to finally start school; he wanted to go last year, but he was too young. Rodriguez was glad his son is going to a Catholic school, which he says offers a better education than nearby public schools, and a better student-teacher ratio.

Schools stand ready

Inside St. Dominic’s Torch in University Heights, the mood on Wednesday was confident but abuzz with commotion.

“There’s a big need in the community” for pre-K programs, Ethel Rosally, the director of St. Dominic’s, said as she darted from room to room in the facility.

In one classroom, staff members underwent training on infectious disease control, while in other rooms, there were lockers stuffed with backpacks donated to the school, one for each new child.

Rosally is overseeing a transition at St. Dominic’s from 56 students in the previous year to 74 in the coming one. Thanks to increased city funding, the school is also opening a second facility a few blocks away that will host 60 new kids.

She said the city had aided the expansion process; “They send out daily e-mails,” she said, “and there have been safety walkthroughs to make sure we pass inspection.”

Rosally acknowledged some pressure to meet the enrollment number she included in the proposal. She said that the city has worked to set benchmarks that schools should clear by October 1st, the final registration date.

There remains a question about whether a school’s funding will be cut if they cannot meet enrollment requirements. However, that’s a problem Rosally doubts St. Dominic’s will face. Despite the expansion, she notes, “both our schools already have a waiting list.”

Inside the Brightside Academy on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, Academy Director Margaret Doherty-Rodriguez stood in the reception office, eager to welcome her new Universal Pre-K students and their families.

“We’re totally ready,” she said. “We have our teachers in place and everything has been so far so good.”

Brightside also has had no issues meeting and even surpassing the UPK’s enrollment quotas. With 36 pre-K students set to start tomorrow and six more on the waiting list, Doherty-Rodriguez does not foresee any issues filling classrooms.

“The problem is going to be that we don’t have enough classrooms for them, we need more,” she said with a smile. “We’re filling up faster than we can take them.”

During their recruiting campaign, Brightside hosted a number of open-houses and even stood in front of the building, handing out informational pamphlets to passersby. Although she believes that their efforts helped to boost enrollment numbers, Doherty-Rodriguez thinks the strongest advertisement for Brightside’s pre-K program came simply from word of mouth.

Brightside employs five teachers for two classrooms. Two teachers will man each class with one floater to help when necessary. With the big day rapidly approaching, Doherty-Rodriguez and her staff had only a few minor tweaks left to finish before Thursday morning.

“We’ll get there,” she said.

Shutdown spurs questions

Teachers in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx, however, were wondering what had gone down at the Rainbow Montessori school.

It had abruptly closed Tuesday, two days before it was to have welcomed a new class of 4-year-olds. Kenneth M. Kearns, district manager of Community Board 10, which includes Throggs Neck, said he received a call from city officials Tuesday telling him the school was not opening. “No reason was given,” Kearns said.

The closure led some teachers to speculate whether Mayor de Blasio’s program was too ambitious. Ann Marie Migaldi, center director of the Ivy League Early Learning Academy, believed de Blasio’s plan—the central promise of his 2013 campaign—encouraged unqualified educators to apply for UPK grants.

Migaldi, whose center has provided pre-K classes for 15 years, said that she has received DOE e-mails offering to loan furniture and supplies to schools that aren’t ready for Thursday’s start. To her, that meant too many schools received grants without enough preparation. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry got a UPK grant,” she said. “But you need to have experience; you can’t just put a UPK program together.”

Migaldi added that the city should have completed its inspections for all schools much sooner. “Now they’re having the Fire Department come in, two days before they open? You don’t come into to inspect two days before [opening day]. But the mayor has to meet his numbers.”

Nearby, the Throggs Neck Early Learning Center has offered pre-K classes for seven years and passed its inspection early in the summer. Tynesia Sanders, an assistant UPK teacher, had heard about other schools failing the grade. “There’s a sadness there, that some other schools had to close. Luckily we don’t have to worry about that,” she said.

Aware of the risks

In Highbridge, parents and school officials alike were happy about the UPK initiative on Wednesday, but knew the project faces challenges.

Valerie Lugo is the mother of a four-year-old girl named Victoria, who is enrolled to universal pre-K for this year at Holy Family in the neighborhood of Castle Hill.

“Education is a good thing, always. If this initiative wasn’t in place, I’d pay for Victoria’s school,” she said. “But given that I knew it was offered for free in certain schools, I didn’t want to pay half.”

Paula Ramirez, the community associate for the Shakespeare School in Highbridge, is a fan of the idea of universal pre-K, but is concerned about how well it will be able to be implemented immediately.

“A citywide mandate is a hard thing because you’re asking all members, despite the differences in their communities, to [join] one uniform program, despite varying academic standards and resources,” said Ramirez. “Scheduling, logistics—there are so many moving parts, it’s difficult for this city to coordinate under any one umbrella immediately, no matter the industry.”

Despite her concerns for this year, Ramirez is confident that, in time, the universal pre-K program will be able to work out its kinks and become very valuable for New York City’s youth.

“I have faith in the universal pre-K program. But I think it will probably take about three years before it begins to run smoothly,” Ramirez said. “In that time, the chancellor and de Blasio’s administration will see what works versus what doesn’t, and the program will see adjustments where it needs to.”

Valerie’s cousin Helen Delgado, a mother of a one-year-old boy, hopes that Ramirez is correct. Delgado has watched the process Valerie has gone through to register Victoria. She plans to continue to pay close attention to her niece’s experiences in pre-K and use them as a reference when her son becomes eligible in three years.

“I’ve seen the highs and lows of Victoria’s registration, but I want to be idealistic,” the 31-year old said. “I believe that when my boy reaches the age of eligibility, the program will be more organized and settled.”

Questions about benefit to young children, parents

In Bronx Community District 6, residents welcomed the idea of free education, but had reservations about putting children of such a young age in an institutionalized setting.

“Four years-old is too young,” said Halil Brelvukaj, the owner of Kosova Deli and grandfather of two. “They are born impressionable. If they have good parents, they will teach them better.”

But even some who think four-year-olds are too young for school agreed with de Blasio’s original funding plan for UPK.

Miguel Candelario, the shopkeeper of Valentin Cigars, speculated, “Even though it is good for the economy to educate people, it is too early to go to school.” Candelario indicated that despite his feelings, he still agreed that it was appropriate to fund the program through taxing wealthy New Yorkers, stating, “I do not know why people would be against it.”

Meanwhile, Erica Rivera, a nurse’s assistant who has her son is enrolled in the new pre-K, said it may give her more time to pursue her dream of getting a college degree. Several Bronx residents echoed the sentiment that universal pre-K gives opportunities not only to children, but to parents, especially mothers. “Having universal pre-K is great for parents who want to make something of themselves,” said Sheron Carrette.

But for others, the program doesn’t go far enough. “Universal pre-K is a great thing, but even with it, you still have four years from birth to pre-K to take care of your child and work, which is impossible,” said Erma Pfeffer, carrying her 8-month-old as she chased her 2-year-old around a playground.

Pfeffer said parents need universal nursery care: “The only people who can really afford care before four years old are the very poor who qualify for ACS or the very wealthy. Parents could really use help in caring for their children so that they could go to work and earn money.”

The bigger picture

On the other hand, a few parents might be concerned that they’re getting a little too much pre-K.

Willie Villa has a daughter enrolled in the universal pre-K program at Holy Family School in Castle Hill. The problem, Villa says, is that his daughter, Mya, has already been through pre-K.

“I thought she was going to Kindergarten,” he said. But Mya does not turn 5 until February, and the universal pre-K program is for 4-year olds. Under the new system, her school will only move students up to kindergarten if they will turn 5 before December.

“I don’t think it’s cool,” Villa said. “It’s like she’s getting held back.”

Because Holy Family School is a private school with an already-established pre-K program, it gets partial reimbursement from the city for teaching the new curriculum. The mayor’s initiative means pre-K tuition is lower, but since this is Mya’s second year, Villa will end up paying for pre-K twice.

While he wishes the program had taken his situation into account, Villa admits the program does have merits. “It’s good for the little ones,” he said.

Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, whose district includes the Soundview neighborhood of the South Bronx, is one of the state legislators who campaigned for universal pre-K. He admits that problems like Villa’s may crop up on a case by case basis.

But he says it’s important to remember the bigger picture: More than 50,000 4-year-olds are starting pre-K Thursday for free.

“This is headed in the right direction,” he said.

As for Mya Villa, she is just happy to be going back to school at all.

“Because school is fun,” Mya said. “I like learning.”

This story was reported and written by Ward, Owen Agnew, Jack D’Isidoro, Patrick Donachie, Kat Long, Catherine Roberts, Helina Selemon, Ryan Wallerson and Zach Wasser.

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