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As pre-K seats sit empty, District 24 may lose funds

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On the surface, the state’s universal pre-kindergarten program sounds like a parent’s dream: 2 1/2 hours a day of free schooling for 4-year-olds, offering all children the early start once enjoyed exclusively by those who could pay for it.

But in School District 24, parents simply are not buying in — at least not in the numbers school administrators had anticipated. At a time when funding is tight and resources scarce, the district stands to lose hundreds of thousands in state dollars if the remaining seats are not filled by Oct. 31.

The district, which covers Maspeth, Middle Village, Glendale, Ridgewood, Woodside, Elmhurst and Corona, has about 2,500 pre-K slots this year, out of which there are still what Deputy Superintendent August Saccoccio described as “a nice amount of openings,” numbering at least into the hundreds. At one day care center alone, Little Hands of Elmhurst, 130 slots are still available out of a total 282 seats. Saccoccio said parents are actively encouraged to bring eligible children born in 1998 into the district’s Glendale offices to register for universal pre-K before the end of the month.

“Every year, we always increase our numbers to try to accommodate every child that’s out there,” Saccoccio said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We’ve never left a child out in the cold with respect to pre-K.”

But the logistics of coordinating universal pre-kindergarten for thousands of students can be complex and challenging, a careful calculation that goes beyond grand totals. A more important factor than the sheer number of slots is often where in the district they are placed, which is difficult to determine because the children are starting school for the first time.

“You can’t really predict with a lot of accuracy how many 4-year-olds you’re going to have in a given area,” said Susan Adaikalasamy, the education director for Maspeth Town Hall, which is advertising to fill three vacancies out of 36 seats.

New York state created its universal pre-kindergarten program in 1998, establishing a system of free schooling for 4-year-old children financed by the state, which pays the district for every student enrolled.

But funding is tight during a fiscal crisis that has tied a noose around the budgets for the city and state alike, which educators say puts even more pressure on the district to use every dollar allocated to it — or else risk losing some in the future.

“Right now the realistic picture is that we will be very fortunate to maintain the funding we have,” said Cynthia Gallagher, the coordinator of the New York State Office of Child and Family Services.

Meanwhile, research shows the impact of starting school early is profound and enduring, giving students an advantage that lasts well into elementary school.

“If they start pre-K, they do really well in school,” Saccoccio said. “It’s a great kickoff to education.”

But instead of compiling wait lists and fending off parents, the district is rushing to advertise the openings in an effort to fill an abundance of vacant slots.

In part, the excess is a symbol of success, the consequence of the district’s aggressive efforts to open up more pre-K classrooms to ensure no children are denied seats.

Until this year, nearly all of the district’s universal pre-K slots were contracted out to community-based organizations because the overcrowded public schools simply could not afford to give up the classroom space. But an aggressive construction program led to the opening of four new or expanded schools last month, which allowed the district to create 450 slots within its own facilities.

“The reason why we have the openings is because we opened up the schools,” Saccoccio said.

But there are still more eligible children living in the district than slots available for them, begging the question of why the classes are not filling up faster.

“It would be difficult for me to understand at this point that there are not enough 4-year-olds,” said Gallagher, the state coordinator.

The paradoxical imbalance between anticipated and actual demand can be explained, educators say, by a lack of awareness among parents and their quandary over convenience.

“There’s not enough word out in the community,” said Susie Ospina, the associate executive director of programs for the Long Island City YMCA, which has 10 openings out of its 108 pre-K slots. “There’s really not a lot of publicity as to where the universal pre-K sites are.”

Since transportation is not provided and the program is only 2 1/2 hours each day, many parents are not able to shuttle their children themselves and cannot afford to pay for a private service.

The real losers in the end are the children who miss out on a learning opportunity that sat waiting for them with money to pay for it in the bank. But the bulk of the financial blow will hit the day-care centers, which provide the majority of seats that appear unlikely to get filled before the state’s Oct. 31 deadline.

“When we don’t fill all the slots or if they remove the funding for us, it puts us in jeopardy because we planned on running full classrooms,” said Peter Rosario, the director of the Catalpa YMCA in Ridgewood, which had 14 vacancies out of 144 total seats. “We’ll have to do more with less, basically.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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