In pursuit of pre-K goal, city goes to great lengths to enlist yeshivas

As the city scurries to make 53,000 full-day pre-kindergarten slots available this September, every seat counts.

But when officials tried to round up pre-K seats in Jewish schools, the largest group of non-public schools in the city, some ultra-Orthodox yeshivas hesitated to add full-day programs that would limit their time for religious instruction. So the administration came out with a set of guidelines tailor-made to ease their concerns.

The guidelines, released just days before applications to provide full-day pre-K were due last month, assured religious schools that they could hold publicly funded pre-K classes on Sundays, screen would-be teachers based on their religion “to the extent permitted by law,” use religious texts in class “when presented objectively,” and give lessons in other languages, such as Yiddish or Hebrew. The Jewish newspaper Hamodia first reported on the guidelines last month.

The guidance grew out of a series of meetings at City Hall convened by the mayor’s office to sell the ultra-Orthodox community on full-day pre-K. Jewish leaders explained that a full day of secular preschool would subvert the role of yeshivas in the eyes of many parents and school leaders, and wanted to know how they could maintain their religious character without violating any rules tied to the public funds.

At one summit that Mayor Bill de Blasio attended part of, city officials said the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark is sufficiently well known in the popular culture to be suitable for a city pre-K class, according to three attendees.

“The mayor really wanted to make this happen and have as many spots as possible,” said Jeff Leb, the New York state director of the Orthodox Union, who took part in the meetings. “It was definitely an aggressive, proactive approach by the city.”

But the city’s decision to count seats in religious schools such as yeshivas, where most students share the same religious background and many do not speak English, as part of its open-to-all pre-K initiative raises questions about whether those publicly funded seats seat will be accessible to every student.

Those questions are especially pertinent as the mayor encourages parents to apply for one of the roughly 25,000 pre-K seats run by outside groups now that most public-school spots are filled.

“It is hard to imagine that children of all faiths will feel welcome in schools where teachers are screened by religion,” New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said after reviewing the city-issued guidelines. “The NYCLU will be looking at this matter closely to determine how to best protect New York City families and children from the kind of religious discrimination this invites.”

Administrators at several yeshivas that currently offer city-funded pre-K said almost all of their students attend the school’s nurseries before pre-K (“our feeder classes,” as one site director put it) and stay in the private schools after pre-K. They said they avoid religious instruction during pre-K time, though some said students might sing Hebrew songs or learn the Hebrew alphabet in class. Several said that most of their students speak Yiddish at home, so teachers deliver some of their lessons in that language.

Shulem Greenbaum, the director of Bnos Square of Williamsburg, which has 66 half-day pre-K seats and applied to offer full-day seats in September, said he was not sure how the school would accommodate a non-Jewish student if one wanted to attend his school’s free pre-K classes.

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I don’t even know if it’s possible, since we speak Yiddish mostly.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made no distinctions between the different pre-K providers, only saying that they “will be held to the exact same high standards” as public schools. (Patrick Wall)

Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, Protestant and other religious schools have long offered city-funded pre-K classes that are free, secular, and open to all students. The city’s pre-K guidelines apply to all religious schools, though they emerged after the City Hall meeting with Jewish leaders.

The number of students at Jewish schools in the city now outnumber those at any other type of non-public school, according to a recent analysis by the Independent Budget Office. Some advocates estimate that as many as 10,000 children likely to attend Jewish schools are pre-K aged.

That makes those four-year-olds an important group for the city to include in its pre-K expansion, and their schools a valuable source of space to help the city reach its 53,000-seat goal. The full $300 million the state has promised the city for full-day pre-K depends on the city hitting such targets, according to state officials.

Many yeshivas had opted only to offer half-day seats in the past, according to several yeshiva leaders and their representatives, since that allowed them to offer secular classes for part of the day then religious instruction for the rest, with a meal and prayers in between.

But the mayor’s plan — and the state funding — calls for thousands of new full-day seats. So city officials have prodded schools and community-based organizations to switch from half to full-day seats or offer them for the first time.

“There were constant emails, phone calls, ‘How many [seats] could you do?’” said the director of a Jewish daycare center who requested anonymity because she is seeking city approval to provide full-day pre-K. “It just seemed like there was pressure from above.”

At the City Hall meetings, the Jewish leaders described the difficulty of satisfying the full-day time requirements while still squeezing in religious instruction before or after pre-K and letting children out early for Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. But more importantly, they wanted clear instructions on how yeshivas with full-day pre-K could preserve their religious character.

The guidelines answered some of their questions. For example, yeshivas may keep up their mezuzahs, or small cases containing scrolls inscribed with Torah verses, but must remove other religious symbols. Students may pray before meals, but staff cannot lead the blessings, and some instruction must be in English, the guidelines say.

But other rules, such as the one allowing certain religious texts, left the schools unconvinced that they would be safe under the law.

“The fact that the schools are following city instructions doesn’t mean the city’s instructions are consistent with federal law,” said Rabbi David Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, who attended one of the meetings, “especially when we get into the murky water of what is religious and what is cultural.”

Several yeshiva leaders said that even though they applied to run full-day programs, they are waiting to see whether “the rules will be loosened more,” as one director put it, before they decide whether to actually offer full-day pre-K. Others are considering applying directly to the state for full-day money, since the state’s definition of full day is five hours, compared to de Blasio’s 6 hours and 20 minutes.

Ironically, the city’s behind-the-scenes campaign to bring free full-day pre-K to the ultra-Orthodox community may actually drive some parents away, according to the yeshiva leaders and some parents. In their view, a full day of secular studies misses the point of a yeshiva — city guidelines or not.

“It has to be religious,” said Chany Friedman, a Williamsburg parent who plans to send her child to a non-public preschool program. “That’s just the way you want them to grow up.”

The mayor’s office and the education department did not respond to questions about the guidelines. They also would not say how many religiously affiliated groups currently offer publicly funded pre-K (next year’s providers are still being selected). Department officials would only say that all pre-K providers, religious or not, underwent an application review and site visit before they were approved and will be subject to ongoing reviews.

As de Blasio has urged parents to apply to privately run pre-K programs funded by the city, he has made no distinctions between the different providers, only saying that they “will be held to the exact same high standards” as public schools.

Pamela Wheaton, managing editor at Insideschools, a nonprofit that reviews the city’s public schools, noted that some pre-K sites also advertise some instruction in other languages, such as Chinese or Spanish. She said those sites or religiously affiliated ones could be a “hard sell” to families who come from different backgrounds.

But she said it is the education department’s job to make sure the sites are accessible to everyone.

“And if they’re not,” she added, “the department shouldn’t give them public funding.”

Update (5:10 p.m.): Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye issued the following statement after this story was published:

“We want parents to understand this is one, single system, with uniform standards for the quality of every program. Our goal is pre-K for all, and we’re going to achieve it by offering a wide range of options that meet the needs of parents as their children enter the educational system. We have a tremendous number of high-quality community based educational options across all neighborhoods to meet that demand, and we are reaching out to families directly to make sure they know their options and can find the right fit for their child.”