With pre-K applications almost due, parents’ phones keep ringing

Phone headsets on, color-coded maps pulled up on their computers, and coffee by their sides, the city’s 30 or so pre-kindergarten outreach workers were in overdrive early Thursday: They had less than 37 hours before pre-K applications were due.

With names culled from birth records, public child-care centers, and responses to robocalls, the workers have already dialed up more than 135,000 parents of four-year-olds to encourage them to apply for free pre-K. Other days, they ventured from their fifth-floor office in a nondescript building overlooking City Hall out to playgrounds, laundromats, and hair salons across the city to pitch parents on the importance of pre-K.

Their work has paid off. By noon Thursday, they had helped convince 64,785 parents to apply for full-day pre-K slots, officials said, making the city likely to meet its goal of getting 70,000 children enrolled well before school starts in September.

While families will still be able to apply after Friday night, officials are emphasizing the deadline since it will help the city plan and give parents the best chance of securing a spot at their top-ranked pre-K sites. So to spur the workers toward the finish line, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery stopped by the “war room” Thursday to deliver pep talks.

“I want to thank you for this heroic effort,” Fariña told the workers gathered around her, adding that pre-K is a “life-changing” opportunity for children. “Don’t ever think of this as a job: You’re on a mission.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery gave pre-K outreach workers a pep talk Thursday. (Patrick Wall)

Buery said that the number of children they had already enrolled was “unprecedented,” but that thousands more have yet to apply.

“I am in such awe of your hard work and your passion,” he said. “And I know there are 64,875 children and counting who owe you all an immense debt of gratitude.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio made the pre-K expansion the central initiative of his first year in office and, while it has largely been a success, Buery said Thursday that some challenges remain.

In order to boost the number of full-day pre-K seats from 19,000 to 53,000 last year, the city scoured public schools for available classrooms, hired real estate brokers to locate private spaces, and even created an online database to help pre-K providers find suitable facilities. Still, the city has a way to go to make sure that safe, high-quality seats are ready for another 20,000 or so pre-K students by September.

“It’s a big, big, big challenge,” Buery said. (An aide noted that the city already has space for about 75,000 students, but is looking to add more seats in order to give families additional options and account for high demand.)

About 60 percent of the city’s public pre-K seats are operated by private groups, which must follow the same regulations and use the same curriculum as the programs inside public schools. The city has tried to walk a fine line with those community-based groups, encouraging as many as possible to apply to offer public pre-K while demanding that they match the quality of school-based sites.

Members of the city’s pre-K outreach team urged parents to enroll their four-year-olds before this week’s deadline. (Patrick Wall )

To that end, city agents conducted thousands of site visits last year, delayed the opening of dozens of new sites where problems were found, and rejected nearly half the applications from would-be providers for failing to meet the city’s standards. Officials also urged religious schools to add full-day slots, assuring them that they could hold prayer breaks during the day — a policy that civil-liberties groups said could violate the separation of church and state.

The city has invested millions of dollars in teacher training. It hired Bank Street College of Education to prepare 4,000 new-to-pre-K teachers last summer, and created a fast-track fellowship program that speeds teachers with just a few months of training into pre-K classrooms while they work toward full certification. Whether those teachers will deliver on de Blasio’s promise of top-notch instruction at every pre-K site remains to be seen.

After the speeches Thursday, the workers turned back to their phones, asking those on the other end whether they had 10 minutes to enroll their child in pre-K right now.

One of those callers was Chris Yarrell, the team’s Bronx outreach manager. He recalled contacting a woman three times before she finally had to time to enroll her child. After that, she became so excited about the program that she volunteered to encourage other parents to sign up at a Bronx pre-K event, Yarrell said.

“That’s just one example of many,” he added. “I’m very happy to be working in this environment.”