New York City Offers Free Preschool. Why Are 30,000 Spots Empty?

Since arriving in New York from Ecuador last month, Gloria Cruz has spent her days selling candy near the Queensboro Plaza subway station with her 3-year-old daughter, Maylin, at her side.

Ms. Cruz’s niece told her about a preschool option that could give Maylin a place to go while she works: The city’s free program for 3-year-olds, open to children regardless of immigration status. But Ms. Cruz worried about enrolling without having legal documents for Maylin on hand, and ultimately opted not to send her.

“For now, she just walks around with me all morning,” Ms. Cruz, 38, said in Spanish.

Gloria Cruz’s 3-year-old daughter is eligible for free preschool, but Ms. Cruz instead brings her along when she sells candy during the day.Credit…Raul Vilchis

When New York City began its universal preschool program for 4-year-olds in 2014, it was tough not to notice.

Outreach workers fanned out six days a week across barbershops and laundromats. They pitched the program at 500 community events. They called 130,000 families to address concerns they may have had about preschool. They spent afternoons knocking door-to-door at public housing complexes, and held pop-up fairs at homeless shelters.

Looking to build on the success of pre-K, the city widened its goal in 2017, aiming to expand the initiative to 3-year-olds and starting off in a handful of neighborhoods.

Several years later, after the pandemic devastated the early childhood sector, causing day care providers and preschools to close in droves, families became desperate for affordable child care. The city now has plenty of it: almost 130,000free and low-cost prekindergarten seats for 3- and 4-year-olds.

But nearly 30,000 of those seats remain empty. And Mayor Eric Adams’s administration has shelved plans to further grow the program for 3-year-olds, cutting $567 million budgeted for an expansion and arguing that the previous administration was more focused on numbers than needs.

One reason for the vacancies is likely a decline in the number of children in the city. But elected officials and preschool leaders say the gaps would be less dramatic if officials had ramped up their efforts to find and encourage the parents of children like Maylin to apply.

By some measures, the program’s enrollment looks promising: More than 42,000 New York City children have applied for 3-K in the coming school year. That’s an all-time high, in part because the city has significantly expanded the 3-K program since it began. Still, even if every applicant was offered a spot, roughly a quarter of the seats would still go unfilled.

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And only 54,000 4-year-olds applied for pre-K, a slight increase over last year but still far below prepandemic enrollment, which hovered around 70,000.

Early childhood advocates say more families would likely sign up if they knew about the benefits of preschool and did not face barriers to enrollment.

They say another intensive push modeled on the first, successful outreach campaign is needed to fill more seats. Otherwise, a central mission of the initiatives — to serve the high-needs families who stand to benefit most from high-quality early childhood education — could be jeopardized.

Several areas with the highest rates of vacant seats are among the city’s poorest, including Brownsville, East Harlem and several neighborhoods in the southwest Bronx, data shows.

And the pre-K enrollment rate for 4-year-olds living in homeless shelters has dropped since the pandemic began: from nearly two-thirds to about 50 percent.

At the city’s Education Department, a preschool outreach group of four dozen or so workers has shrunk in recent years, and remaining staff members were folded into other teams, two current employees said.

Education officials say they have sent robocalls and emails to roughly 100,000 families with reminders and targeted information, and directly called nearly 7,600 parents.

They have also advertised in several languages on social media, on the subway and at businesses in low-turnout areas, as well as answered questions at local events and information sessions.

But the department no longer does frequent, on-the-ground canvassing.

“I feel that we are failing at outreach,” said Lincoln Restler, a city councilman who represents parts of northern Brooklyn. “If we are not engaging immigrant families, marginalized communities and bringing them in,” he said, “we will continue to not achieve the maximum enrollment we need.”

Enrollment in public preschool programs plunged during the pandemic across the country, as preschools closed or went remote, and some families worried about sending unvaccinated children to classrooms, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The largest declines were among the lowest-income families, whose enrollment has rebounded at a slower pace.

In New York City, one reason there are fewer children attending free preschool could be simply that there are fewer children overall. The children born in 2020 are eligible for 3-K this year, but the city’s birthrate — already on the decline — fell by nearly 9 percent between 2019 and 2020, new data shows, hitting a historic low.

About 200,000 preschool-aged children lived in the city in 2020, state data shows, about 6 percent fewer than when Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced “3-K For All” in 2017. Some neighborhoods with empty seats, such as Washington Heights, have seen large drops in the number of residents under 18, an analysis of census data shows. Elsewhere, the demographic changes have been less dramatic, including in places with high vacancy rates like Brownsville.

This year, the city hired the consulting company Accenture to determine where seats should be added or removed. In addition to poorer neighborhoods, vacancy rates are also high in several affluent neighborhoods, where more parents may be able to afford private options.

But some elected officials maintain the problem is bigger than demographics alone.

“So many working parents depend on 3-K,” said Shekar Krishnan, a councilman who represents Jackson Heights and Elmhurst in Queens. “It just logically doesn’t seem possible that the vacancies cannot be filled.”

It is unclear how many Education Department staff members work primarily on preschool outreach. Daniel Weisberg, the department’s first deputy chancellor, said officials “haven’t disbanded anything” when asked about the preschool outreach team at a recent City Council hearing.

“One possibility is there’s not enough outreach being done, and I take that as a possibility,” Mr. Weisberg said.

“But if we have the highest application rate on record and it’s not even getting close to the capacity that we built, that’s a problem,” he added. “Somebody decided to build 55,000 seats without any reference to what the demand was. That’s how you get into this situation.”

Other cities that provide free public preschool have renewed their focus on outreach as enrollment gaps have persisted.

In Chicago, the pandemic inspired officials to “really change” their approach, said Leslie Mckinily, who runs the district’s early childhood efforts. They ramped up street canvassing to reach families in hard hit ZIP codes, and left preschool pamphlets directly outside homes. Officials began biweekly meetings to map out areas in need of additional attention.

In Dallas, a new neighborhood-level campaign began two years ago that includes door knocking to find eligible children. Many canvassers have had to address families’ new concerns over preschool enrollment.

“It’s almost as if we’re starting back at ground zero with rebuilding trust,” said Chelsea Jeffery, the managing director at a local coalition focused on early childhood awareness. “We knew that it was going to take a targeted grass-roots outreach effort.”

Segundo Moyón and his wife, Elvia Macas, said they had learned of 3-K from another parent in the homeless shelter where they are staying, after arriving in New York this year with their sons Mateo, 3, and Cristofer, 1. But a social worker later told them their children couldn’t sign up for school until age 5, they said.

“The truth is that it would be great if the older one could go to school,” said Mr. Moyón, 32, who had worked as a bricklayer in Ecuador and spends his mornings looking for construction work.

Raising awareness may not be a panacea: Even parents eager to sign up can struggle to navigate the application process, said Liza Schwartzwald, who works on early childhood issues for the New York Immigration Coalition, which has helped enroll children in neighborhoods like East Harlem and Sunset Park.

“We’re talking about people who might not have pre-K or 3-K in their home countries,” she said, adding that the vast majority of families who her group has helped say they could not have enrolled without direct assistance.

As the search for solutions continues, workers who helped the city enroll a mass of families years ago, like Jasmine Fernández, who worked on the original “Pre-K for All” outreach team, said the city needed to “go back to the basics.”

“We can send emails, we can do the robocalls. But that’s not that personalized touch,” said Ms. Fernández, who left the department in 2019. “And I think that’s the difference.”

Liset Cruz contributed reporting.

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