The Journey to Pre-K Starts with Festivals and Parades

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At the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, outreach worker Jasmine Fernandez talks with Riy Xian about enrolling his son in pre-k.

At the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in Flushing earlier this month, there were dragon kites, dragon flags, and dragon dancers. And there was also George Zhuo, an outreach worker with the New York City Department of Education, trying to get parents of 4-year-olds to sign up for pre-kindergarten.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to provide pre-k for 53,000 4-year-olds this fall, more than twice last year’s number. Two weeks before school, many new pre-k programs still have openings. Thirty-five outreach workers are working six days a week to fill those spots.

“How old is your little one?” Zhuo asked, approaching a man with a child.

“Almost 4,” the man said.

That’s just the age Zhuo was hoping to find. He got a phone number and promised to call on Monday to tell the father about pre-k openings in his neighborhood.

Zhuo approached parents at the festival speaking Mandarin or Cantonese. Many asked if the Department of Education web site is in Chinese (it is), and if the schools have teachers who speak Chinese (sometimes yes).

Zhuo asked a woman with a stroller her son’s age. Yan Fei Li said the boy is only 2, but she hopes in a few years he’ll learn English in pre-k.

“When they stay home, they speak only Chinese, and then when they go to school and they speak English,” she said.

The Department of Education has sent outreach workers to the Mermaid Parade in Brooklyn and to march with de Blasio in the Fourth of July parade on Staten Island.

No one has a total tally of how many pre-k seats are filled and how many are still open. When the outreach workers go to festivals like this, they take addresses and phones numbers, check their databases, then call back to let parents know their local options.

They also keep in touch with individual center directors. They hit playgrounds and bouncy houses looking for parents of 4-year-olds to fill particular spots.

The city has been authorizing new pre-k programs throughout the summer and seats have been constantly coming online.

But often parents don’t know these brand-new programs exist. With school starting in just a few weeks, some centers have dozens of vacancies.

So the ability to deliver on the promise of pre-kindergarten rests in part on these outreach workers.