With neatly braided hair, overstuffed backpacks, and a tight grip on their parents’ hands, four-year-olds streamed in to the Fort George pre-school in the Morrisania section of the Bronx Thursday morning for their first day of pre-kindergarten.
“I’m going to make new friends,” said Mia Pabon, as she clung to her older sister. She said she also hoped to play in “the fake kitchen,” and cook “a fake doughnut.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio had even greater aspirations for what kids like Mia would accomplish this year. He told reporters trailing him on his five-borough visit of schools that he hoped to prepare every four-year-old for academic success.
"We're here to fight inequality in all its forms," he said. "This is one of the most fundamental ways of doing that so it's a great day."
First Lady Chirlane McCray stood by his side in a pre-k center in East New York. “I am a little shaky and teary because this moment means so much for these children, for our families, and for our community,” she said. “This is a day I will always remember.”
De Blasio repeatedly thanked the city officials, educators and administrators who got the classroom ready for the school year. There are now pre-k classrooms in 1,655 public schools and private programs, including 3,000 seats in Catholic schools, 1,200 seats in Jewish schools, and 100 seats in Muslim schools. About 1,000 new pre-k lead teachers were hired for the expansion.
"These folks had April, May, June, July, August to get ready for one of the biggest pre-k expansions in United States history and they've done it," he said.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the expansion is not over. Teachers would receive ongoing professional development and independent researchers would review the program.
"We're paying for an outside agency to come in and do the research and evaluate the work as we go along," she said.
The expansion faced setbacks earlier this week. Officials revoked the contracts of nine pre-k programs on Tuesday amid serious health and safety concerns. The decision impacted 265 children, 113 of whom have not yet found a seat.
Another 36 centers have delayed openings because of safety and permitting concerns. Fourteen of those are expected to open on Monday.
At Inner Force Tots, a pre-k center in East New York, Wendy Alexander, a parent, said the early childhood center meant the world to her.
“You can drop him off and don’t worry about a thing,” the nurse assistant said. "I see growth with him, academically, physically, socially as well."
In Staten Island, the mayor and chancellor visited Sacred Heart, a Catholic school that tripled its pre-k capacity this year to serve 54 students. The mayor chatted with a girl who was building with blocks.
“You’re an architect, you know that,” de Blasio said. “You’re building a house.”
For pre-k parents throughout the city, it was a day of jitters and some tears for both the young students and their grown ups.
Eva Santos’s three-year-old daughter Jaynaliz Chavez started her school career this morning at Fort George in the Bronx hiding her face in her father’s chest, and asking her mother, “You stay, mami?”
Santos said she was a bit nervous herself—but very excited for Jaynaliz to start school. She stayed home with her daughter until last month, when Jaynaliz got the pre-k spot, and Santos got a half-time job as a bank teller.
“It’s really easy for you to just have them in school and I feel safer when the kids are in pre-k,” said Santos.
One father had tears streaming down his face as he left the Fort George preschool. His son had cried when he had to leave, and that made him cry too.
“I’m his protector,” he said. “That’s my baby.”