NYC Mayor Takes Victory Lap as School Opens with Expanded Pre-K

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Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday threw himself into the annual back-to-school tradition with gusto. He read to four year-olds in Queens, ate lunch with fifth graders in the Bronx, and played Simon Says in Spanish with second graders at a Manhattan charter school.

Visiting schools in all five boroughs, he touted his success in rapidly expanding pre-kindergarten and putting access to quality education at the top of his political agenda. 

"For Chirlane and I, this is a moment of fulfillment," he said, referring to his wife, Chirlane McCray, who joined him on the tour. By getting over 51,000 children enrolled, a 150 percent increase over last year, he said "all boats will be lifted" as more youngsters are prepared for school.

Thursday's visits included stops at three full-day pre-k programs in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens that were able to offer more seats with some of the $300 million in state funding. Two were at community-based organizations and one was at Sacred Heart Catholic school on Staten Island, which is among many religious institutions taking part in the pre-k expansion effort. 

De Blasio mingling with students (and Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams) at Inner Force Tots pre-k in East New York (Beth Fertig/WNYC)

The mayor and his wife sat among the pre-k students as they played with blocks and toys, learning in to marvel at the children's creations and stopping to greet parents. They were joined by Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who vowed the city would closely monitor the programs to make sure they're high quality. The nearly 1,700 pre-k programs in schools and non-profits are using curricular materials aligned with the state's Common Core standards.

To parents, Fariña said, "this is an opportunity for you, too."

The chancellor joined the mayor and first lady at the Home Sweet Home pre-k in Queens, which added a third class of students this year but still had a waiting list. They took turns reading "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to students. Fariña pointed to a picture of a cocoon in the book and asked the kids if they remembered the word for it; a few shouted "cocoon!"

"This is the first of 1,000 words," she said, demonstrating her belief that children can learn 1,000 new words during their pre-k year.

The mayor said there were no glitches on the first day of the 2014-15 school year, but he acknowledged the city was still working to find alternate sites for about 100 of the 265 children at nine programs that weren't allowed to open because they didn't pass inspection. Thirty-six other programs had to postpone their openings; at least 14 of them would open on Monday. 

"I think everyone did an incredible job," de Blasio said, of the effort to create 30,000 new seats after the state budget was passed in April. "They had to do this on really less than six months' notice."

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who is in charge of the pre-k effort, called it "an amazing day" and thanked all of the city agencies that collaborated.

"If you don't dream it you can't build it," he said, with a nod to the mayor.

The mayor gave a small preview of two policy issues that will be developing this fall. He said the city would announce a new co-location policy "quite soon," that takes into account his criteria for allowing multiple schools to share the same buildings. Unlike his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who allowed charter schools to flourish in district school buildings, de Blasio has said the city schools are "overcrowded."

A new state law requires the city to continue letting charters open inside city buildings or pay them rent to go elsewhere, a policy that will be tested soon as 17 charters come up for authorization in October. 

The chancellor also said she would announce a policy soon on how to help struggling schools, which were often closed by the previous administration. She said retired principals of successful schools would play a role in helping some of them, along with other experienced members of her team.