In Quest for Full-Day Yeshivah Pre-K, NYC Eases Terms

NEW YORK -

Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce Wednesday that his administration will be easing a long list of requirements that yeshivah administrators have said are of great concern to them, in a bid to get yeshivos to apply for the mayor’s signature full-day Pre-Kindergarten.

The changes are a significant departure from the strict interpretation of not funding religious institutions taken by consecutive
city governments. They were given to Hamodia on Tuesday by a top city official, three days before the Friday night deadline for public schools and community-based organizations — which include yeshivos — to submit a Request for Proposals (RFP) to apply for the program.

Some of the top issues for yeshivos, expressed during two meetings with de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who is charged with implementing the universal pre-k program across the city, include the allowance of mezuzos on doorways, filling the 180-day requirement while still giving off for Yamim Tovim, and reaching the required 6hours and 20 minutes daily — including Fridays.

Most of those concerns will be allayed in the new rules, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, assured Hamodia.

The mayor has called for 53,000 children to sign up for pre-k this year, and an additional 20,000 by the 2015-2016 school year. City estimates show between 8,000 to 10,000 eligible students — to be eligible, one mayoral aide said wryly, you just have to be 4-years-old — among the yeshivah student population.

Many yeshivos already have half-day pre-k programs, described as two and a half hours a day. Transferring to a full day program entails moving times for davening and teaching Torah or religious topics before the program officially starts for the day.

Inspections will still be carried out by the bureaucratic Department of Education but will now report to Sophia Pappas, a political appointee in the mayor’s office, who is the executive director of the Office of Early Childhood Education.

Regarding putting up religious symbols such as a mezuzah, there will not be a clear-cut decision but it will be based on the “overall aura” in the classroom. A mezuzah on the door will not disqualify a mosad, but a conspicuous sefer Torah — or, for that matter, 50 mezuzos hung across the wall — will, for example.

Posters bearing cultural or language symbols, such as middos, alef-beis or parashas hashavuah, are fine under the new regulations.

Another one of the biggest hurdles for yeshivos is how to conduct classes for 180 days a year. While the city until now did not allow Sundays to be used as an official learning day, the city official said they will now allow it on a case by case basis.

For example, if a yeshivah administrator sees that he is missing a few days, he could ask the city to allow Sundays to count and the department will allow it, the official said.

Legal holidays are still not permitted since state law prohibits it.

Another allowance the city will make is permitting two or three of the mandatory four days of “professional development” for teachers to take place before the school year begins. Those days are off-days for students but count as part of the school’s 180-day minimum. Previous bans on having those days take place on Sunday, Saturday or in July remain.

As for the problem of how to reach 6 hours and 20 minutes on Fridays, the city will, for the first time, allow make-up time on the other days of the week by keeping students later. Also, if a yeshivah does not claim Sunday as an official day, they may use that day to make up the Friday hours. Again, legal holidays will not qualify for this.

While the city is making these allowances, it remains to be seen if yeshivos will join. While some yeshivos, primarily the chassidishe ones, are already open on Sundays, many will be loath to have classes six days a week for 4-year-olds. In addition, parents may not want to send their toddlers to school for seven or eight hours a day to make up for Friday.

Regarding some of the other concerns, the city says that they would not object to teachers making brachos with the children before and after eating, as long as they do not “impose” or “lead” it. They are leaving it to the teachers to keep to the “spirit” of not making brachos obligatory.

Davening and teaching religion will have to be done before official class hours.

Yeshivos will be allowed to give preference in professional hiring to members of their kehillah, as long as the instruction is delivered in a non-sectarian manner and the children are not made to feel uncomfortable.

Using references to the Torah as part of reading or as a reference to history is permitted as a metaphor, but not in a religious or contemporary light. So teachers are allowed to talk about Haman or Pharoah as the epitome of evil, or use a Tehillim to read with the class, as long as it is not religious in nature.

The language of instruction will be allowed to be in Yiddish or Hebrew, but programs must have some English component. The students must show development in speaking the English language by the end of the year.

At the meeting two weeks ago in City Hall, de Blasio asked yeshivos to encourage parents to sign up for his signature campaign issue, for which he won a hard-fought battle with Albany last month. Earlier this year, the state budget allocated approximately $300 million for this purpose.

Schools that participate in the full-day program will receive between $7,500 and $9,000 per child. The lower amount will go for all schools, while the higher sum will be given to schools who have a director with a master’s degree in education.