NYC Easing Pre-K Scheduling To Accommodate Yeshivos

NEW YORK -

Delivering on a promise last year to parochial schools to make pre-kindergarten accessible to every four-year-old New Yorker, the de Blasio administration is easing a trio of scheduling provisions that the majority of yeshivos and other specialized schools said thwarted their ability to offer the city-funded service.

The new rules, which were made available exclusively to Hamodia, will go into effect for the upcoming school year beginning in September 2015. They will be sent out later this week to all non-public pre-K providers in a letter from Richard Buery, the city’s deputy mayor who is charged with overseeing the program.

“We always knew that to make this two-year expansion successful,” Buery’s letter says, “we would need to continuously learn and improve our approach. … To be truly successful, Pre-K for All must reach all communities and reflect the incredible diversity of our city. We have been working hard to find further ways to make the program even more inclusive.” deputy mayor who is charged with overseeing the program.

“We always knew that to make this two-year expansion successful,” Buery’s letter says, “we would need to continuously learn and improve our approach. … To be truly successful, Pre-K for All must reach all communities and reflect the incredible diversity of our city. We have been working hard to find further ways to make the program even more inclusive.”

One yeshivah administrator told Hamodia that he assumed that yeshivos that had shied away from the program because of the hours requirement will now be encouraged to give it a try.

Heshie Dembitzer, the administrator of Bobover yeshivah in Boro Park, said that his yeshivah did not participate in this year’s pre-K, but will apply for next year because of these changes.

“This is a good faith effort by the de Blasio administration to include many of our yeshivos in the universal pre-K program,” Rabbi Dembitzer said.

Mosdos who until now thought it not possible to do pre-K because of the six hours and 20 minutes [requirement], because of the need for limudei kodesh and the Friday schedule — this will now give them the leeway to consider it,” he said.

Isaac Sofer, director for external affairs at Satmar’s United Talmudical Academy in Williamsburg, said that his mosad is “delighted to see how far the mayor’s team came forward and reassured us that every 4-year-old has a better chance in New York City.”

“This is precisely what yeshivos are looking for,” Sofer said, referring to the new regulations. “It does not compromise the quality and outcome of the program, but at the same time it maintains the school schedule and environment.”

Councilman Chaim Deutsch, who chairs a subcommittee on non-public schools, praised de Blasio “for his efforts in bringing us a step closer towards ensuring equal opportunities for public and non-public schools.”

The new pre-K regime will address the biggest complexities yeshivos had with signing up for the mayor’s signature program.

The obstacles are (1) having classes for six hours and 20 minutes each day, including Friday; (2) the need for 180 days of instruction, a requirement made nearly unattainable by the frequency of Yom Tov; and (3) the ban on religious instruction, such as davening or even bentching with the students during class time.

Until now, the city did not count as a pre-K day any day without a minimum of six hours and 20 minutes of instruction. Starting next year, they say, days that have less than that number will still count. The administration will focus more on schools filling hours of the week instead of the day.

For example, if a yeshivah wants to dismiss the class on Friday at 12:30 and make up the missing two hours and 50 minutes on Sunday instead — that would be allowed.

Most yeshivos who did not open a pre-K program said they could go up to approximately five hours a day but couldn’t get in any more than that. Under the new set of rules, they’ll be able to spread those hours out over six days. As long as they have 31 hours and 40 minutes a week — which translates to about five hours and 15 minutes a day — they are fine.

The city is also okaying for the first time the use of federal holidays to make up for days missed because of Yom Tov. There are 11 federal holidays, such as New Years, Presidents Day and Columbus Day, which should be ample enough to cover for the five or six days that yeshivos usually scramble to cover.

The city has this year allowed Sundays as a make-up day for another day of the week — Erev Shabbos, for instance — but has kept the federal holiday calendar walled off to classroom instruction. For the upcoming year, the administration says, they will open that up as well.

In effect, an administration official said, any day of the year — with the exclusion of the month of July — will be allowed.

The third, and probably the most significant of the changes, is sanctioning a single break during the day. While the Department of Education until now considered a pre-K day as one spent in uninterrupted instruction, they will now allow for a short break — the administration gives 20 minutes as an example — for the school to do other activities with the children.

A Montessori school might choose to use the recess for a special human development program while a yeshivah may use it for bentching and davening with the children.

The break is not included in the hours of instruction and is not paid for by the city. It must be made up by the end of the day and they still have to hit their time sheets for daily instruction.

Any program that signs up for the break will have to make accommodations for any students whose parents do not want them to participate in the activity. For example, if a child from a non-observant family is enrolled in a yeshivah pre-K program, the city will be demanding to see what program will be designed for that student during the off time when the other children are bentching.

“The short break must be clearly and appropriately identified for children not participating,” Buery writes, “and an alternative activity provided.”

The new rules were developed after extensive conversations with a range of groups in the Orthodox and Catholic communities, some of which held back from joining pre-K, concerned that they could not fill the hours and days required without having extensively long school days for their youngest students.

The new system will be allowed for any community-based organization with a pre-K curriculum, even if they are already currently in the program.

The city in the coming weeks will release a new full-day Request For Proposals (RFP) that reflects this latest information.

Pre-K — or UPK, an acronym for universal pre-kindergarten, the slogan for the idea that every four-year-old child has a fundamental right to a free education — was de Blasio’s rallying cry during his successful run for mayor in 2013. Paid for with $300 million from the state, the city has signed up 53,230 children for this year, slightly above the target they set for 53,000.

The mayor has set a new goal of 73,000 students for the 2015-2016 school year. He has set aside $340 million in his preliminary budget for 2016 to pay for it.

City estimates show that there are between 8,000 to 10,000 toddlers eligible for pre-K among the yeshivah student population. 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.

However, the timesheet difficulties led most yeshivos to decline to participate. According to one estimate widely distributed by the Orthodox Union, 89 percent of Orthodox children eligible for the program have not signed up.

The OU organized a petition for de Blasio to open a half-day program of 2 1/2 hours to allow yeshivos to participate in pre-K. The city has agreed in principle, but says they hope that the new rules will render the push moot.

“As we have already stated,” Buery writes, “we anticipate continuing a modest half-day program. However, we believe the flexibility explained here will make full-day a viable option for even more families and providers, consistent with our vision to provide full-day, high quality pre-K for every four-year-old in the city whose family is seeking that option.”