Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the start of the city's vastly expanded prekindergarten program with a five-borough victory tour to greet children as they began the school year.
"Full-day pre-K for every child is one of the most fundamental ways to shake the foundations of the school system and change it for the long term," he said at Inner Force Tots early education center in the East New York section of Brooklyn.
The pre-K enrollment of 51,500 is more than double the 20,000 last year. De Blasio is trying to fill 1,500 more seats this year and projects the total will reach 70,000 next year.
The seemingly successful launch of his pre-K vision -- which the mayor said drew a "respectful air of incredulity" from members of the press when he first proposed it in an October 2012 speech -- brought first lady Chirlane McCray nearly to tears.
"I am a little shaky and teary because this moment means so much for these children," she said. "But I can't be too sad, because today marks such a huge victory."
The expansion, paid for with $300 million in state funds, was executed in six months.
De Blasio emphasized that his team holds pre-K programs to the "highest standards" in academics, health and safety. Out of 1,700 sites, the city canceled the openings of nine and delayed 36 others because of health, construction and paperwork concerns. Fourteen of those 36 sites will open on Monday, de Blasio said.
The mayor's office and the Department of Education have faced criticism from City Comptroller Scott Stringer for delays in submitting pre-K vendor contracts for final review and registration.
De Blasio was accompanied on his tour by borough presidents, City Council members and other elected officials. Stringer greeted students separately on the Upper East Side.
Stringer said he wants the pre-K initiative to succeed and urged City Hall to "get their act together" in turning over the remaining contracts. His office Thursday night said it has received 190 of more than 500 contracts.
De Blasio was joined at a Catholic school on Staten Island by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who lauded universal pre-K as an "extraordinarily bold, promising and noble project." About 5,000 pre-K students are enrolled at parochial schools but will be treated as public school pupils, receiving no religious instruction.
"As long as they're using the state-regulated curriculum, they're fair and they don't impose religion, a great education is a great education," said Angela Brown, 37, of West Brighton.
Her son, Oliver, 4, said he practiced the alphabet in class at Sacred Heart School.
In Brooklyn, Arnold Mbongo, 35, of East New York, said he appreciated that parents now have more choices.
"Everything starts with a foundation," Mbongo said. His daughter, Binta, 2cq, waved goodbye happily on her way into Inner Force Tots.
In his last stop, at East Harlem's Amber Charter School, de Blasio said he believes the program had a "good, strong opening."