The state doled out $27 million in pre-K funding to Long Island school districts this year either to create a new program or to expand an existing one. Locally, 4,200 new seats opened up. At Howell Road School in Valley Stream on Thursday, parents dropped their kids off for the first day of pre-K. Newsday's Shari Einhorn has the story.  Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

More than 4,200 new prekindergarten seats have been added at Long Island school districts for this academic year, and Port Jefferson parent Danielle Kahl is happy about the expansion.

Her daughter Luna will be among the first group of the youngest students in the Port Jefferson district who will attend full-day prekindergarten. For decades, the district had offered a half-day option, but a recent influx of funding for preschool programs statewide have led Port Jefferson and hundreds of other districts to offer more instruction to the youngest learners.

"We're really excited about it. I think it's good practice for kindergarten," Kahl said at a visit to Edna Louise Spear elementary school Monday.  Luna is almost 4 years old and couldn't wait for the first day of school to come, her mother said.

Nearly 90 Island districts have received funding to expand prekindergarten either for the first time or to grow an existing program this school year. The 2022-23 state budget included an additional $125 million in universal prekindergarten funding statewide, with $100 million allocated by formula and $25 million through competitive grants, according to the state. There are now 336 school districts in New York receiving these funds. Some districts reported also receiving federal money to grow their programs.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • More than 4,200 new prekindergarten seats have been added at Long Island school districts for this academic year.
  • Nearly 90 school districts across Long Island have received funding to expand prekindergarten either for the first time or to grow an existing program this school year.
  • On Long Island, there has been a $27 million increase in prekindergarten funding to support more than 4,200 new seats, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul's office.

There has been a $27 million increase in prekindergarten funding to support the new seats on the Island, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul's office. Long Island received $31.9 million in state funding last year to add about 5,200 4-year-olds to the prekindergarten rolls.

Early childhood education advocates are hopeful the state will continue to fund prekindergarten, saying research has shown that it helps children learn later in school and that an easily accessible full-day program eases the burden on working parents. 

"It's a big milestone for us," said Jacob Dixon, center coordinator for the Long Island Regional Technical Assistance Center for Pre-K & Early Childhood Education.

About 10% of all 4-year-olds on Long Island had access to prekindergarten five years ago, and that figure has grown to about 30%, he said.

"I am hopeful because I think there are state leaders across all parties who believe in the importance of investing in our young folks," said Dixon, who is also CEO of Choice for All, a Roosevelt-based nonprofit focused on equity issues.

Not all of Long Island's 124 school districts offer prekindergarten. For those that do, nearly half of those enrolled in the 2020-21 school year were in half-day programs, spending about 2 1/2 hours a day in school, according to the most recent data available from the state Education Department’s report card. The recent expansion in funding increases access to full-day programs, typically running from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Madison Russell, 4, left, and Skylar Kuehn, 4, are students...

Madison Russell, 4, left, and Skylar Kuehn, 4, are students in prekindergarten class at Edna Louise Elementary School in Port Jefferson. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Demand for a seat often outpaces supply. In several local school systems, parents have to enter their children in a lottery for a seat, and some districts have reported not having enough classroom space to account for the additional learners. New York City provides prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds and has expanded to serve 3-year-olds as well. 

Still, educators across Long Island are happy this year to host preschoolers in the classroom. In the Garden City district, they plan to do so with balloons and welcome signs when schools open.

"The first week is always a little bit challenging for our younger children, but for the preschool children we are going to make it as inviting as possible and as fun as possible so they, too, can say: ‘I can’t wait to go to school,' ” Superintendent Kusum Sinha said.

The district received roughly $1 million in funding for 191 seats at $5,400 per child, but can only add 40 seats because of limited space. 

There will be two sections of prekindergarten in the Homestead School that serves grades K-1. The district, like several across the Island, is contracting with an outside agency — SCOPE Education Services — to run the program. The district held a lottery earlier this month for the seats, for which 147 families applied.

Sinha said the district is looking for additional space to add capacity.

Other districts have turned to more than one community-based organization to provide preschool instruction and solve space issues.

In Elwood, the district is contracting with three organizations — Kiddie Care Early Learning Center in Commack, The Learning Experience in Northport and the Suffolk JCC in Commack — to serve 40 preschool children in a full-day program. Busing is not provided.

Elwood had offered a prekindergarten program, but parents had to pay tuition. Now, with about $216,000 in funding from the federal government and the state, the program for 40 children will be free for students selected by lottery, Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said. The district will still offer the tuition option.

About 100 families applied for the lottery. Bossert said the district made efforts to inform families of the lottery, including printing literature in multiple languages and having social workers and other staff reach out to the community.

“We wanted to make sure everyone was equally aware of the lottery,” he said, adding that research has shown that underserved members of the population often do not have awareness of such lotteries.

The Merrick school district was able to accommodate all students in its new program, officials said. The district received more than $400,000 from the state and $151,000 from the federal government to start a program this year, said Jill Karp, deputy superintendent.

The district is teaching in two school buildings, but also is using space from the Jewish Community Center in Merrick for a total of 115 spots. The district is contracting with SCOPE Education Services to run the program.

Karp said she sees great benefits for those who start education early.

"They have opportunities to interact socially, to participate in classroom routines. They are exposed earlier to academics and social and emotional learning components in a classroom," she said.

Educators in districts that have had prekindergarten for years agreed. In Hempstead, the district has had a half-day prekindergarten program for decades, but last year it was able to expand to full-day. The district provides busing and serves more than 230 students both breakfast and lunch.

"The approach is developmental in nature. We are really looking at helping the children grow and develop where they need to be," Prospect Street School Principal Carole Eason said. "They are getting a full day of learning, and it is setting the stage for them to be able to do the work they will do when they become kindergarten students."

With Michael R. Ebert

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