Playing the pre-K lottery: LI families share realities of availability, affordability

High-quality education is important to Long Islanders. They cite it as a reason they live here — and they’re willing to pay high property taxes for it.

However, many parents struggle to find affordable, full-day preschools. Unlike New York City, which is able to offer free, high-quality early education for every 4-year-old resident, universal pre-kindergarten access on LI varies, district by district. 

"We know that there are a number of districts interested in starting programs and expanding," said Lucinda Hurley, coordinator of The Long Island Pre-K Initiative. A partnership between the three Long Island BOCES and Nassau and Suffolk Child Care Councils, the initiative advocates for early learning. 

Many district programs that receive funding are required to run on a lottery system, restricting how many children can attend. Even if a family wins the lottery, some programs run only three hours a day. Some districts do not offer free pre-K yet.

Some working parents are then forced to rely on other family members to care for their child until they come home, or pay hundreds of dollars a month for after-school child care.

Hurley predicts that for pre-K on Long Island to become truly universal, more state funding will be needed. Some relatively wealthy school districts cannot qualify for state funds earmarked for economically high-needs districts. 

"A high-quality pre-K program sets the stage for academic skills and social skills. It can help close the achievement gap. For all kids, it's a good thing," Hurley said. "The most important thing is talking to parents about their experiences."

We asked four families about the opportunities open to them, their low points and how they make pre-K work.

Three Long Island familes share their stories of access to pre-K in their respective towns. The Neary, Patterson, and Rudin families told us how each of them sent their children to pre-K.  Credit: Newsday / Morgan Campbell

"It was a big help when UPK was offered."

Iyana Patterson, 38, learned about the importance of early education through her mother, a kindergarten teacher. It was part of her and her husband's decision to send their son to Academic Explorers, a local daycare and preschool a year before they could enroll him in Roosevelt's universal pre-K program.

Both working parents, they felt it was important for Adin, 4, to attend a program that provided structure, not just an adult in the room. Iyana felt comfortable with the teachers and liked how closely they kept in contact with her throughout the day.

“It’s a hands-on experience, and as a mother, that’s what you want for your child in this developmental stage,” she said.

When it came time to enroll Adin in universal pre-K, Iyana and Alestair, 42, were excited to learn that they could keep him at Academic Explorers, which is registered to teach the district's curriculum. “It involves many facets,” she said. “It involves discipline, it involves academics. It involves the principles of the school and what they stand for.”

Alestair Patterson, 42, with his son Adin Patterson, 4, at...

Alestair Patterson, 42, with his son Adin Patterson, 4, at Academic Explorers in Roosevelt on July 31. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Alestair values the expertise that educational professionals can provide. “As parents, sometimes your judgment might be a bit different because you’re with your child all the time. When you care about someone, you may excuse certain behaviors,” he said. “Professionally, it may look like something completely different. Having that eye may make a difference.” Adin also attends after-care at Academic Explorers, which costs the Pattersons $300-$400 a month.

“When you look at a child who has been home the entire time and then just fully goes into kindergarten, there’s a difference in [comparison with] a child who had the option to go to pre-K,” she said. “They’re socially capable of handling themselves that first year, and I think that’s a big asset, a big component to the development of a child.”

Iyana compares a child attending kindergarten for the first time to the overwhelming experience a student might feel when they go to college. “An older child is able to control that. A smaller child, they don’t know what to do. They panic, they start to cry. A lot of children take a long time to acclimate to that particular environment,” she said, adding that pre-K gives them a chance to practice for kindergarten and look forward to elementary school.

Alestair Patterson, 42, left, Iyana Patterson, 38, and Adin Patterson, 4,...

Alestair Patterson, 42, left, Iyana Patterson, 38, and Adin Patterson, 4, at Academic Explorers in Roosevelt on July 31. The Pattersons are one of the many families to send their child to pre-K on Long Island. Adin attended Academic Explorers in Roosevelt for pre-K and after-school care. Credit: Morgan Campbell

“It was a big help when UPK was offered,” Iyana said. When it comes to why universal pre-K is not offered by every district on Long Island, she said the culture and funding for each community should be considered, but that parents should advocate for the programs.

“I think that if more parents come forward, when they have these town meetings, board of education meetings--it forces the district or town to start implementing these things,” she said. “You pay so much money in taxes, the least they can do is provide a better environment, in terms of where kids are able to culturally grow.”

"I worry about him falling behind."

Miozoti Castillo, 31, noticed a big difference in her son’s preschool education when they moved this spring from the Bronx to Moriches. The free universal pre-K program that Liam, 4, attended in the Bronx ran every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., an ideal schedule for her as a working parent. However, the program he attended under the William Floyd district ran only from 8:30 a.m. to around 11:30 a.m.

She said Liam’s full-day education in the Bronx challenged him academically, preparing him for full days in kindergarten. Now, Miozoti feels she has to spend extra time and money educating Liam on the weekends herself.

“I worry about him falling behind,” she said. “I need to start sitting with him in order to give him consistency. I know once school starts, it’s going to be an issue.”

Miozoti Castillo, 31, right, with fiance Adriano Ramos, 40, and her...

Miozoti Castillo, 31, right, with fiance Adriano Ramos, 40, and her son Liam, 4, in their Moriches home on July 27. Castillo, who recently moved from the Bronx, sent Liam to a pre-K program offered by the William Floyd School District last year. Credit: Amanda Blanco

Her fiancé, Adriano Ramos, 40, shares her concerns about the long-term consequences of Long Island’s children missing out on quality early education. Adriano, who grew up in Valley Stream and also lived in Oyster Bay, recognizes how the wealth of families who live in a given district can affect the quality of education offered by the schools in that area. He worries that the academic side of early education on Long Island is declining.

“This is the future of America, these young kids. If they’re not learning at the pace that their counterparts in the city are, it’s going to be a sad future for Long Island,” he said. “We’re still part of New York,” Miozoti added. “Why not have it?”

Miozoti, who works full-time in Queens as a liability claims coordinator, is her son’s main caretaker. Besides Adriano, she does not have any other family on Long Island she can rely on for child care. “We’ve thought of looking for jobs out here,” she said. “Job opportunities out here don’t pay enough for us to cover the costs of rent, bills, and child care.”

Early learning books that Miozoti Castillo uses to teach her...

Early learning books that Miozoti Castillo uses to teach her son Liam, 4, on the weekends. Credit: Amanda Blanco

On a regular day, Miozoti’s commute can total from three-and-a-half to five hours roundtrip. Adriano drives to Ronkonkoma every morning, then takes the train to Manhattan, where he works in merchandising. “It’s very stressful,” said Miozoti. “I thought, ‘How do moms do it out here?’”

With both Adriano and Miozoti’s long commutes to the city for work, they paid an extra $400 a month for Liam’s extra care outside school hours. Adriano no longer sees it as a place where young families can establish themselves.

“On Long Island, you need two incomes. If you don’t have two incomes, you’re in trouble,” he said. “It’s not designed for beginning families or retirees. If you have teenagers, then that’s different. But if you’re starting a family, it’s not meant for you. It’s really too expensive.”

"I just don’t understand how people make it work." 

Long Island natives Victoria and Dennis Neary were surprised to learn that even though they live in Levittown, they are not a part of the school district. They fall under the Island Trees school district, making them ineligible to enter Levittown’s free pre-K lottery.

Island Trees offers part-time pre-K, but it is not free. According to SCOPE Educational Services, which runs the Island Trees pre-K, residents of the district pay anywhere from $209 to over $300 a month for morning or afternoon sessions, depending on the age of the child.

“When I first started looking into pre-K programs, I was stunned at how much they were for a full day,” said Victoria, 37. At the time, Victoria worked full-time for Northwell Health, while Dennis, 40, worked for the IT department of Molloy College in Rockville Centre. Like many working parents, they could not leave their jobs in the middle of the day to pick up Rosaria, 4, from a part-time program.

Pre-K graduate Rosaria Neary, 4, with her coloring book in her...

Pre-K graduate Rosaria Neary, 4, with her coloring book in her Levittown home on July 26. Credit: Morgan Campbell

The Nearys calculated that the costs of a pre-K program that would meet their needs could run anywhere from $1,500 to well over $2,000 a month.

“With the full-time program, before-care and after-care, it would’ve been almost my full take-home pay,” she said. “I don’t get how people do it. Even daycare is so expensive. I just don’t understand how people make it work.”  

With the help of Rosaria’s grandmothers, the Nearys worked out a plan: Rosaria would attend Tender Garden in Levittown three times a week. The grandmothers would pick up Rosaria and care for her until her parents returned home from work.

“We’re very lucky,” said Victoria. “We have two grandmothers who’ve helped take care of her since birth, my mother-in-law in Northport, and my mother in New Hyde Park.”

When Victoria’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, the family knew how important it was for her to rest as much as possible through chemotherapy and radiation treatments. “Thankfully she’s okay now, she’s made a full recovery, but we had to make do. We had to figure out how to make things work,” Dennis said.

Victoria Neary, 37, left, Rosaria Neary, 4, and Dennis Neary, 40,...

Victoria Neary, 37, left, Rosaria Neary, 4, and Dennis Neary, 40, in their Levittown home on July 26. Rosaria is a recent graduate of Tender Garden preschool in Levittown. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Victoria and Dennis rearranged work schedules and Dennis’s mother pitched in extra. Dennis still works on Saturdays. If full-day universal pre-K was offered in Island Trees, as it is in New York City, Dennis said, it would have reduced family’s stress. “It would have been a lot easier, especially on the grandparents,” he said.

Dennis hears of families leaving Long Island because they cannot afford the high cost of living, but the Nearys plan to remain so that Rosaria can be raised near her extended family.

“If you grew up on Long Island, you have a sentimental attachment,” he said. “Your friends, your family--your life is here. It’s hard to uproot, but people are taking the chance.”

“I feel so very, very fortunate..."

When Angela Riscica-Rudin’s daughter won the lottery to attend universal pre-K through the Hicksville school district, the family could not believe their luck. With her husband, David Rudin, 37, away at Navy Reserve boot camp, Angela, 34, is the main caretaker of their children. Last school year, Layla Brooke, 4, attended a Montessori program for three hours each weekday.

“It gives her a head start, it helps her make friends, it keeps her entertained, it gives me a break to be able to do what I need to do,” she said. “You’re only one person. There’s only so many things that you can teach them and do. They need other adults and other kids in their lives to be able to form as little humans.”

Angela Riscica-Rudin, 34, with her children, Layla Brooke, 4, and...

Angela Riscica-Rudin, 34, with her children, Layla Brooke, 4, and Jack River, 21 months, at her mother-in-law's home in Hicksville on July 29. Her husband, David Rudin, 37, will be away at Navy Reserve Boot Camp until October. Credit: Newsday/Morgan Campbell

Before the district confirmed Layla’s enrollment, her parents shared another concern about her and her little brother’s early education. “My husband is Jewish and I’m Catholic. The only schools around here that are somewhat affordable are through the churches,” Angela said. While the family is not devoutly religious, it can be a point of occasional tension. She and her husband felt most comfortable sending Layla to a non-denominational pre-K. Angela describes the district’s pre-K program as a blessing.

“I feel so very, very fortunate that we were able to get into this program,” Angela said. “It would’ve been a really huge expense for us to send her to preschool.” She estimated that five half-days a week could have cost the family $500 a month. “Add that up, and it’s a lot,” she said.

Angela, a real estate agent, said she and her husband make good salaries, but they still worry about educational expenses, along with others like their mortgage and medical insurance.

“Now that he’s joined the service, it really helps that we're not putting more money towards preschool,” she said. “We’re able to save that for her and put it in a different fund for her to use later.”

Helene Rudin at the playset with grandson Jack River Rudin in...

Helene Rudin at the playset with grandson Jack River Rudin in her backyard in Hicksville on July 29. Helene often helps care for her grandchildren when their parents are at work. Credit: Morgan Campbell

With the help of their extended family, Angela and David have for the most part avoided paying for extra child care for Layla and her brother, Jack River, 21 months. “We love spending time with them,” said Helene Rudin, David’s mother, though she admits sometimes their high energy can be a bit tiring. “I juggle people all the time,” Angela said. “You should see my calendar.”

David is scheduled to return home in October, after Layla begins kindergarten at Woodland Elementary, the same school he attended.

Angela’s advice to new parents is to look beyond school district stereotypes, research the quality of the education being offered locally, and pay attention to how well their child gets along with their teacher and classmates.

“Don’t waste the worry. Worry about the big things,” she said. “Yes, preschool is a pretty big thing, but in the grand scheme of things, wherever you send them, they’re going to be okay.”