Nearly 600 3- and 4-year-olds across Long Island got their first lessons in public full-day prekindergarten classes Monday, as three school districts and a private, nonprofit school launched programs that state officials said will someday be universal.
Six districts and two private schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties won a total $7.88 million from the state to start full-day pre-K sessions this year, part of a $340 million statewide initiative. The bulk of funding -- $300 million -- is going to New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has made expansion of public prekindergarten a hallmark of his administration.
Disparities in prekindergarten funding have prompted some school leaders on the Island and upstate to complain that their districts were shortchanged. State lawmakers noted, however, that distribution of prekindergarten aid was only part of the annual political horse-trading that also resulted in an extra $125.7 million for K-12 funding for Long Island.
Youngsters enrolled in full-day pre-K classes are entitled to five hours of daily instruction, tuition-free, along with breakfast and lunch. Such services could easily cost families $600 a month or more if they paid out of their own pockets.
Demand for classroom slots has outstripped supply in some communities. In Brentwood, which got an early start with classes Sept. 3, a lottery was used to select 126 students from among 700 applicants, parents said. The Middle Country district, which opened full-day prekindergartens Monday, reported having 66 children on its waiting list.
"We were so happy, it was like Christmas," said Jennifer Gardner of Centereach, recalling the day she and her husband got the call with word that their daughter had made the cut. The child began classes Monday at Middle Country's Unity Drive PreKindergarten/Kindergarten Center in Centereach.
The state's launch of full-day prekindergarten was rushed this year. Local districts and schools did not get notifications of grant awards until the third week of August.
As a result, at least five Island districts dropped out of the running. In addition, both the Uniondale district and the private Center for Jewish Life in Merrick voiced uncertainty as to whether they can open classes in time to meet the state's requirement to provide at least 180 days of prekindergarten instruction.
A major event
Some schools that opened full-day pre-K classes Monday treated the occasion as a major event. At the Lincoln Orens School in Island Park, arriving prekindergartners and their parents were greeted by a district delegation that included board members, administrators, teachers, aides, a psychologist, a nurse and a Spanish-speaking social worker. A classroom inside was decorated with a "Welcome PreKindergartners" poster.
Rosmarie Bovino, the district superintendent, said the full-day program would provide relief for local parents, many of whom still are repairing homes damaged nearly two years ago in superstorm Sandy. About 150 houses in the district remain unoccupied, Bovino added.
Most youngsters appeared unfazed by the extra attention as they kissed parents goodbye and took the hands of teacher aides for walks to their new classrooms.
Among them was Evan Lobel, 4.
"You know, he's been in school since he was 18 months, so he's used to it," said his mother, Josephine Lobel, 34, who has an older son in second grade.
In the Middle Country district, located in central Brookhaven Town, full-day classes started Monday for 180 youngsters at the Unity Drive center. Others will attend classes at a nearby Head Start Center or at two private schools that contract with the district.
Bay Shore started full-day sessions for 240 prekindergartners, with most enrolled at Great South Bay YMCA, under contract with the district. In Glen Cove, the private, nonprofit School for Language & Communication Development enrolled about 40 full-day prekindergartners.
Brentwood, the Island's biggest district, which led the way in providing full-day prekindergarten services, enrolls about 126 youngsters at two private, nonprofit schools, which lease facilities on the campus of a former Catholic academy.
The Central Islip district has placed eight youngsters in full-day classes at a Head Start center and a private school, and plans to provide similar classes for another 36 children at a district school by next month.
One concept behind full-day prekindergarten is to provide youngsters with an enriched curriculum that includes basic phonics and numbers recognition, but that presents such lessons in a format that 4-year-olds find engaging.
During one lesson Monday at the Unity Drive center, 18 youngsters sat outside the building on a horseshoe-shaped ring of log benches, hands in their laps, as they tried to sing along to their teacher's song about sassafras trees, tulip leaves and autumn colors.
The outdoor classroom is full of sand and dirt boxes, flowers, trees and bushes -- all to give the children a chance to interact with nature and apply their classroom learning to the outdoors.
Teacher Tracy Wilson, who has been running half-day pre-K classes at the school since 2009, said half-day students rarely get a chance to use the outdoor facility, because their time is too compressed. Wilson looks forward to teaching her full-day students in greater depth.
"Even with half-day sessions, the difference between September and June is monumental," the teacher said, referring to students' learning curve. "So I'm really looking forward to the difference in these kids after twice that amount of time. They're going to learn so much more."
With Khloe Meitz