New York, NY – One year after being criticized for including provisions in his newly unveiled universal pre-kindergarten plan that made it virtually impossible for most yeshivos to take advantage of the program, Mayor de Blasio has announced modifications to UPK that may bring much needed relief to parents of pre-schoolers in the Orthodox Jewish Community.
A letter that went out on Wednesday signed by Deputy Mayor Richard Buery to New York City schools acknowledged that the city’s UPK program was a work in progress and that after consulting with community leaders, parents and schools, changes have been made to broaden the program and make it available at even larger number of schools.
While the current program requires an uninterrupted stretch of six hours and 20 minutes of secular instruction daily, the newly revamped UPK plan counts the number of hours on a weekly rather than daily basis, allowing schools to spread the time beyond a five day school week and include Sundays and federal holidays.
Other modifications include allowing schools to schedule a short break during the day which could be used for activities that are not part of the official UPK program, including bentshing and mincha.
“We’re excited that in our second year of expanding Pre-K for All, we’ll be able to reach even more children with full day, high quality pre-K,” said de Blasio’s deputy press secretary Wiley Norvell. “These are common sense changes that open doors for more institutions and families to participate.”
While many within the Jewish community are applauding the expanded UPK program, others were disappointed by changes that they felt offered minimal benefits.
“We are disappointed that the mayor has responded to our advocacy with cosmetic changes that will not increase yeshiva and Jewish day school participation in the program,” said Maury Litwack, OU Advocacy’s director of state political affairs.
“The utilization of Sundays is not new policy; it existed last year and failed to increase enrollment above 11 percent. The use of federal holidays is equally unlikely to increase enrollment. Making simple changes to allow our schools to utilize the state mandated five hour day and to dramatically expand the half day slots would have been new policy that would have increased enrollment significantly. Instead, practically, these changes would force four year olds into an almost unending school attendance that would include Sundays and federal holidays.”
Agudath Israel of America hailed the announcement from City Hall as an important move in the right direction, but acknowledged that there would still be yeshivas that will find the new program overly restrictive, preventing them from participating.
“We are grateful for these steps, which will probably result in additional kids and schools becoming part of the system, but it won’t be a fix for everyone,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Agudah. “The hours are still incredibly long and will include Sundays, and not all children go to school on Sunday , so alongside these changes designed to get kids into the full day program, we hope that City Hall will maintain the option for a half day program.”
Rabbi Zwiebel also noted that he had official communication from Buery ensuring the continuation of the half day program, dated December 1, 2014, but that the expected RFP for that program has yet to be released.
“We are still waiting for that,” said Rabbi Zwiebel. “Hopefully, based on the discussions that we have had with City Hall that will take place.”