The Pre-K Underground PART 1

Photo illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times


Published: December 16, 2011

It was 6 p.m. on a Friday in early June, and my children’s dinnertime coincided with the moment the New York City Department of Education posted acceptance letters online for 4-year-olds seeking prekindergarten spots in public school.
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Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Even though Soni Sangha's first co-op collapsed, she decided to form another one because she wanted her 4-year-old son, who did not get a spot in public preschool, to experience the social and academic benefits of prekindergarten.
Photo illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

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I was standing at our dinner table hunched over a laptop as my two children tugged at my T-shirt and swung from my legs trying to pry me away from the computer; they didn’t know that the older one’s early education hung in the balance.
The Web site was painfully slow, jammed with parents simultaneously logging on. After two snack cups worth of Cheerios and four recorded episodes of “Yo Gabba Gabba,” my heart sank. We had not gotten a spot at the school on our block — or at any of the six other schools that my husband and I had listed on our application.
Everyone knows that getting into private preschool in New York City can be absurdly cutthroat and wildly expensive, but getting into public pre-K is not any easier. For the current school year, there were 28,817 applicants for 19,834 slots in the city’s public pre-K programs. Those numbers do not tell the entire story. The school on our street had 432 applicants — for 36 seats. With 12 children fighting for each slot, lots of families shared our predicament.
For parents like us, options are limited. Private pre-K can run more than $30,000 a year at the fanciest schools. Depending on the neighborhood, spaces with community-based organizations — private preschools that partner with the state and accept state subsidies but handle their own applications — can be as elusive as public pre-K spots. Ifhome schooling is daunting, and if not schooling feels wrong, the only other choice, it seems, is to join the many parents who have taken matters into their own hands and formed co-ops.
In a co-op pre-K, parents work together to create a school that matches their educational philosophy and worldview. They also run it, finance it, staff it, clean it and administer it — whatever is necessary to keep costs as low as possible. Often, schools operate from members’ homes. Some pupils are taught by parents; others by professional teachers. The downside to such an arrangement? It’s a lot of work. We had learned that a year ago, when we were priced out of private options for our son and banded together with some parents from the neighborhood to form a co-op.
(PART 2 continued tom)