News & Culture in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Points Nearby
January 24, 2021
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News + Views

The Kindergarten Crunch

By Lisa M. Collins

The South Brooklyn kindergarten crunch is on, and parents are freaking out. Registration began this week, and parents of rising kindergartners in the beloved and bulging school zones of PS 29 and PS 58, in particular, but also PS 261 and PS 38, are concerned that, with ever more kids and apartment buildings in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, and ever more large families staying in the city, that there just aren’t enough seats for everyone.

Twenty years ago, kids were bused in to fill empty seats at these schools. No longer. This was the first year that PS 29 filled its preschool seats entirely with younger siblings of kids at the school. A preschool coordinator in August told me the school was shocked at the number of siblings; that never in the history of PS 29 had the number of preschool siblings gone above 20 of the total of 54 seats. This year, there were 58 siblings applying for 54 seats. (In the end, several sibling did not attend, and I know of at least one non-sibling zoned kid that got into the preschool).

Today, worries abound regarding recent news stories of too many zoned kids in some Manhattan schools, with kids getting bused elsewhere, after parents bought multi-million dollar apartments in the zone.

And what of younger siblings? For as long as anyone can remember, kids with older siblings at Cobble Hill’s PS 29 and Carroll Gardens’ PS 58, no matter where they lived, were guaranteed a seat. Now, that guarantee is in question. This week, PS 29 sent letters home saying siblings entering kindergarten this year, who live out of the zone, should put their name on a waiting list. Officials at PS 58 said they might start a similar list.

Word is out that 29 will check up on residency, as they have in the past, with home visits if necessary.

Thus, the freak out.

“Is this the year of kindergarten Armageddon in our neighborhood?” said a friend of mine, with a preschooler at PS 29, in an email. This woman found out her child was accepted for pre-K back in September on the night before school started. “I was so hoping the stress was behind us!”

The cold hard facts

There’s lots of confusion about who gets priority and who is guaranteed seats when it comes to preschool and kindergarten. Here’s how it breaks down at all the NYC public elementary schools (according to school officials, and the NYC Department of Education):

When it comes to kindergarten, the opposite is true.

Once all zoned kids are placed, remaining seats go to siblings (whether they live in or out of the zone). At PS 29 this year, after all zoned kids were placed, and all siblings (whether residing in or out of zone), four seats remained for un-zoned kids, said the school principal, Melanie Woods.

At 58, once zoned kids and siblings were placed, there was a little “wiggle” room left over, in case kids moved into the zone, but there were not any non-zone, non-siblings placed at the school, said parent coordinator Joan Bredthauer.

At PS 58, the situation for kindergarten is tighter than at 29. Both schools seat 24 to 25 kindergartners per class of one teacher. The max allowed by the teachers union is 28.

PS 29 has five kindergarten classes; Woods said the school will add a sixth if needed. That makes for 125 to 150 kindergarten seats at PS 29.

At PS 58, there are six kindergarten classes, including two French immersion classrooms, made up of half fluent French kids, and half English speakers. A third class is a collaborative team teaching class, with 40 percent of the seats for kids with special needs.

Go sign up

I myself became panicked when I saw the news Monday on Bococa Parents, my lifeline, that registration had begun at 29. The notice asked parents to report to the PS 29 administrative office between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. with proof of address — unpaid, current utility bills, original leases or mortgage documents, letters from the IRS – in order to get an appointment to further prove residency.

I talked with a couple of moms standing near the snow on Hoyt Street, Tuesday morning. “You better get on the list right away!” said one. “Nobody got in to preschool unless they had an older sibling at the school. There’s no hope for first born kids around here!” said another.

So, I frantically rushed home, threw my paperwork together, and high-tailed it over to 29. Once I got there, it was almost a let down. Everything was so calm, cool, quiet. I was expecting a line of sweaty parents looking at each other with suspicion, as happened in September with the crush to grab remaining preschool seats. Back then I actually saw a dad toting his little girl around with a letter showing her picture and naming her attributes, as he smiled and cajoled. I thought he might ask the cute tot to do a jig. He told me he was zoned for 261, didn’t get in anywhere, and didn’t know what to do if he didn’t get into a preschool program, as they couldn’t afford private preschool, and both parents worked.

As I headed back to PS 29 this week for the first round of kindergarten registration, I thought I’d see more desperate parents. I did not. Entering the PS 29 administrative office, I was the only parent. There sat the administrative guru, Maureen, who was calm and more than polite. She gave me the paperwork, checked my documents, and asked when it would be convenient for me to bring my child in February to register.

When finished I grabbed the principal, Melanie Woods, as she was running to a meeting. She had one message for parents who live in the zone, and for parents of siblings at the school who live out of the zone: Calm your fears.

PS 29 has never turned away a zoned child, nor a child who lives outside the zone with a sibling at the school, Woods said.  And they don’t plan to.

“There is never a problem with non-zoned siblings in kindergarten, ever,” Woods said as we walked up a blue stairway. “We always accommodate them. And we have never, ever turned away a zoned child.”

Later I called Parent Coordinator Joan Bredthauer at PS 58, and she told me the same thing. Neither PS 58 nor PS 29 has ever turned away a zoned child or a sibling, according to the schools.

The wait list at 29 is for record keeping, Woods said. The school must seat zoned kids first, as per Department of Education rules, and then siblings who live out of the zone.

“There is a pecking order that we must follow,” Woods said. “We’re marking they are siblings. But I’ve never, ever turned away un-zoned siblings. I don’t think people should worry about that.

“If you have a child here in third grade and you live across the street, and tomorrow you are moving to Park Slope, your child coming into kindergarten will have a seat here.”

Though she added: “There is a slight chance we wouldn’t have room, but it’s never happened before…”

Bredthauer was less adamant about making room for un-zoned siblings.

“It could happen,” Bredthauer said, that there wouldn’t be enough seats. “We never know how many little people will show up on the first day of school.

“We’ve never turned away a zoned child for kindergarten. But it wouldn’t be wise to make a blanket statement.”

It would be unfortunate, crazy and tricky if the school was flooded with more zoned kids than seats available, she said.

“In theory it can happen. But in practice it doesn’t happen.”

The real concern is for rising kindergartners with older siblings at the school who live out of the zone.

“I don’t see that it’s going to be a problem for us,” Bredthauer said. “I know people are nervous. I don’t think we have that many siblings out of the zone. Bottom line, I think everyone is going to be fine.”

As far as the real growth in kids here, it’s tough to determine. Census figures only go up to 2008. And Bredthauer pointed out that the numbers given out by the Department of Ed about how many preschoolers apply for spots at each elementary school is misleading, because the numbers do not indicate where the kids live. The hundreds of kids that DOE says apply for each preschool seat at 58 and 29, and other popular local schools, could represent kids in Jamaica, Queens, and give no indication of the growth of zoned kids, she said.

The issue is heating up in TriBeCa and lower Manhattan, where projections have estimated a shortage of 1,000 seats in the local schools by 2015, due to a baby boom in recent years. New NYC DOE Chancellor Cathie Black is getting heat for joking in a meeting about crowding at lower Manhattan schools that parents should practice birth control.

Our changing neighborhood

So many of us moved here because, well, it’s awesome, and the public schools are great. We eat an extra rental bill, in apartments that are often not ideal, so our kids can go to a great, free public school. And somehow, word got out, and people move here from all over the world for the very same reasons.

It used to be rare to hear of families with more than two children sticking around. Now it’s commonplace. When my daughter was in nursery school, when she was 2 and 3, in 2008 and 2009, she was one of two in her class from a single-child family (and now, even that mom is pregnant! Go Quennie!) All the other kids had one, two, even four (!) siblings.

It’s great. Our city kids will be friends with big families and little families. But as the city continues to push construction of new apartment buildings featuring two and three bedrooms, and doesn’t build schools to accommodate the kids, it’s uncertain what the future will hold for schools like 29 and 58.

The uncertainty is rough, and costly. The pre-K registration system this year was outrageously stressful for those of us who had to endure it. Getting notified the day before school starts whether you get in, and where, and having private school deposits out there as a backup, was fun for nobody. “Why do they make it sooooo painful,” said my friend, Ann Akiri, who has lived next to her zoned preschool for 7 years, and did not get in.

For Ann, and for myself, the preschool drama worked out great in the end. My daughter was offered a seat at PS 32 four days before school started. We could not be more happy with the program, school or teachers. Ann’s son went to PS 133, in the Gowanus/Park Slope area, where this fall he will start in the new French immersion program, launched by French parents who realized how competitive the French program at PS 58 had become, especially for those who do not live in the zone.

Not everyone was as lucky.

Rachel Lozano lives in PS 29 and has two young sons. Her husband was in Uganda with Doctors Without Borders when she was applying for preschool this summer. She got in nowhere. After the second round, Rachel, a native of France, missed work as a nutritionist at UNICEF to walk around to the schools, begging for a spot, to no avail. So, her preschooler remained this year in day care, as the family could not afford private preschool.

Now, Rachel is worried, and does not trust that she’ll get in to 29, even though she is zoned.

“Last night I went online to get all the dates. I just don’t know. They say it’s a guarantee, but I’m not sure. There are so many kids in this neighborhood, and so many siblings. For preschool, we followed the normal registration system and we didn’t get anything, and found out two days before school started. I went to four schools, 32, 38, 261 and 29, and I went back to talk to people, and even brought my son.”

She said the office at PS 32 asked her not to call back, or to return, as she did not live in zone.

“They were so rude, I gave up. I was stressed and depressed and I didn’t know what to do.”

As I talked with her on her cell phone on Friday, she said she was walking quickly to PS 29, to register her son for kindergarten, and to ask questions.

“I’m not going to wait this time. I’m not going to be last on this.”

“I’m really hoping for the best.”

Related Story: New French immersion program opens at PS 133 in Gowanus/Park Slope, and heading to Boerum Hill.

Key dates:

Register this week at PS 29 to get appointments in February for formal kindergarten registration. Put your out of zone sibling on the wait list.

At PS 58, register by March 4. Once registered for kindergarten, you can register for the French immersion program. English-speakers can register on April 15. The lottery to determine who will get in to the French program, as an English speaker, is May 9.

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