Here’s why I don’t hold out much hope for the Universal Pre-K initiative here in New York City. It’s not that I’m against it; quite the contrary. I saw the difference that the federal Head Start program made for my youngest brother. The Head Start program of the 1970s, in part, was created as a counter response to the success of the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program.
I would hope that New York’s Universal Pre-K program will just as successful as the Panthers’ Breakfast Program, or even the federal Head Start program. But I don’t think that it will.
Two recent articles confirm my lack of faith that the program will work as intended. The first article is about a public school in Washington Heights where parents are outraged by conditions in the trailers where their children attend classes. The parents allege that the trailers contain mold and vermin, and they want them taken away immediately.
Children attending class in trailers? Actually, the Department of Education calls them TCUs–Transportable Classroom Units. They were brought in as a “temporary” solution to relieve overcrowding in the main building of the school. So yes, children do attend school in trailers here in New York. (They also attend school in closets…but I digress.)
I sent the article to my four siblings, my sons, and one of my nieces with a note that “This is why my mom bused us out!” When I was in the first grade, the school that I attended in St. Albans, P.S. 36, was severely overcrowded. My mom was active on the PTA, who fought for an expansion of the building. The answer from the Board of Ed was to set up classes in trailers in the yard. If there was five first-grade classes, three would be in the building, and two of them in the trailers. The Board of Ed gave no answer on whether the trailers were temporary or permanent, and whether they would expand the building. As far as the parents were concerned, the trailers would be there indefinitely.
Mom was livid. She refused to have me and my older sister attend school in the trailers. The next year, she took advantage of a program called “Open Enrollment,” where black children applied to be bused out to a white school outside of their home district so that we could get a better education. My sister and I were among the first blacks to attend P.S. 177 in Fresh Meadows.
The second article is an interview with City Comptroller Scott Stringer on the Brian Lehrer show. The Comptroller discussed the findings of a study conducted by his office on missing arts in the schools. The study not only documented the detrimental effects of the loss of arts programs in the schools; it showed the disparity between schools in high-income neighborhoods, and low-income neighborhoods. More resources are available in higher-income neighborhoods where parents can pay for programs such as music and art that the Board of Education cannot fund.
These two articles get to the heart of the matter when it comes to education in New York City, and that is the distribution of resources. In New York, local neighborhoods are not just divided by income, but they are often segregated along racial and ethnic lines.
The Board of Ed did not practice de facto segregation back in the 1960s. They didn’t have to. When my mom and her parents moved to St. Albans, along with many other black families, “white flight” took place. It was just a matter of sending less resources to our neighborhood schools. The books we had at P.S. 36 were old and outdated. They didn’t get better until my mother enrolled us in a special reading program at the school. The program was designed to prove that black children, if given the time and materials, could read at or above grade level, just like their white counterparts.
The Department of Ed today does not have to practice de facto discrimination. The city’s housing patterns contribute to making our schools the most racially segregated in the country. But it can set up trailers to conduct classes in a Washington Heights neighborhood that serves children of color and of lower income. And it can leave schools in such neighborhoods to “fend for themselves” when it comes to programs for the arts and sports.
When my older son was in Kindergarten, I faced the choice of busing him out of our neighborhood in Flatbush to a white school in Bensonhurst or Bay Ridge. His teacher informed me that he was too smart for the class, and already they were not giving him extra work, and he was starting to act out in class from boredom. At that point, my now former husband and I decided to pull him out of the public school system, and send him to a private school in the neighborhood.
This was the same choice taken by many parents of the children that I sang with in the St. Albans Children’s Chorus. They chose to send their children to the local Catholic school, St. Catherine of Sienna. Many of them went on to attend Christ the King High School. Me, my sister and my oldest cousin were among a handful of choristers who attended public school, and the only ones who were bused out of the neighborhood.
When I was faced with the choice of busing my son out of the district, my friends who lived in St. Albans were paying for private school, or lining up scholarships to get their children into private school. Anything to keep them from attending P.S. 36. Now I live in Far Rockaway, and every weekday morning as I walk to the train to head to work, the roads are crisscrossed with school buses ferrying children outside of the district to attend school.
Until we get that part of the equation right when it comes to resources, I don’t hold much faith that Universal Pre-K will work as intended. We already have children who are underserved in the public schools. There are questions about whether there will be space to house Universal Pre-K within the public schools. This question of space underlined the recent battle between the Mayor and parents of children in charter schools. Most of the charter programs are held in existing public school buildings. Speculation is growing that the primary beneficiaries of Universal Pre-K will be middle-class and upper-class parents who can avail themselves to programs that are run by private entities, in response to the lack of space in the public schools. And the children who need it most will again be left to fend for themselves.
Hopefully I will be proved wrong. But based on past practice, I probably won’t.