BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Upper East Side mom Debbie Semaya wasn’t happy about the trek from her neighborhood to a pre-school on E. 35th St. for her daughter, but, looking back, she said she was lucky compared to some parents.
Other children in her neighborhood won pre-k seats in their zoned district, but as far away as Lower Manhattan — twice the schlep of a half hour bus ride to the River School on E. 35th.
“It’s really a lottery,” said Semaya. “It’s not like, ‘Oh we live here.’”
She added, “A lot of people do know [that] but they kind of think, ‘Oh, I’ll be the lucky one.’”
Since the city’s rollout of universal pre-k, Upper East Side pols have been critical of how few seats there are in the area. A WNYC report in 2014 found that just 123 pre-k seats were located in Yorkville, Lenox Hill, and Roosevelt Island, though some 2,118 four-year-olds lived in those neighborhoods.
The issue, in part, is due to how School District 2 stretches from the Upper East Side through the southern tip of Manhattan.
“That is obviously a problem,” said City Councilmember Ben Kallos, “if a seat in the Financial District is being counted toward a child in East Harlem.”
Councilmember Keith Powers said the boundaries of school districts should probably be revisited.
When your pre-k is three miles away, he said, “it creates false expectations for the school system when you have school seats available, but they’re so far for families.”
Since last September, hundreds of seats have been added at Third Ave. and E. 95th St., as well as on E. 57th St. and E. 82nd St. Next fall, a fourth pre-k is expected to open on E. 76th St. with another 180 seats — bringing the total of new seats to more than 450 in two years.
“Literally, we’ve been fighting for every single seat,” Kallos said, explaining he pressed Extell Development to add pre-k seats at its project at Third Ave. and 95th St. and has waged a campaign to retrofit commercial storefronts as pre-k centers.
Last school year, 736 families on the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island applied for just 550 pre-k spots in those neighborhoods. By next fall, the new facilities will bring the total number of seats to more than 900.
But Kallos said that based on birth statistics and the more recent push for universal 3-k, he thinks the neighborhood needs another 5,000 school seats — lest families leave the city or have to opt for expensive private school alternatives.
“I definitely commend the city in making a lot of positive steps forward,” said Semaya, whose daughter is now in kindergarten. “There’s no doubt that they listened,” but, she added, “we’ll see how it’s executed and how it plays out in the community next year once they have a lot of seats.”
The city’s School Construction Authority is increasingly turning toward developers for pre-k space, CommercialOberver.com reports.
“In the middle of Manhattan, it’s sometimes hard to stop new development from building up because there’s an as-of-right to build many buildings, and there’s a lot of interest in continuing to build around Manhattan,” Councilmember Powers explained to Manhattan Express. “One of the things that Councilmember Kallos and myself try to focus on is taking some of that burden out and when they do come to us with a project to say, ‘Can we help mitigate already existing problems there?’”
Powers added, “You’re not going to be able to win the fight against all new development in Manhattan, but what you can do is to make sure you’re addressing existing needs like pre-k seats.”
In addition to Extell’s lease to the School Construction Authority on Third Ave. and 95th St., the 144 seats that just opened on E. 57th St. and Second Ave. in a 65-story tower came from a deal made when Powers was chief of staff to former Assemblymember Jonathan Bing more than half a dozen years ago.
Kallos also presses developers for pre-k seats in new buildings.
“When I meet with developers, my only request is, ‘Can you build school seats?,’” he said. “‘And if you are open [to that], do you need me to have the city pay you at market rate? Would you like additional height for those school seats?’ But I’m going to do whatever I can for those school seats.”
Kallos was blunt, however, in saying what he does not do in his bargaining with developers.
“While some of my colleagues may solicit contributions from real estate developers, I do not,” he said.