NEW YORK (AP) — With two months left before the start of the 2014-2015 school year, New York City is scrambling to deliver on Mayor Bill de Blasio's signature issue of universal pre-kindergarten.
Hundreds of new pre-K teachers are being trained in an intensive summer program, some lured by subway ads that promise, "New York's future starts with you!" Outreach workers are distributing fliers to parents of eligible children, while health and fire inspectors visit classrooms to make sure they're up to code.
"We are building an amazing high-quality system," Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said. "We have good reason to be confident."
The city is providing 53,000 full-day pre-K seats this fall — up from about 20,000 in the school year that just ended — and hopes to add an additional 20,000 in the fall of 2015. Because there isn't enough space in public schools, more than half of the pre-K seats will be in community-based organizations such as day care centers and religious schools.
Critics say pre-K is ramping up too quickly for quality control.
"I worry about something that is going that big that fast," said Susan B. Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy education at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
Neuman said she and her NYU colleagues will monitor the pre-K rollout and pay close attention to whether the community-based programs are comparable to what the public schools provide. "We hope for the best," she said.
Grover Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said expanding pre-K so quickly will present challenges.
"What's likely to happen is that the ineffective third-grade teacher will be moved down to pre-K," Whitehurst said, adding, "I've not seen any announcement about how they will know how well they are succeeding."
New York City's new pre-K classrooms will be staffed with up to 1,000 new teachers this fall and another 1,000 next fall.
To meet that goal, the city is using $6.7 million of its $300 million in New York state funding for pre-K to train 400 new early childhood teachers at the City University of New York.
Those without a teaching certificate are taking a total of six credits during June and July at one of five participating CUNY campuses. They hope to get hired during August and lead a pre-K classroom in September.
"We're doing everything we can on this very short timeline to give them everything that's absolutely crucial on that first day," said David Steiner, dean of the School of Education at CUNY's Hunter College.
Steiner, who returned to Hunter after a stint as New York state's commissioner of education, stressed that the new pre-K teachers were carefully screened and will continue their education once they are in charge of their own classrooms.
"This isn't a quick immersion and then good luck," he said. "This is the beginning of an intensive program."
Those in the Hunter program are in class four nights a week during the summer and will be back in class two nights a week during the school year.
Skye Froelich said she had planned to go into cancer research but applied for the pre-K program because she grew up in New York and knew that schools in some zip codes were much better than schools in others.
"I wanted to have a hand in trying to combat the disparities in education," Froehlich said.
Some training to be pre-K teachers are switching careers in their 40s, like actor Glenn Peters and lawyer Tara Crean, both of whom are training at City College.
Crean, who worked as a public interest lawyer, said she found motherhood "a transformative experience" six years ago and became fascinated with child development.
The starting salary for a pre-K teacher at a community-based organization will be $36,000 to $40,000 per year, considerably less than Crean has been earning.
Peters spent 20 years performing in regional theater and the occasional TV and movie roles but hadn't heard from his agent in six months.
He said he was always "a kid magnet" and liked the pre-K program because it was new. "It has the spirit of the wild west," Peters said. "I feel like I'm a pioneer."