Pre-K On Sunday? Orthodox Groups Divided On New UPK Options
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Pre-K On Sunday? Orthodox Groups Divided On New UPK Options

Changes like allowing schools to open six days a week called a good first step by some, unreasonable by others.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

The de Blasio administration announced rule changes aimed at making it easier for Jewish schools to participate in its signature free universal preschool program. But Jewish organizations are divided on just how helpful these changes will be.

While Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization for chasidic and black-hat Orthodox groups, said the new rules represent “meaningful changes,” the Orthodox Union called the changes “cosmetic.”

Since the universal pre-K program was announced, Jewish schools have been asking the city to expand its half-day program in order to have time for religious instruction off the city-funded clock. But the de Blasio administration’s goal is to provide as many full-day spots as possible and says it hopes the modifications will allow more Jewish schools to participate in the 6-hour-and-20-minute full-day option.

“These are common-sense changes that open doors for more institutions and families to participate,” Wiley Norvell, the city’s deputy press secretary, wrote in a statement to The Jewish Week.

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery announced the new rules Wednesday in a letter to preschool directors.

The most significant change allows schools to take “a short break” during the day, which doesn’t count towards the required secular hours, allowing teacher-led prayer after lunch. Currently schools must provide the 6 hours and 20 minutes of secular education contiguously. Schools that have a break will be required to offer a supervised meaningful activity for children who don’t want to participate in the prayers.

A second change allows schools to hold classes on federal holidays. Because all schools are required to offer 180 days of instruction during the school year, Jewish holidays can make it difficult to meet that requirement. Schools are already closed for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, but not for the eight additional Jewish holidays that observant students must take off. In years when these holidays fall mostly on weekdays, and especially if a snow day or two are thrown in, meeting the requirement can be dicey. Schools will also be allowed to hold mandated staff development days over the summer instead of closing school during the school year.

A third change gives schools more flexibility with the length of each school day. Currently schools must offer five 6-hour-and-20-minute school days a week, on either a Sunday-Thursday or Monday-Friday schedule. The new rules allow schools to hold classes six, or even seven days a week, as long as they meet the total weekly requirement of 31 hours and 40 minutes. A school, for example, could hold classes six days a week with 5.5 hours of secular education per day. (Any religious education would come on top of that.)

Both the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel agree that requiring fewer hours overall would be the best solution, either by offering more half-day seats or by allowing schools to follow the state mandate for full-day preschool of five hours. Where they split is on how reasonable it is to expect parents to send their kids to school on Sundays, and, to a lesser extent, federal holidays.

On the more conservative, charedi end of the spectrum, older boys already go to school on Sunday, so the idea of sending preschoolers to school six days a week is more palatable, and in some cases, perhaps even desirable.

On the Modern Orthodox end of the spectrum, the five-day week is the norm. As is the celebration of non-Jewish holidays.

“We have a pathway put forward by the mayor where our Jewish day school students would be in school on federal holidays, they would be in school on Sundays,” said Maury Litwack, the political affairs director for OU Advocacy, which has been in negotiations with City Hall over UPK requirements since the program was announced. His group has been lobbying especially hard for the city to allow a five-hour full-day option or to create more half-day slots.

“The objective of the OU is for universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds. There are simple reasonable ways to get to that objective,” he said. Asking 4-year-olds to go to school six days a week, he said, is not one of them.

“It’s not a reasonable solution and should never have been proposed as a method of actual inclusion of the day school population,” Litwack said.

“If you’re interested in universal pre-K for your 4-year-old next year and you’re planning on sending them to a Jewish day school, the mayor’s office appears to be saying that the doors are closed to you,” he added.

Rabbi David Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president for government and public affairs, agreed that the changes were “not by any means a panacea that’s going to bring everyone into the picture,” but saw them as a good first step.

“If you measure progress in incremental stages, this is a nice little increment, I think. It will prove to make a difference, and that’s good,” he told The Jewish Week.

“I don’t think that they will work for everybody,” Rabbi Zweibel said of the rule changes. “There will be a number of families for which the long hours that are necessary to meet these requirements are going to be difficult. … [B]ut I think probably the outcome is that this will expand to some extent at least both the number of schools that are prepared to undertake this kind of programming and the number of families who are prepared to send their children to these kinds of programs.”

Both OU and Agudath Israel agree, however, that more half-day seats are needed and fear that the mayor’s office is pulling back on its promise in December to add at least a few additional half-day seats for next year.

Buery’s letter addressed the half-day option. “As we have already stated, we anticipate continuing a modest half-day program, however, we believe the flexibility explained here will make full-day a viable option for even more families and providers, consistent with our vision to provide full-day, high quality pre-K for every 4-year-old in the city whose family is seeking that option,” he wrote.

The wording set off alarm bells for Rabbi Zweibel, who fears the December commitment to more half-day seats may not hold. “The letter says the city anticipates putting out an RFP [Request for Proposal] for half-day programming,” he said. “The word ‘anticipate’ is somewhat of an equivocal word. I hope that this does not represent in any way a backing off from that commitment.”

Norvell, the city's deputy press secretary, responded to the concern by saying, "I think they're reading too much into that."

More signs that the de Blasio administration might be pushing half-day programs to the sidelines include the fact that the city has not yet given preschools the chance to apply to participate in half-day programs for next year (putting out an RFP), and this year, for the first time, parents will have to apply separately to half-day and full-day programs, with the full-day application expected to come out first, The Jewish Week has learned.

amyclark@jewishweek.org

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