The H.E.S. was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal:
Full-Day Pre-K Choice for New York City's Religious Schools
Adding Spiritual Teachings to Extended Program Would Be Too Much for Children, Some Say
For years, many Jewish and Catholic schools have offered a half-day of secular prekindergarten in the morning paid for by the city, followed by religious instruction in the afternoon on their own dime.
Now the city is offering to pay for a full day of pre-K, but some religious schools say adding spiritual teachings to that would make too long a day for the children involved.
The result: Some schools have decided to not participate, and community leaders and critics fear that others will bend the rules by slipping in religious instruction during the extended pre-K.
"There are still issues with the [Universal Prekindergarten] program," said Jeff Leb, who represented Jewish yeshivas for the Orthodox Union during talks with the de Blasio administration. "The main issue being the amount of time per day it requires to implement the city requirements."
Extending prekindergarten to a full day in religious schools is an important piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to provide 53,000 preschool seats by this fall.
City Hall held weeks of meetings with religious leaders to develop guidelines that would bring religious schools into the fold with other community-based organizations providing pre-K.
Some religious groups have said the new guidelines aren't a problem. But others that represent Orthodox yeshivas, and the 7,000 to 8,000 potential prekindergarteners that come with them, remain concerned about the length of the six-hour-and-20-minute school day.
The state's requirement for prekindergarten is five hours, but the city made it longer by requiring naptime and lunch. Schools that get a city contract for full-day prekindergarten will qualify for roughly $9,000 per child, more than twice as much as they previously received.
More than 80 yeshivas applied to be full-day providers and roughly half were accepted, according to city officials. More yeshivas would have applied with a less stringent time commitment, Mr. Leb said.
City officials said they weren't concerned about reaching their goal. "It's not like we have a chart and have to have X number of yeshivas to hit our target," said Deputy Mayor Richard Buery. "We have a good sense of the number of seats that will be approved and think that we're going to come close to our targets."
As part of its push to provide pre-K seats outside of traditional public schools, the administration recently loosened guidelines for religious schools, allowing them to hire teachers based on religion, as well as teach religious texts, so long as it is done "objectively."
That plan has met with some criticism. It is hard to believe religious instruction won't bleed into the school day under the new guidelines, said Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Allowing religious texts is a "wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach that will likely result in religious instruction in a government funded educational program," she said.
But these were all-important concessions for the operators of the religious schools, said Mr. Leb, who was pleased the city reached out to the Orthodox Jewish community.
Mr. de Blasio wasn't as flexible when it came to the time requirement, though not all religious schools have expressed opposition to it.
"Some of our schools do some religious education, some do none at all," said Connie McCrory, Director of Early Childhood Education for the Archdiocese of New York. "Those that want to offer religious instruction will just offer it before or after school hours."
But some schools say there isn't enough time in the day to offer religious teaching before or after school.
Redeemer Nursery School in Queens Village used to offer a half-day of city-funded prekindergarten in the morning and religious instruction in the afternoon.
"Now that it is full day, I don't think that's going to happen anymore," said Annette Valerio, the school's educational director. As for trying to teach religion after the school day ends, "I wouldn't even try that. That's long enough for them," said Mrs. Valerio.
Mr. de Blasio has said schools would be monitored closely and not be allowed to continue in the program if they try to provide religious instruction.
Monitoring will take the form of site visits and phone calls, said Mr. Buery. "We're significantly increasing the amount of staff to provide oversight," he said. "There will be an ongoing conversation with providers to ensure quality."
The Hebrew Educational Society, a nonreligious Jewish preschool that serves a diverse student base, plans to offer full-day placement in the fall. But its staff recognizes the complexity.
"If 100% of children in the classroom come from the same religious background, it creates a potential for doing religious activity," said Elie Rubenstein, the school's director, speaking generally of religious institutions. "It might be hidden, so to speak, and you don't want that to happen."