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New York City Mayor Proposes Public Schooling for 4-Year-Olds

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City and state officials are eagerly embracing a proposal by Mayor Edward I. Koch to begin public schooling in New York City at age 4 as a response to societal changes and to the city's dropout problem.

In his state-of-the-city address on Jan. 30, the Mayor announced that he was establishing a commission to recommend a way to phase in schooling for 4-year-olds in the nation's largest school district beginning in September 1986.

"I think it's an incredibly positive idea," said Herbert E. Berman, chairman of the New York City Council's education committee, which, along with the Board of Estimate, must approve local funds for the venture.

"It's also cost-effective when you consider the high price you have to pay for remediation down the line for many youngsters who haven't had the benefit of pre-kindergarten," said James F. Regan, president of the New York City Board of Education.

"We at the board feel that in urban areas a solid preschool environment is even more essential for youngsters whose parents want to opt for it."

"Remember," he continued, "almost a third of our youngsters come from single-parent homes, so we're grateful to the Mayor for making this one of his high-priority programs."

Coordination With Day Care

The Mayor, who said he was struck by the "near unanimity among experts that early-childhood education is the one educational reform that holds more promise than any other," noted that the new commission will also recommend ways to coordinate a citywide program for 4-year-olds with existing Head Start and day-care programs.

"The day-care community has to be traumatized by this and you have to be sensitive to this," agreed Mr. Berman. "You can't just walk in and wipe them off the face of the earth. It's just like doing away with the police department because you come in with the army."

Doby Flowers, deputy administrator of the Agency for Child Development, a city agency that oversees day-care and Head Start programs, said: "If there is a clear policy as to who in this city does what, and it's not presented as a competitive process, it should not be to the demise of any system, but to the benefit of the children of New York City."

Added Marjorie D. Grosett, execu-tive director of the Day Care Council of New York Inc., a federation of about 300 day-care centers: "I hope there can be coordination and planning among everybody so we don't find ourselves trying to compete for the same children, teachers, and funding--all of which has happened in the past."

Issues To Tackle

According to Marian L. Schwarz, coordinator of youth services for the Office of the Mayor, the commission, to be made up of 10 to 15 members, will address coordination efforts. Mayor Koch appointed Saul B. Cohen, president of the City University of New York at Queens College, to head the group of educators, business executives, early-childhood specialists, and legal experts, who will meet periodically for six to eight months, she said.

The yet-to-be-appointed commission members will also address other issues, she noted, including staffing ratios; methods of recruiting, training, and retraining personnel to ensure the use of qualified early-childhood specialists; ways to find space in overcrowded school buildings and redesign rooms so they are suitable for 4-year-olds; what to include in the curriculum; and whether to reorganize the elementary-school curriculum from a K-6 format to one serving pre-kindergarten through grade 4.

Other details to be worked out, Ms. Schwarz said, include the length of the school day, transportation needs, and a feasible phase-in schedule.

Ms. Schwarz said the Mayor has not yet proposed a budget for the program, but it could cost "at least $100 million, and possibly considerably more." She estimated that as many as 60,000 children--the number of students now enrolled in the city's voluntary, public-school kindergarten program--might eventually be served in the new programs.

Commissioner Vows Support

Gordon M. Ambach, commissioner of education for New York State, said he supports the concept and will continue his crusade for funds to make such programs available statewide.

"I applaud Mayor Koch's proposal to provide New York City funding for 4-year-old children," he said. "The timetable for enrollees in the city is September 1986, and I would certainly hope that by that time we would have state funding in place so that it could fit together with the local share and move that program very rapidly in New York City."

Mr. Ambach first embarked on his campaign to secure state funding for schooling at age 4 for all New York state children three years ago. The New York City initiative, he said last week, "will help us a great deal in our advocacy of a state share to support these programs."

"The more strongly the Mayor and the other local officials around our state advocate a commitment of their local funds to pre-kindergarten programs," he added, "then the stronger the case before the state legislature and the Governor to provide the state share."

Demonstration Programs

According to Mr. Ambach, the state now contributes about $15 million a year for demonstration pre-kindergarten programs that serve about 8,000 children. The programs, he added, were established in 1967.

Mr. Ambach estimates that it would take four to five years to phase in a voluntary program statewide. Once accomplished, he added, it would cost the state about $40 million per year and the localities another $55 million.

But the longterm benefits, he added, are worth the cost. "I've always believed that the stronger and the earlier the start for our schooling, the better the likelihood for full completion of the high-school program. That's not the only thing you have to do for dropouts, but it's one thing that helps."

Other City Proposals

According to Ms. Schwarz, Mr. Koch is also proposing: a management-information system for the early identification of potential dropouts; the expansion of a program now in eight high schools that provides "at-risk" students with internships, counseling, part-time jobs, and social-work services for their families; and a set of awards and grants for educators who work in secondary schools with the highest dropout rates.

Ms. Schwarz said the annual dropout rate in New York City is 11 percent. That means, she added, that about 38 percent of the city's students who begin high school do not finish.

"We were thinking about how we could cut down on our dropout rate, and in analyzing all the options open to us, we decided that in addition to an extensive dropout-prevention program in junior high schools, the best way to do it for the future was to start schooling earlier," Ms. Schwarz said.

"The kids who are dropping out are the kids who get behind," she added. "One good way not to get behind is to start earlier."

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