3-K Seat Shortages Rally Parents to ‘Playdate’ Protest at City Hall

3-K Seat Shortages Rally Parents to ‘Playdate’ Protest at City Hall

Photo: Parent advocates and Councilmember planned to deliver a petition to the mayor’s office to restore 3-K funding, June 6, 2024. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Max Rivera

City Hall remains steadfast in its commitment to offer 3-K seats to every family who wants one, citing a 9,000-seat surplus, but families say the available seats are too far from home and don’t meet the needs of working parents.

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Families and elected officials, many with kids in tow, gathered for a “playdate” at the steps of City Hall Thursday morning to demand that the mayor stop cuts to early child care programs for 3-year-olds and fulfill his guarantee to offer seats to all who applied to the city’s 3-K program.

In January, the city’s Department of Education received 43,000 applications for 52,000 available 3-K seats. Yet 6% of applicants, who had ranked up to 12 choices of 3-K sites, weren’t offered a single spot. 

The mayor has repeatedly said that all applicants will get a spot. But many of the parents and politicians protesting — as kids played with toys, sidewalk chalk and bubbles — say that the program’s failures to live up to that promise is a betrayal, especially as parents scramble to lock in child care for the fall.

Using city Department of Education data, parents pointed to a surplus of seats available in neighborhoods from Hudson Yards to Harlem to Bed-Stuy. Yet in some places where seats are most in demand, like Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and Inwood, spots are too scarce.

“While there are more seats available than there are people that want them, most of them are in neighborhoods that people don’t want to travel to,” said Alina Adams, owner of NYC School Secrets, which advises families to aim for those priority seats, but also tries to set expectations.

Meanwhile, critics complain that parents who can afford to pay for private day care programs for children at age 2 have an edge on 3-K admissions at their school of choice, undermining the program’s goal of making child care accessible to families in economic need. 

The mayor’s proposed budget for the year starting July 1, now under negotiation with the City Council, would slash $116 million from early childhood education programs.

Councilmember Tiffany Cabán drew "We Heart 3k" in chalk at City Hall Park.
Councilmember Tiffany Cabán (D-Queens) shows her support for 3k funding at City Hall Park with 8-year-old student Axel, June 6, 2024. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“It’s a wild thing that you would use the babies to play this money game,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at Thursday’s rally organized by New Yorkers United for Child Care, calling Adams’ austerity measures “disheartening.”

“Don’t play with the babies,” Williams said.

‘My Heart Sunk’

The Department of Education said it is working with the 6% of families who didn’t receive offers to help them find a spot.

“New York City Public Schools works to match families who apply for seats in our 3K and PreK classrooms to their top choices,” the department said in an unsigned statement, promising that all families will receive an offer by the end of June. “We continue to work with families who could not receive offers to their top choices to help them get admitted from a waitlist or find a location with available seats that works best for the family.”

Those promises are not reassuring to Caroline Fermin, a dance teacher and mother of two who lives in Washington Heights and is one of the more than 2,500 applicants who received no 3-K offer on May 16 when DOE sent out emails informing families of their placements.

As offers trickled out, Fermin said, her parent groups were buzzing with the news of 3-K results. And like many of her friends, logging on to her MySchools profile left her with disappointment.

“My heart sunk immediately,” Fermin said of discovering she was rejected by all six 3-Ks to which she had applied. 

Fermin, who planned to have her second child around the time her first child would be transitioning to the city’s 3-K system — the type of careful calculus made by many parents across the city — suddenly found herself without a sustainable child care plan.

Fermin said her options were bleak since she couldn’t afford to pay for two daycares. She could crowdsource child care costs from family; quit one of her jobs to stay home with one or both of her kids; or move out of the city.

“We are artists and teachers. We don’t make a lot of money,” she said.

For Fermin, who moved to New York City 21 years ago to attend the Julliard School, the prospect of leaving the culturally rich and diverse city she planned to raise her children in was unimaginable.

“I had this feeling of being let down by New York City,” Fermin said. “I’ve defended this city since I moved here.”

Fermin did not have the means to cut the line that some wealthier parents wield: signing up their 2-year-olds for a day care facility that also runs a city 3-K program, giving them priority for a 3-K spot there in the lottery.

But not even those families who paid for 2-year-olds’ day care were then offered admission to the schools in which they were enrolled.

Meagan Dobrijevic, from Astoria, said she deliberately chose a daycare for her then 4-month-old that participated in 3-K as a way to ensure her child would get a seat in the program.

After more than two years, not only was Dobrijevic’s child not accepted by the program, she didn’t receive a single offer from any other area 3-K, forcing her to sign up for a costly private option.

Meagan Dobrijevic speaks during a City Hall Park rally about not getting a 3k seat for her daughter, Ava.
Meagan Dobrijevic speaks during a City Hall Park rally about not getting a 3k seat for her daughter, Ava, June 6, 2024. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Fortunately for Dobrijevic, she recently secured a paid, private option — one she rallied for with other parents in her neighborhood who were also shut out of 3-K — and was able to pivot from a 4-year-olds’ program to a 3-year-olds’ program to accommodate community needs.

Such shifts are nearly impossible for city-run 3-K sites, according to Willing Chin-Ma, head of early childhood programs at Grand Street Settlement in Manhattan, who says DOE bureaucracy is to blame for inflexibility.

“They need to give us more control,” Chin-Ma said. “I can’t put a 3-year-old in a 4-year-old seat.”

Critics at the rally hammered Adams for the lack of efficiency in allocating 3-K seats.

Citing DOE statistics that showed 300 seats in her area went unused in the last cycle,  Councilmember Sandy Nurse (D-Brooklyn) said at the rally: “The program is mismanaged.”

Confusing Network

The DOE’s 3-K program utilizes a network of schools, child care providers, and need-based programs like Head Start with an array of options and eligibility rules confusing for many parents. 

Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, a group representing settlement houses, said the surplus of seats is a result of families either not knowing they exist, or misallocation. 

“There needs to be a continuous analysis to make sure there are seats in the right places,” Moran said, adding that the education department could do more to help the parents who remain without offers, including by signing contracts with more providers. 

Some child care providers hesitate to get on board with the DOE’s 3-K system because they are already subject to Department of Health and Mental Hygiene oversight and would have to comply with both DOHMH and DOE guidelines, as well as navigate multiple funding streams. 

“Payment processes are so slow and difficult,” Moran said.

Other child care centers prefer to use their own approaches to working with children rather than the prescribed DOE curriculum.

Many families that consider themselves lucky to have received offers looked more closely and realized the centers were either too far from home or for too short of a day.

Fermin started following all the advice she could find about how to navigate 3-K waitlists. She called schools, texted friends and emailed principals. An offerless week passed by before Fermin was contacted again by the DOE. This time, she had an offer in hand, but for a school over a mile away, that she never applied to, in the opposite direction of her commute.

“This is basically worthless for us,” Fermin said. “There’s no way I could do that and get to work on time.”

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