Eighty years ago, I stood over my toy block building on the floor of the Kindergarten class of PS 192 in the south wing of the sprawling Hebrew Orphan Asylum at 137th Street waiting for Miss Tweety who, as I expected, ohh-ed and ahh-ed at the product of my imagination and placed a yellow slip of paper on it that it was not to be disturbed by the afternoon class (the highest award).
At that moment, I knew I was the very best block builder in class. My self-image was towering and that self-confidence, that image that I could be the very best has survived as I key these words. So, when Bill de Blasio came out for universal pre-Kindergarten classes I knew he had put his finger on the very best place for any government, any community, any parent, to place its money. It is the best and cheapest way to buy the future.
A four-year-old does not know he is poor, black, Hispanic or dyslexic. He instinctively wallows in the pure joy of the gift of consciousness. As a child, we are warmly buoyed by the unrestrained and effulgent love of our mother leaving us protected to open that primordial genetic hunger to instantly comprehend the life around us. Indeed, the slow of foot vulnerable human animal devoid of fangs or claws survives by its ability to quickly devour the signals of danger and tools of social survival – nothing is more powerful than a baby’s first smile.
Advanced countries like Finland have long ago matched this early ability to effortlessly absorb learning at an astonishing rate with the classrooms and techniques that can exploit this short window in time. However, this country, at least for now, is not ready to pay for it.
I sat at dinner with a friend whose nearly two-year-old daughter Bianca was able to speak both French and English and a little Togolese from her Philippine mother. Her father surprised me by his knowing how difficult it might be to get his daughter into PS 41 four years way. The problem with political solutions is they must make their way through the jungle of bureaucracy. Yet a child’s life races and that window of unselfconscious learning can close with the first report card.
More than 40 years ago we moved to Charles Street so our kids could go to PS 41, one of only two “good schools” in Manhattan; so good it soon had a shortage of seats. As the 1968 school strike started with a one day walkout, I spluttered with mounting rage as the PS 41 PTA president married to a teacher blocked any discussion of an emergency school at the “Welcome New Parents” PTA meeting and asked that parents willing to talk about an emergency school stay after the meeting. I found myself running an emergency school during the on-again/off-again two-month strike. After this, I was dragooned into becoming the PTA president to face the activists who had broken into the school in the last days of that clenched teeth battle between the all-powerful teachers’ union and the threat of the black school boards wresting control and demanding that blacks teach blacks.
Again, we found a shortage of seats at PS 41 but there sat the all but abandoned PS 3 being used by the Board of Education as a detention ward for kids rounded up for playing hooky; as few as 14 kids could be in the building on a school day.
I stood before the chancellor of the Board of Education and demanded PS 3 and watched as a bemused sneer appeared. In dead bureaucratic kill talk he intoned that the board made those decisions not the community. I exploded and strode to the podium repeating my demands as my PTA guys rush to restrain me (even then I was ready to slap a bureaucrat).
We sued and won, securing PS 3. The activist who broke into the school instantly took it over and hired a British “Headmaster” who indulged “progressive “education which may be responsible for its current reputation as being “loose.”
We are at the start of another chapter in New York school history. Without a doubt, pre-K will become universal as it is and has been for some years in advance countries in Europe, but when and how?
One of the most remarkable and visible acts of education philanthropy has been the turn of the century gift of New York libraries by Andrew Carnegie. He built 1,689 libraries in the US and as a kid, I always assumed he built every one in New York City. He demanded that the communities demonstrate a need, provide the site, donate 10 percent of the cost each year for maintenance and make it free to all.
Presently, we are in a new age of divided wealth and just as de Blasio has called on those making over half a million to pay a tax to send four-year-olds to school. I think we need a new Andrew Carnegie to build the very first pre-K school right here in the West Village– a model for the rest of city to perhaps better understand that we learn by delighted mimicry not by tests that measure failure.
Our Architecture Editor, Brian Pape offers a rendering of that school – the West Village Educational Center. The first level will have the classrooms for pre-K with what will probably be the first bathroom facilities designed for kids under six. The second floor will have kindergarten to absorb the West Village growing school age population and the top floor will have adult classrooms inspired by the success of the Jefferson Market Library which has recently exploded with lectures and activities for children and adults.
If my son Doric were four again, I would want a pre-school in the West Village. If my daughter Athena were six, I would want to be sure she had a seat at PS 41 – right now.
If I published a West Village newspaper I would ask the wealthy who are buying West Village luxury condos, the real estate developers who are making millions selling those condos and the folks with no heirs and parents and just about everybody to invest in a child’s future and build the first public pre-school in New York right here in the West Village, right now.
You can call me at (212) 924 5718 and explain it why will never happen or just e-mail to say it’s a good idea and where do I sign.