Outside The Sandbox — Searching for Preschool Options in Jersey City

Ten years ago the Garden Preschool Board members sat around a little table in tiny wooden chairs discussing our future. Our co-president had a grim announcement to make. “I just don’t know if we’re going to be open next fall,” she said. “We have almost NO applicants for next school year.” I remember thinking, HOW could that possibly be true? Outside, the relentless sound of pile-drivers reminded us of the growing development crowding in. “This can’t be right,” I finally said. “There are families moving here in droves – all from New York City. Just wait, soon there will be a LINE to get into our little school!”

A decade later and there is never a time when Garden Cooperative Preschool, one of Jersey City’s original private preschools, does not have a wait-list for enrollment. And they are not alone; the public and private schools can barely keep up with the influx of families clamoring for spots. Ten years ago, the rising curve of New Yorkers moving to Jersey City had barely begun. The city’s downtown area boasted a smattering of parents mixed amongst artists and musicians who opted for the “Jersey-side” over more expensive parts of Brooklyn or Queens. These days the landscape has changed considerably. While the artist scene is still vibrant and thriving, a different demographic has taken shape. Take a walk around the city’s farmer’s markets sometime whether it’s Grove Street, Hamilton Park, Riverview Fisk Park or Journal Square it’s hard not to notice the amount of pregnant women, many with little kids in tow.

Looking strictly at birth rate statistics, Jersey City shows fairly slow growth over the previous decade. However, thousands of babies are born across the river in New York City (therefore their stats are not gathered) and those families quickly become sized-out or priced-out of their current homes, seeking shelter across the river in our cozy, eclectic corner. According to the Jersey City Board of Education, there has been record growth in public school enrollment over the past five years. Based on residential development and proposed new housing, they report that the Pre-K programs for 3 and 4 year olds have experienced very heavy demand.

“For the first time in almost two decades we are seeing enrollment in the Jersey City Public Schools grow,” states Board of Education President, Sangeeta Ranade. “This influx in students reflects a growing confidence in our public schools. We are aggressively exploring options to get more space including the construction of two new elementary schools in Lafayette and the Heights, changing how we use existing space, and leasing buildings.” Programs via public schools are free of charge per the Abbott program, which uses state funding for public school education in low-income districts (which Jersey City is considered.)

In the past two State of the Union addresses, President Obama has called upon Congress to help fund preschool programs for every child in the country. The theory, based on research, shows that investing in early education has lasting positive results as that child enters kindergarten more prepared, and continues that trajectory through their many years of education. The price tag for this funding (estimated at $75 billion over 10 years) could be paid for by raising cigarette taxes. Of the handful of states mentioned that were doing a good job by providing quality free preschool programs, New Jersey was included. The funding (about $7,500 per student) enables programs to hire teachers with better credentials, training, and at higher salaries; this creates a more stable and beneficial environment for education through creative play — one of the hallmarks of an effective and appropriate preschool curriculum.

So what does that mean for those who want a spot in a free Pre-K program? Competition and stress. Public school slots often require waiting on line, tangled registration procedures, and over-flow from surrounding public schools, which are filled to capacity. One parent observed, “I think the city is going to have a hard time retaining all its young families with working parents if it doesn’t do more to expand capacity. It also needs to make the registration and application process timely, efficient, and transparent. We moved from New Orleans, another city that has really struggled with its public education system, and were startled to find Jersey City so far behind what we had left.”

One of the more sought-after Pre-K options is PS 5’s dual language program. However, parents complain that classes must be evenly filled with half native Spanish speakers, then preference is given to siblings for the remaining slots. “I’m not sure why the class must have equal native and non-native speakers. I’d love for there to be more than one class so that EVERYONE could have a head start on a dual language curriculum,” says one dad.

The population explosion in Jersey City is not lost on the for-profit preschool sector. We can expect to see continued expansion of franchised schools cropping up yearly, as the demand shows no sign of waning. Will free programs at public schools get crushed in the enrollment surge?

Unfortunately, gathering information about the various Pre-K programs around town has been made more difficult by what parents say is a combination of lack of information and an uninformative Board of Ed website. “I got my best info from moms on the playground who I overheard talking,” says one mother. “We were originally informed by the BOE that our child could go to any school in JC and that it was a ‘first come’ situation unless the number of children was too high and thereafter a lottery. This was not true in our case.”

Parents seeking preschool choices often will put messages out on email groups, such as the Jersey City Family Initiative or Meet-up Mom groups and from those queries often come practical answers: “My daughter is at Concordia Learning Center (which specializes in children with vision impairments) we love it. If this one mom didn’t email me privately in response to my pleas for help, I would never have found that school on my own.”

If free public preschools have parents in a dither — private, and more costly, preschools are becoming more plentiful and provide other options. The families I spoke to all praised Primary Prep, Mustard Seed School, Montessori School of Jersey City, Hamilton Park Montessori SchoolGarden Cooperative Preschool and newer ones like The Scandinavian School of Jersey City and Bright Horizons (a national chain.) Tuition can vary greatly anywhere from $9,000 to nearly $20,000 per year: despite their cost many of these private preschools are in very high demand with long wait-lists (three years for Montessori Waterfront location.)

Another parent I spoke with agonized over the pressure to find the school that “looked good on paper,” as she described it. “This really didn’t work for my family nor did this ‘right school’ we selected, truly deliver on their purported high level philosophy of teaching.” Different parents and children have different needs. Some parents need a low cost option, some need the reassurance that their child is in a nurturing environment — others want to see the emphasis on academic enrichment and preparation.

“I heard from my neighbor that the Viaquenti Preschool had a full day dual language program with aftercare options,” says Selena, mom of two preschool age children. “I liked that they partnered with Bambino Chef to have hot lunches delivered to the school! That was a bonus.”

It may seem that searching for a preschool requires almost as much effort as finding an appropriate college for your child. For higher-ed opportunities, at least, you can read extensive reports and guides from institutions like The Princeton Review or Barrons. However, for local preschool options there is no “one stop shopping” but more of an organic system comprised of internet searches, word-of-mouth, and membership to any number of parent organizations around town. For many families school placement indicates the ultimate “make or break” moment, particularly for those who wish to put down roots in Jersey City. “If we can’t find a decent school for our daughter,” laments one mom. “It’s time to say goodbye to Jersey City and consider a town with more plentiful options and maybe lower taxes as well.”

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More Education Coverage:
Jersey City Public Schools Pre-K Classroom Shortage Concerns
Love it or Leave it? Jersey City Public Schools Aim for Greater Buy-In

Jayne Freeman

is the host of the long-time public access show Mamarama as seen locally on Comcast Cable (channel 51) and on YouTube. In addition to her parenting program she is a certified childbirth educator and regularly writes about the parental experience.