Eighteen school children in Queens, New York are heading to their local library on September 8—for school. As part of New York City’s push to open 33,000 new universal pre-kindergarten (PreK) spots by September 2014, the Woodhaven branch of the Queens Library, one of its four Carnegie libraries, will be the first public library to open its doors as a formal full-time classroom under the New York City Department of Education (DOE).
(Update: As of September 17, 2014, SLJ has learned that PreK classes will start on September 22.)
“The Queens Library wanted to jump on Mayor de Blasio’s bandwagon to provide more PreK locations in NYC,” says Nick Buron, vice-president of Public Library Services, who is heading the PreK initiative inside the Queens Library. “We have always done informal learning for more than 100 years at the Queens Library, so this was not new for us.”
What was new was working within the confines of the DOE, says Buron, even as the library continues its commitment to early learning. De Blasio’s mission is to have a total of 33,000 PreK positions in place by September 2014, with an additional 20,000 for 2015-2016. Buron says that 30 families applied for the branches’ 18 PreK spots. (Funding for the new program came through the DOE, although the actual amount was not disclosed by the Queens Library.)
Some adjustments had to be made to the Woodhaven branch space—”capital improvements,” says King, which included renovating a former large storage area into a new programming room, with the former one turning into the new classroom.
The library also re-did a back area with “overgrown trees,” says Buron, and transformed it into a new outdoor space with grass that works for the children—and also for the general public when school in not in session.
The Queens Library has a long history of its commitment to early childhood literacy. Take its recent grant of $152,000 from the Pinkerton Foundation this year, which will enable the library branch in South Jamaica to open on Saturdays and pay for a new full-time dedicated children’s librarian in that location as well. And Buron says the library had originally hoped to open PreK classes in two locations—the one at Woodhaven and a second at a family literacy center at Ravenswood which used to be a traditional library in the Ravenswood Houses, a public housing complex. Queens Library had hoped to offer 36 additional spots for its PreK classes at Ravenswood but had to drop the location, with plans to revisit the options for 2015, because of the money needed to fix the space to meet facility standards by September.
“Most meeting places are geared to adults,” says Buron. “But with children, you have to have a lot of little toilets. If a location doesn’t have that, there’s a lot of money for plumbing.”
Because it’s not a school, the Queens Library had to apply for its PreK opportunity as a community-based organization, or CBO, like others that run universal PreK programs in New York City, including the Children’s Aid Society and Catholic Charities. While the library is experienced at hiring librarians, for the universal PreK program it is hiring three new positions: a teacher certified in early learning, among other qualifications; a teaching assistant; and an administrative assistant to run the office. All positions will be in place when the 18 children make their way to their new classroom on Monday morning next month. As for the library’s shift from supporting education toward being a center for schooling?
“We have 4-year-olds doing story hour with us right now,” says Buron. “They’re with us because there’s not enough formalized education for them. It seems this [direction] is where we are going.”