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Transcript: New York City Launches Historic Expansion of Pre-K to More Than 51,000 Children

September 4, 2014

Video available at:

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good morning.

Audience: Good morning.

Mayor: Come on. Good morning!

Audience: Good morning!

Mayor: Okay. Parents, you've been up for a while – I know you can do this.


Mayor: I want to welcome everyone to Inner Force Tots, here in Brooklyn. First of all, let me say for the record, this is one of the best names for a pre-k ever – Inner Force Tots. We are all, in life, trying to find our inner force and tap into it. These tots have a head start on the rest of us. I want to thank, first and foremost, the parents who are here.


Chirlane and I had a chance to speak with these parents. It's an exciting day for them. It's an exciting day for their children. If you talk to them, you will find that they have a very clear sense of why pre-k matters – why full-day high-quality pre-k matters for their children. And you can hear some of their stories – I urge you to take a little time to talk to them – of what they've seen with other children in their lives, what they know this means in terms of giving their children a strong foundation for the future. This is a group of parents who care deeply about getting it right for their children. It's also a group of hardworking folks who have to think about things like can you find a pre-k program with the hours you need and the location you need and who were quick to say that having the program available so broadly – longer hours and for free – has made a real difference in their lives. So, please spend some time with them.

I want to thank everyone who's here – all of the leaders around me – but I first want to thank the director of this great center, who has really built something very special here – Dr. Garey Ellis and his wife, Tomora Ellis. We're going to talk about them.


Garey and Tomora have done something amazing. You'll hear a little bit about their story in a moment – it's really quite striking.

Everything that we've done over these last few years, working towards this day, has been the result of conversations Chirlane and I have been having now for really 19 years, since the day that Chiara was born – and it's built and built, over the years, our understanding of what we need to do to reach children more fundamentally and to have a society that really focused on education. Chirlane and I had those conversations over and over again. We started to have them with more and more people. We started to realize what full-day high-quality pre-k could mean for this city. We made it the centerpiece of all we've tried to do. I hope everyone got to see Chirlane's video the other day – which is absolutely beautiful – welcoming people to this incredibly historic moment. I have to say, for Chirlane and I, this is a moment of fulfillment – a dream we've had for a long time finally coming to fruition. So I just want to thank our first lady for being such a crucial part of this.


You will be hearing from some of my colleagues in government. I want to recognize everyone who's here – some of them will be speaking, others I just want to acknowledge, but I want you to know everyone who's here. Of course, representing this district, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke. Thank you so much for being here.


There she is. The borough president of this great borough, who now has accepted a job as a pre-k teacher on the side, because he was in the zone there, with the four-year-olds – Eric Adams, our borough president, thank you.


Our colleagues in the City Council worked tirelessly to get us to this day. They went up to Albany with us. They passed resolutions. They did all the things needed to get this to happen. I want to first and foremost thank our speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, for her unwavering support.


The chair of the City Council Education Committee – Danny Dromm, former teacher – thank you for all you have done.


The woman who represents this district and has been a great ally in this fight – Council Member Darlene Mealy, thank you.


And a gentlemen who – I've had this conversation with him many times – and Michael Mulgrew cares deeply about getting education right in this city and understands, because he is a former teacher, what this foundation-building means. And I have to say, it's been a really powerful partnership because we talk constantly about the question of how do we move this school system, how do we fundamentally change it? As I said some months ago at Riverside Church, how do we shake the foundations? And we know that full-day pre-k for every child is one of the most fundamental ways to shake the foundations of this school system and change it for the long term. So I want to thank the president of the UFT, Michael Mulgrew, for his partnership.


Of course, this is a day when Carmen Fariña's got a few things on her mind. Yeah, she's got 50,000 plus kids in full-day pre-k – an historic achievement, something that's never been seen in any city in the country before – and then she's got another 1.1 million kids to think about, and hundreds of thousands of employees. And I have to say, she's done an extraordinary job preparing us for this school year. This will be her first full school year as chancellor – and it's going to be a great year. Let's thank Carmen Fariña for all she does.


Chirlane and I had a personal experience, an emotional experience this morning. This is the last morning of our entire lives that we will drop off one of our children for the first day of school. And we were emotional wrecks. Dante was absolutely blasé about the whole thing.


It is also Dante's birthday today.

Audience: Oh!

Mayor: Turning the big one-seven. So, Dante was just cool in the saddle as always. Chirlane and I were all quivery about this is – this is, you know, a moment that we sort of are preparing for the end of this phase of our career as parents. There'll be more ahead – there always will be – there's always grandparents – thank you, Carmen, there's something to look forward to. But as Dante got out of the car to go into Brooklyn Tech, it inevitably brought back the memories of the first day we dropped him off for pre-k at PS 372 in Brooklyn and the first day we dropped off Chiara for pre-k.

And those were magical days. Those were transcendent moments for our family. Both of our kids took to pre-k like fish in water – they loved it. They absorbed so much from pre-k, and they loved being in the classroom, and they made friends quickly, and it was a powerful, powerful moment. Both our kids had full-day pre-k. And if you talk to either one of them, they are poster children for what pre-k does for you because they are energetic, intelligent, involved kids and it literally started when they were four. So we've seen it. And you go into the classroom we were just in a few moments ago – you see it – the energy, the focus of these kids, the sense – already – they're talking about their numbers and their letters and the colors and they're already engaged – and that's what we want for every child.

Now, 50,000 plus kids – as we speak – are in pre-k classrooms around this city. By comparison, at the same moment last year, it was 20,000 kids in full-day classrooms. This is a huge step forward – 1,700 plus sites citywide. We not only doubled – we not only did a 100 percent increase – we did a 150 percent increase in the number of full-day seats. And we know this will change the lives of these children, this will change the lives of their families, for the long haul.

It's also going to change the whole school system.

You spend a few moments in that classroom – you see the future of New York City education. Every one of those children, who has a strong foundation, is going to help other children. The whole classroom experience is going to improve – all boats will be lifted as more and more kids are prepared. What are we trying to do? We're trying to reach every child. We're trying to get them all on grade level. Every child who's prepared, every child who gets to grade level, helps the next child get there because the whole dynamic of the classroom improves. Every kid who's doing well frees up a little more time for teachers to spend with kids who need a little more help. So, this is literally winning the day for each child to help us build a school system that can serve all more effectively, to help us build a future for this city where we're a strong city, a unified city, a city with a workforce ready for the 21st century. It all adds up, but you can't do it without this foundation.

Someone said to me – they were smarter than me – and they said, you've got to talk about pre-k this way – if you're building a house, the most important thing is to start with a strong foundation. That's what pre-k means. Quality has been the watchword. Carmen Fariña has insisted on that. We're using a Common Core curriculum at the pre-k level. We are insisting that this pre-k experience be a strong academic experience for our children. You're going to see it in the skills they learn in the course of this year. We have obviously also made clear we are holding the highest standards – not just academically, but in terms of health and safety. That is a prerequisite of this program.

Chirlane and I had a simple view. We wanted every one of these pre-k sites to be exactly the way we would want them to be for our own children, for Chiara and Dante. And that's the standard we've set. I look around Inner Force today – I think Chiara and Dante would have thrived here.


So, this is the vision that is coming to fruition today, but wait there's more – next year we go even farther. Next year, we get up to close to 70,000 pre-k seats. Meaning, from this day next year forward, every single child at pre-k age in this city will get a full-day pre-k seat. That's how fundamental this vision is.

So, I'm not going to rehash what we know. We know that pre-k gives kids that foundation. It helps to close the achievement gap. It reduces inequality. It prepares kids for the future. It keeps them out of trouble. It gives them skills that later become the foundation for a success at middle school, high school, college and the workforce. It's been proven over and over again, but it has to be applied consistently with energy, with resources, with a strong curriculum. That's what we're endeavoring to do.

This site – Inner Force – is incredible – 145 children getting that jump start. That was 98 kids last year. So, the pre-k expansion has added almost 50 more kids here at this one center, changing all those lives.

Now, I talked about Dr. Garey Ellis and Tomora Ellis, and they are amazing. They've done this as a labor of love. Dr. Ellis – classic New York story – he emigrated from Jamaica, as a boy – grew up in Bed-Stuy and Brownsville, lived in Lafayette Gardens and Vandalia houses in NYCHA. He didn't have an easy time, but he had a clear vision and a clear dream. Hard working parents – his dad was a handyman – his mother was a housekeeper – and they kept working hard so he could succeed. This is what every parent will tell you anywhere in New York City – I don't care what neighborhood, I don't care what background – they work so their children can succeed.

So, Garey wanted to be a medical doctor. And it may have seemed unlikely, but he stuck to it. He wanted to do it because he wanted to give back. He's achieved so much and Tomora has achieved so much and they founded Inner Force because they wanted to reach kids – particularly at-risk kids. And they wanted to create a sense that these kids could be not only successful, but leaders. And then they expanded with Inner Force Tots.

Daily News did a story profiling them and said the core notion here is "to teach at-risk kids to reach for the stars." And that's something we believe in. This place is amazing, it's positive, it's nurturing. There's after-school programs here, there's summer programs, science, music, chess – a whole range of things that enrich and empower our children. And they also focus on parenting skills, helping parents to be partners in the process.

So this is an incredible indicator – an incredible example of what we're doing citywide today. I will hasten to add, before I turn to my colleagues, that this is one thing we're doing today. Carmen Fariña's a multi-tasker. Richard Buery is a multi-tasker ­– our deputy mayor. This is one thing we're doing today. We're also preparing for Monday, with the doubling of after-school programs for middle school kids. We're also starting today on the pathway to 40 community schools that will be up and running this year, out of 100 we'll do over the next few years. We're starting down the pathway on the PROSE schools, which are going to be an incredibly important reform coming out of our new contract, giving each school the opportunity to create its own vision for how to be effective, and make its own reforms. A lot is happening right now, this day, in New York City.

This is a historic day, truly, a day that's going to have reverberations that play out over years and years and years. I just want to say – I sometimes feel bad that I ask so much of Carmen Fariña but what is that – what is that phrase, that you're only asked – you're only asked to do the things that you're actually of doing. And Carmen's capable of making this transformation and fundamentally changing this school system.

I'll finish with a quote I think summarizes our sense of mission. President Kennedy said: "Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education." It's as simple as that. It's as simple as that. Until we get education right, we can't get the rest of the equation right. Today is a huge step forward for getting education right in this city.

With that – because I know she's got a lot to say and a lot on her mind – the woman who's making it all happen, our Chancellor Carmen Fariña.


Chancellor Carmen Fariña, Department of Education: This is a very exciting time. First and foremost, because I think educators, by and large, like to dream impossible dreams, and the other thing is we like to be challenged. And when people say it can't be done, we're out to prove them wrong. And it can be done, and it can be done with smiles, it can be done with determination. But mostly, it's done with the help of an awful lot of people, and I would be foolish to stand here and say, I did this, or we did this. We, and everyone else who stands behind us—and yesterday, I hosted something at Tweed to thank the people who have been up all night. I mean, we had staff this past week who were there—yes, Rich, I know—to midnight, weekends long, 24 hours. I think the last phone call, I feel, this weekend, was actually at one o'clock in the morning, because we are determined to make sure that New York City leads the nation and the world in what is a historic moment.

And the one other thing I want to say about this particular place—Dr. Ellis and I made an appointment to talk and share some of the practices here, but most importantly, this is a place that for many of our kids is life-saving. This is not just about education. Many of the children in this building are in temporary housing. This is the secure place that they feel. Many of them have been in three sites—coming to school is something that is permanent and structured in their lives, and you can't buy that. I don't care how much it costs – you cannot buy that experience.

The other thing is, as we walked by, and Melissa and I couldn't say—the babies in cribs, I mean, you know, we forget sometimes, that, you know, if parents need to work, and want to work, that there needs to be an option, there needs to be a safe place for them to be.

But I think most importantly, and what I offered to come back and do––without the press, actually—is to talk to the parents. Because one of the things I want to say to all the parents in New York City – this is your job too. This is not just us, but this is an opportunity for you to extend what we're doing, and one of the things that's going to happen here on September 16—you see, I read the Post as well—there's going to be Dad Welcome Day, and I think having males in schools is crucial to success. We really need to model that – both mothers and fathers and big brothers and grandfathers and everybody else—actually, my husband is babysitting today—are really important to make sure that our kids grow tomorrow, not just educationally, but socially and emotionally. And this is a place where all that is happening, and I couldn't be prouder. And, before he nudges me, in Español, correct?

[Chancellor Fariña speaks in Spanish]

Mayor: Muchas gracias. I just want to acknowledge and thank our Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who's played such a key role in this. He has not eaten or slept for days, because he wanted to make sure every waking hour went into getting this right, and Richard, this is a great day of victory for you, too, congratulations. I want to now – let's give him a round of applause.


Again, we've had such tremendous partnership from the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and all the Council members believed deeply they wanted to get this done, they threw everything they had into it. And that's why we're standing here today. I want to welcome our Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

[City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito speaks]

Mayor: Thank you. Rookie pre-k teacher and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who's been a great supporter of this effort.

[Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams speaks]

Mayor: As I said, for many years, Chirlane and I have discussed what we need to do for our children. It's led us to this day. We've also had some profound allies along the way who supported our ideas, and who we worked with very closely, and one of the closest of our friends and allies is the congresswoman who represents this neighborhood, Yvette Clarke.

[United States Congresswoman Yvette Clarke speaks]

Mayor: As I said, there's so many partnerships here that have led us to this day, and one of them, obviously, is with Michael Mulgrew and the UFT. I want to bring him forward, and thank him for all his support getting us to this day, in Albany and beyond. Michael Mulgrew.

[UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks]

Mayor: Well, I want to give credit where credit is due. I learned so much about what we needed to do for all our families by having a family myself. I learned so much from my own children and their upbringing, and I don't think that would have been possible if I hadn't had the most wonderful partner in the world, in all I do. I said the day I met her it was love at first sight, and it has been an extraordinary experience, and she has been one of the inspirations for what we are achieving today – our First Lady Chirlane McCray.


First Lady Chirlane McCray: Hello, everyone. I am a little shaky and teary because this moment means so much for these children, and for our families, and for our community. This is a day I will always remember. You know, it's true – it was a bittersweet moment this morning, seeing Dante off for the first day of his last year of high school. And I know this time next year our not-so-little boy will be starting college, and I'm not ready for that yet.

But I can't be too sad, because today marks such a huge victory – and it's huge. And for those 50,000 plus 4-year-olds who are experiencing their first first day of school at a high-quality pre-k, there's just nothing more – what else can I say? How could this moment be better?

With today's historic expansion of free full-day pre-k, New York City is establishing itself as a national leader on early childhood education. And by next year, we will have a tiny little seat for every single one of those – one of our 4-year-olds. And yes, those will be tiny little seats, but it's a very big deal.

So, I urge everyone every New Yorker, young and old, to step back and savor the moment. It is going to be a great year, and the best is yet to come.

Mayor: Amen.

First Lady McCray: Thank you, everyone.


Mayor: Just a quick moment in Spanish and then what we're going do is we'll take on-topic questions. Later in the day, at the next stop, I think, we'll be able to do the off-topics as well.

[Mayor de Blasio speaks in Spanish]

With that, on-topic questions.

Question: Parents will want assurances that pre-k stays high-quality. Can you talk, Mr. Mayor, about the measures in place to ensure that this program goes as envisioned?

Mayor: I'll start and maybe the chancellor or the deputy mayor may want to add. We said from the beginning, we were going to work with the Common Core curriculum. We fundamentally believe in that curriculum. There's been a controversy in some places about how to apply it. I'm in the school that says if you're going to apply a rigorous curriculum, you better put the groundwork in place – you better train the teachers, you better put all the supports and the resources necessary to live up to it – and that's what we're trying to do. So the preparation for the teachers has been outstanding. There will be continued training – this is a hallmark of Carmen Fariña's worldview, that you're constantly teaching our teachers, training our teachers, improving our teachers – but we are going to evaluate this experience carefully and then continue to make adjustments and improvements. But one thing we know is, this – this is about preparing our children academically. It can be a lot of fun too, as you saw in the other room, but it's about preparing our children academically and we need those standards to be high. Anyone want to add? Okay.

Chancellor Fariña: First of all, the professional development will be ongoing. There are instructional coaches that will be working with all the teachers in the UPKs across the city. The other thing – everyone on my leadership team will be doing visits to CBEKs and regular schools to see UPK – many of them probably haven't been in a UPK classroom in many many years. But we really feel that our presence is not only to assure quality, but also to thank the principals and the teachers for the work they're doing. Anyone who's ever spent an entire day with a couple of – with 18 four-year-olds knows it is not the easiest teaching job possible. It requires naps – of the adults, not just the kids.


So we want to ensure that people feel satisfied but that also that we reassure them that we need them very badly. The other thing the mayor has said, which we believe in – we're having the program evaluated. We're paying for an outside agency to come in and do the research and evaluate the work as we go along. So you don't have to take our word for it, because I know many of you may be a little skeptic – but I'm not. And we are putting that on the line so we will actually be able to say, "according to outside evaluators." So I think this is phenomenal. I think also just looking at the parents who are standing here in their smiles and the fact that they are satisfied with what's happening is also a great indicator.

Mayor: Thank you.

Question: Mr. Mayor, looking at the numbers – there are, I guess, 51,000 students enrolled. Out of that about 125 have not been placed yet. What do those numbers tell you?

Mayor: I think everyone did an incredible job – that's what those numbers tell me. I mean, I give Deputy Mayor Buery and Chancellor Fariña and their whole teams great great credit. Look, they had to do this on – really – less than six months notice. We had the vision, beginning in January, to get us to this day. We had a long and challenging fight in Albany to get the resources we needed. It was not until April 1st that we knew exactly what we had. These folks had April, May, June, July, August to get ready for one of the biggest pre-k expansions in United States history – and they've done it. We're over 50,000 seats today. We're going to top out at 53,000 – there's no doubt in anyone's mind. And, you know, we had a very clear commitment, at the same time – and we said it over and over and over again and we meant it – if any program did not meet our standards, starting with health and safety, and then continuing through quality and other measures – if they didn't make the cut, we would pull them back before opening day. We had nine that, again, are not going to make it this year. We also said that if a program needed a few more days to get ready, we wanted to get it right – and we've got 36 of those. Again, at least 14 will be opening on Monday – so just a two school-day delay. So, I think the numbers are outstanding. I think this team was asked to do something nearly impossible and they managed to pull it off.


Question: I know the day is young, but I'm just wondering if you've gotten any reports from your folks in the field about – I don't know – transportation or plumbing or other issues that have come up. Are there any glitches so far [inaudible]?

Mayor: I've not heard specific reports yet. The day is very young. But we'll – certainly as we go along through all five boroughs today, we'll have more updates for you. Dave.

Question: Mayor, can we get a sense of what your personal feelings were – whether it was leaving at Gracie Mansion this morning or coming here for the first event or what – given how you worked and campaigned on this last year? What were your personal feelings about this?

Mayor: Well, I – you know, as Chirlane said, we were having a lot of different feelings at once. The most important thing we're feeling is that, as Dante's parents – you know, I woke up this morning, I said happy birthday to Dante – that was bittersweet right there, because now that he's going – now he is 17 – that means it's not long until he leaves the nest and that's something we're feeling pretty deeply today. It was wonderful to drop him off at school. I think – you know, Chirlane and I are both products of public schools, our children are both products of New York City public schools – I think the sort of first day of school is such an amazing moment. And, you know, it is bittersweet to know it will be the last time we experience that personally. But there's an incredible sense of joy, too, at this day. You know, I remember very clearly – October 4, 2012, was it? 2011? I'm beginning to lose track of the times – but it was October 4, I know that, when I gave the speech at – which one, Wiley?

Wiley Norvell: 2012.

Mayor: Thank you. 2012. October 4 – Wiley's always there pick me up when I'm unclear.


October 4, 2012 – we laid out the vision for full-day pre-k for all. I remember – and I don't, by the way, blame any member of the media for asking these tough questions – I remember the very first press availability immediately following the speech. There was a respectful air of incredulity – of how could this possibly be done, how could these numbers be reached, how could we get Albany to agree? There was a great movie once that said, "If you build it, they will come." I think we knew we could build it. I think we knew people wanted it and believed in it. It would take a lot of perseverance but it was the right thing to do. It had been proven – and I think Michael Mulgrew's right – when something's this clear a consensus but doesn't happen, it was just a matter of time before we broke through – and we were determined to break through. And sometimes in life you have to say, "This is my number one priority and we're going to move heaven and earth." And that's what this team did. So, it's a joyous day. It's a joyous day for everyone who worked so hard and deserves so much credit. It's also just a humanly joyous day – I walked in the room and saw those kids and it immediately reminded me of all the things we came here to do – and talking to these parents about how this is changing their lives. You know, Melissa was right – we're here to fight inequality in all its forms. This is one of the most fundamental ways of doing that – so it's a great day.

Question: Is there any of these parents behind – I mean, I would love to hear from a parent just how it's going to – I don't know if any – are you guys parents? Do you feel comfortable? Just about how it's going to change your life and what you expect –

Mayor: Step right up.

Question: You know, what you hope for your child to get out of this program and how it would help you, if it's going to.

Parent: Well, first, my name is Falicia Griffith, and I believe it will help me in many ways. To see this program grow, as it is, as a parent, and as someone who had the opportunity to start in kindergarten and not in pre-k, you see the difference. To go to school straight from, like, five years old, and then, you know, not knowing much, and having your kid start from like, two or three, it's much of a difference—especially when it comes to having them evaluate it and knowing that – wait, there may be just a little bit of a learning disability, and finding down, somewhere down the line, and being stuck in a group and feeling overwhelmed. You just—you know when to start. Now, this is where you start from now. F-A-L-I-C-I-A G-R-I-F-F-I-T-H. Jeremiah Griffith. He is three, going on four.

Mayor: He's a strong three. Thank you, you were great. Thank you.

Question: Mr. Mayor, you alluded to this a little bit before—there was some skepticism early on about this plan, including from Mr. Mulgrew, actually, who did not quite back it or back you at first. And I was wondering if Mr. Mulgrew could speak a little bit about, kind of, the evolution of that, and Mr. Mayor, for you, how it feels as a political victory. I mean, there were some ups and downs, it didn't shake out exactly the way you wanted it.

Mayor: Look, I think we could not be more pleased with the result. We said from the beginning, we had to get to this day. We never had the illusion that it would be exactly the way that we planned it. All I cared about is that we got there. A lot of people have been very gracious, including two of the editorial boards, and I want to thank them for—it's not easy for people to say, you know what, we missed this one, and we didn't see what was possible. And I think that's—a lot of people whisper it to you, but for folks to put it in print is noble. So, but that's all behind us now. It's about making this work and then going the next step. So, you know, before I turn to Michael, I will just say, change comes from the grassroots. It always has in history. And I think a lot of us knew the people were ready for this and the people would work for it, and that's why we got to this day.

Michael Mulgrew: My skepticism comes from what I had said earlier. I remember a long time ago, when I started teaching, I would hear people give speeches on pre-k. And we heard it over and over and over again, for years and years and generations, and as a teacher, I knew that it would make a difference, but I was constantly feeling frustrated because people would say it's important, would always make it a piece inside of—and no, I'm not trying to say anything negative about elected officials—but I've heard this quite a bit. And I always think the problem is, when they actually say, oh, let's get it done, and they realize how hard it is­––it scares people. Because to put yourself out there and say, I'm going to do pre-k, and then, when you're in the position to get it done, and then you bring people together, and you go, oh man, this is a huge problem, this is a major task and an undertaking. If I don't fulfill it, I'm going to own it. And the mayor and Chirlane were very clear after the election, they said, we're doing this. This is not a political issue. This is an issue we believe in, we will accept this challenge, we're going to go out there, we're going to put a team together, and we're going to get it done. And as an educator, I finally was, you know, I remember being in a classroom saying, yeah, yeah, yeah, here we go again, and I said, we're going to get this done. And that's why we're here today. And that's why I'm happy that the mayor and Chirlane said, we're going to get this done, because this is about the kids, and the families of the city, and it's not about politics. So thank you.

Mayor: Thank you, everyone!

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