One of America’s most ambitious child-care experiments is playing out, in part, at a public-housing complex at the far end of Manhattan’s East Village. Tucked behind one of the 13 brick towers that make up the Jacob Riis Houses, a few bright classrooms sit filled with tiny furniture and, one morning in March, dozens of toddlers. This is the Jacob Riis Early Childhood Center, one of roughly 1,200 sites that make up New York City’s free, public pre-kindergarten program, which operates mostly via contracts with mom and pop providers and local nonprofits.
Mary Cheng, the director of childhood development services at the Chinese-American Planning Council, the nonprofit running this preschool, is at the door to help greet a group of 3-year-olds and their guardians, many of whom live in the complex or nearby. She directs the kids into their classrooms and squats to give out hugs. Once inside, students collect chairs from a stack and scoot them under the miniature table to prepare for breakfast. One exuberant child asks Cheng to draw her a pink dog, then a pink cat, then a mother dog and a mother cat. She obliges with an efficiency and skill that prompt two more sketch requests from curious onlookers. Although Cheng oversees the CPC’s care for about 300 early childhood education students across six sites in Manhattan and Queens, working directly with kids and their families remains the most important part of her job, she says, and what she loves the most about it. It’s also a welcome distraction from the crisis awaiting her after the kids go home.