Saturday, May 05, 2007

At Religious Preschools, Worries About Others Looking Over Their Shoulders

The city’s health code spells out hundreds of regulations governing preschools and day care centers, ranging from the urgent (rooftop play areas must be fenced; teachers must get inoculations and pass background checks) to the comparatively minor (one toilet per 15 children, and 30 square feet of space per child; no television for children under 2; no whole milk for children over 2).

The rules cover all the city’s private preschools, with one longstanding exception: From the yeshivas of Williamsburg to the parochial schools of the South Bronx, preschools attached to religious elementary schools are, in effect, exempt.

“We don’t know the history of the exemption,” said Jessica Leighton, the Health Department’s deputy commissioner for environmental health. “It’s been over 25 years that this has existed.”

But now, in a proposal to revise the regulations, the department is seeking to end the exemption, which currently covers some 20,000 children, or roughly 7 percent of the city’s preschoolers.

“We felt that these children should have all the oversight, in terms of health and safety, that other children have,” Ms. Leighton said. After a period of public comment that will end on July 30, the Board of Health will vote on the proposal, probably at its September meeting.

The proposed changes have prompted sharp statements over the last two weeks from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and Orthodox rabbis across Brooklyn.

“The costs are prohibitive, and it’s impossible technically because of space concerns,” said Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, a group that serves a generally low-income Hasidic community. “If these schools have to comply with teacher-student ratios and other issues, this will drive the costs up, and the schools will not be able to raise the funds.”

Even at well-financed schools, the proposals have troubled administrators long used to operating without many of the constraints that apply to other private preschools.

The other day, at the prestigious Yeshivah of Flatbush, Dennis Eisenberg, the school’s executive vice president, pointed to a roomful of 3-year-olds, the boys wearing skullcaps decorated with cars and trucks. There were 16 children in the classroom, one more than the proposed regulations would permit.

“They would tell me to send one of these children home,” said Mr. Eisenberg, whose school serves 2,140 children, 340 of them preschoolers. “That’s not acceptable.”

He also objected to the provision regarding teacher certification, under which some of the preschool’s Israeli instructors might not be qualified. “What’s being imposed on us is how to teach these children, what kind of personnel to use,” he said.

But Ms. Leighton said the city was “focusing on health and safety issues,” not meddling with the schools’ curriculums. She said the agency could accommodate religious schools by granting waivers and time extensions, and by recognizing nonstandard credentials for instructors. “We’re willing to work with them,” she said.


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