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New York to send its four-year-olds into the classroom. Mayor's panel sees benefits for poor; but are kids ready?

Starting September, more four-year-olds in New York City will be trundling off to ``school.'' In an effort to make prekindergarten programs available to all of the city's estimated 100,000 four-year-olds -- some 48,000 are already in programs now -- a mayoral commission has recommended phasing in formal preschool instruction throughout the city.

Although the program would be optional, there are some who worry that bringing education to four-year-olds means pushing children ahead too quickly.

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Supporters answer that preschool programs offer long-term educational and social benefits. It's only for a few hours a day. And in a city like New York, such a program would reach the families that need it most, they say.

Currently, many middle- and upper-income families that can afford preschool do enroll their children. Poverty families that qualify for day-care or Head Start programs also take advantage of them.

There are an estimated 40,000 children from near-poor families who would likely use preschool programs if they were available, says Virginia L. Thompson, executive director of the mayoral commission. Many of these homes are headed by single parents, working parents, or parents who speak little or no English. Their children would be greatly enriched, she says.

Other experts agree.

``My guess is . . . a number of kids in the city could benefit from the structured environment [of prekindergarten],'' says Lawrence Balter, a child psychologist from New York University. ``There is also evidence that children that do go to preschool have a better attitude toward learning.''

But, Dr. Balter says, the move should be made prudently. Schooling at age 4 will not be good for all children. Painstaking curriculum development must be done, and care taken not just to let kindergarten drip down to four-year-olds, and first-grade instruction to kindergarteners.

In studies of children who have participated in Head Start programs, the gains appear to wash out in several years. But these children are less apt to be put into special-education classes or to drop out later, long-term studies show.

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Many communities in the US have preschool programs, many targeted at poor families. The New York City proposal would make it the first large school district to offer universal programs.

And it appears that the debate over implementing the program here is more one of economics and turf than one of philosophy. The estimated cost of phasing in preschool over four years is $114 million a year.

When the commission was first proposed by Mayor Edward I. Koch, budget conditions were much different, Dr. Thompson says. Little money is available from the state of federal governments.

The city will pass its budget in May, says Marian L. Schwartz of the mayor's office. ``We are up in the air as to scope and scale,'' she says. She adds that the program will be initiated in September, regardless. Phasing in will go a bit slower than the commission envisioned, she says.

Because money is tight, one concern from existing programs is allocation of that money. In its study of what is in place in the city, the commission looked at three public systems -- day care and Head Start, both funded by the Agency for Child Development, and the Board of Education's experimental prekindergarten program. The report recommends expanding early childhood education programs, based on these systems.

Majorie McAllister, director of the Early childhood unit for the Board of Education, agrees that there are legitimate questions about implementation -- how to maintain programs, address salary inequities, maintain quality without giving unfair advantage to some.

Felicia George, president of the Early Childhood Education Council in New York City, echoes the concern that public schools will draw children and teachers from other programs. And some programs, particularly in minority communities, are skeptical of a system they say is not working well for their children.

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