How Preschool Works in New York

A 10-minute guide to preschool and child care in New York, with a special section on programs in New York City. Learn about licensing laws, instructor training, and enrollment requirements — everything you need to know to choose the right program for your child.

Takeaway: Both New York State and New York City have impressive offerings of publicly-funded preschool and pre-K programs — among the best in the nation. New York’s requirements for preschool providers are also among the strictest in the country. Parents may access information about the criminal record checks of all caregivers, and they may find recent inspection and violation histories for any programs they’re considering. While figuring out the differences between licensure and registration — and ascertaining whether the state, city, or a local agency has authority over a particular program — is not a straightforward task, the state’s stellar offerings and generally vigilant oversight make it a promising place to search for child care.

New York State

Overview

New York State has some of the strictest child care regulations in the country. It licenses and regulates legal center-based and home-based preschools. The New York State Office of Children and Family Services oversees all preschools, with the exception of smaller home-based preschools, which are overseen by local Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, and New York City center-based preschools, which are mostly overseen by the Administration for Children’s Services.

The state’s pre-K program is one of the best in the country, with nearly 100,000 enrolled students and programs offered across 65 percent of districts. Last year, the state allocated $340 million to universal pre-K, funding that opened up 37,000 seats across 81 school districts.

New York has a database search that lets you filter by location, school district, and services offered. Results (if you click on the blue “i”) display capacity, contact information, the previous two years of compliance history, and registration details. If you have questions about preschools in your area, you can often get a person on the phone at one of the regional offices.

Center-Based Care

There are two types of center-based child care options: child day care centers and small day care centers. Child day care centers are non-residence facilities in which more than six children, aged six weeks through 12 years, are cared for. Small day care centers are also non-residence facilities in which up to six children, aged six weeks through 12 years, are cared for. In the small day care setting, no more than two children under age two may be cared for simultaneously. If a child under age two is present, the maximum capacity of a small day care center is reduced from six to five. Both types of center-based care require providers to be licensed.

All child care centers must meet certain staffing requirements. They must have a director, who is required to be a certified teacher trained in early childhood education with at least two years of teaching experience. If a center cares for children under the age of two, it must employ a group teacher for infants. To be qualified for this position, a candidate must be over age 19 and possess an associate’s degree in early childhood education, child development associate certification along with a study plan for an associate’s degree, or a high school diploma or GED with at least nine credits in early childhood education along with a study plan for an associate’s degree and one year of experience working with infants or toddlers. Teachers charged with caring for children ages two through six must possess a New York State Teaching Certificate or be enrolled in a Department of Health–approved study plan that leads to NYS teaching certification. Assistant teachers must be at least 19 years old and possess a high school diploma, 60 college credits, or a child development associate’s degree. Everyone working or volunteering at a licensed day care center must undergo a criminal history record check and fingerprinting. In addition, according to state law, parents may access the criminal records of caregivers, and they may visit the facilities caring for their children at any time.

Child care centers must meet mandatory caregiver-to-child ratios, which vary based on the ages of the children being cared for. The ratios are 1:3 with a maximum group size of eight for children ages two months through one year; 1:5 with a maximum group size of ten for children ages one to to years; 1:6 with a maximum group size of 12 for children ages two to three years; 1:10 with a maximum group size of 15 for children ages three to four years; 1:12 with a maximum group size of 20 for children ages four to five years; and 1:15 with a maximum group size of 25 for children ages five to six years.

All licensed facilities are inspected four to six times per year. Most of these visits are unannounced; they are only announced when a facility is scheduled for a license renewal or requires technical assistance. Additional visits also take place following any complaints or reports of injury to a child.

Home-Based Care

In terms of licensing and requirements, home-based programs are similar to their center-based counterparts. There are two types of home-based preschools: group family day care homes and family day care homes. Group family day care homes are licensed, whereas family day care homes are registered. From an oversight perspective, the two types are very similar; both are monitored and inspected regularly (typically four to six times per year, or more often in the event of complaints or child injuries). The two principal differences mostly affect providers, not parents. In the first place, the application materials for providers are different for licensed day cares than for registered ones. In the second place, family day care centers are often overseen not by the state, but instead by local Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. You can call the nearest regional office to find out who oversees the day care(s) you’re considering.

Like the employees of center-based child care facilities, home-based caretakers must undergo criminal history record checks as well as fingerprinting. In addition, any resident in the home age 18 or older must similarly undergo the criminal history record check and fingerprinting, even if that person does not work directly with the day care or children. A provider’s failure to comply results in a violation and is reported as such in that day care’s database record.

Group family day cares are larger than family day cares. Group family day cares may care for seven to 12 children in a family home. (These programs may also care for up to four additional school-aged children outside of school hours.) All children younger than school age — including those related to the provider — must be counted in the maximum group size. Caregiver-to-child ratio requirements dictate that there must be one staff member for every two children under age two. In addition, when more than six children who are less than school age are being cared for, the provider must have at least one assistant. Family day cares may care for three to six children in a family home. (These programs may care for up to two additional school-aged children outside of school hours.) Both types of in-home day care may serve children ages six weeks through 12 years.

Unlicensed Care

There are two types of unlicensed care in New York: programs that are not required to register and programs that are license exempt. Programs like nursery schools, which provide care for three hours or less, can voluntarily register with the state but are not required to do so otherwise. License-exempt programs are permitted to operate unlicensed and unregulated. Exempt programs include summer camps, religious instruction programs, certain small in-home care programs, and informal care arrangements.

It is illegal to operate a day care for more than two children who are unrelated to the provider for more than three hours per day. While the state does not actively seek out illegal unlicensed day cares, it does investigate reports of or complaints about such facilities. When the state discovers an illegal unlicensed preschool, it typically endeavors either to get it shut down or to help the provider become legally licensed.

New York City

Overview

The state oversees center-based preschool programs outside of New York City as well as most home-based preschool programs within New York City. The majority of the city’s licensed programs are center-based, however, and the Administration for Children’s Services oversees these. While the home-based NYC preschools are largely searchable on the New York State database described above, their center-based counterparts can typically be found in the New York City database. The latter allows parents to search by name, program type, borough, neighborhood, zip code, or permit number. It also has search options to find city-funded programs as well as programs that accept vouchers or cash assistance, both of which are options for families who meet certain eligibility criteria. Each listed preschool has its own profile, which provides information about the size of the program and ages of children served, the number of staff and turnover rate, the year the program was established, a performance summary comparing that center to others across the city, and a list of several years of inspection reports and violations. (Inspections seem to take place anywhere from two to several — in some cases, many — times per year.)

Like New York State in general — only more so — New York City has stellar publicly-funded preschool offerings. Within the Administration for Children’s Services is the Division of Early Care and Education, which runs the largest publicly-funded child care system in the country. This system serves about 120,000 children each year. Through its groundbreaking EarlyLearn NYC program, ACS administers Child Care, Head Start, and Universal Pre-K for children ages six weeks to four years. To participate in Child Care and Head Start programs, families must meet financial or social eligibility requirements. A listing of programs can be found by borough: Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. The above eligibility requirements apply to subsidized Child Care and Head Start programs only, though — Universal Pre-K is, as its name suggests, open to all families with children entering pre-kindergarten. The UPK site provides access to resources in several languages, and it allows families to search for UPK programs based on location.

Center-Based Care

There is one type of center-based care in New York City: group day care. These programs may serve seven or more children ages birth through six years. They are required to be licensed, and they are overseen by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Bureau of Day Care, which conducts the required facility inspections. Caregiver-to-child ratios vary by the ages of the children served. For those under 12 months, the required ratios are 1:4 or 1:3, with a maximum group size of eight per room or area. For children ages one to two, the required ratio is 1:5, with a maximum group size of ten. For children ages two to under three, the required ratio is 1:6, with a maximum group size of 12. For children ages three to under four, the required ratio is 1:10, with a maximum group size of 15. For children ages four to under five, the required ratio is 1:12, with a maximum group size of 20. Finally, for children ages five to under six, the required ratio is 1:15, with a maximum group size of 25. Infants are not allowed to be mixed with older children, and at least one CPR-trained staff member must be present on the premises at all times.

Home-Based Care

As in New York State, there are two types of home-based care in New York City: group family day care and family day care. Group family day cares are licensed and serve between seven and 12 children ages six weeks to 12 years. These are overseen by the state as well as the city’s Bureau of Day Care, the latter of which conducts required inspections of new providers. Family day cares are registered (rather than licensed) and serve between three and six children ages six weeks to six years. These are also overseen by the state as well as the Bureau of Day Care, the latter of which conducts inspections of 20 percent of randomly-sampled programs. Caregiver-to-child ratio standards require one staff member for every two children under age two. In addition, when there are more than six children who are less than school age, a provider must have at least one assistant. As with center-based programs, home-based child care facilities must have at least one CPR-trained staff member on the premises at all times.

Unlicensed Care

Legal unlicensed care programs, also known as “informal care,” operate in the absence of licensing standards. Unlicensed care usually takes the form of babysitting for one or two children. These programs are still required to be approved and monitored by New York City’s legally-exempt enrollment agency, and they may also be inspected following parent complaints. Unlicensed larger daily programs lasting more than three hours are not legal and, if reported, will be investigated and, as necessary, closed down.

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