Mayor Bill de Blasio greeted scores of prekindergarten students Thursday on the first day of school and the first day of his ambitious expansion of early childhood education.
"Everything that we've done over the last few years is working toward this day," de Blasio said after visiting a classroom at Inner Force Tots in Brooklyn, a community-based organization that's part of the pre-K program.
He said full-day pre-K "is one of the fundamental ways to shake the foundation of this school system."
City officials said 51,500 full-day pre-K students were enrolled as of Thursday, up from 20,000 last year. They said the number will be up to 53,000 by the end of the month.
De Blasio a first-term Democrat who made expanded pre-K the main theme of his mayoral campaign last year, celebrated his achievement by visiting classrooms in all five boroughs.
"We made it the centerpiece of all we tried to do. For Chirlane and I, this is a moment of fulfillment," he said, referring to his wife, Chirlane McCray.
Parents at Inner Force Tots said they were thrilled to have access to publicly funded pre-K.
"It's a relief to bring her here," said Mbango Arnold, dropping off daughter Binta. "It's free, which is a big help. I'm glad this is happening."
Falicia Griffith said she expects pre-K to give her son Jeremiah a boost.
"As a parent, I'll see the difference when a kid starts with pre-K rather than kindergarten," she predicted.
Many of the city's new pre-K seats are in religious schools that have been given guidelines on keeping religious instruction out of their public-school classes.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan joined de Blasio and McCray on Staten Island at the Sacred Heart School, which has tripled its pre-K capacity this year.
"Mayor, I have bad news," Dolan joked. "We missed the snack."
De Blasio told a Sacred Heart student who was building a treehouse with blocks, "You're an architect, you know that? You're building a house."
De Blasio and McCray later read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to pre-K students at Home Sweet Home, a community-based organization in Queens.
The victory lap was meant to calm fears that the city might be expanding pre-K too rapidly.
City officials announced this week that nine pre-K centers wouldn't open and start dates of 36 others would be delayed. Safety and integrity concerns were behind the decision to revoke contracts at the nine centers, which were to serve 265 students.
De Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said they were unaware of any pre-K centers that did not open as scheduled Thursday.
Thursday was also the first day of school for most of the rest of the city's 1.1 million public school students. Some charter schools started earlier.
Laila Ortiz said she was excited to start third grade at Public School 33 in Chelsea.
"I'm starting to get smarter and better at other things," Laila said.
Fifth-grader Rowan McCurdy and her father, Michael McCurdy, came bearing bouquets.
"We bring the flowers for the teacher, and that's for the principal," Michael McCurdy said. "We do it every year."