Early Education

Ballard's education plan praised for boldness

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Preschoolers at Shepherd Community Center last year.

Mayor Greg Ballard won praise today for his $50 million plan to combat crime with programs that aim to get kids in school sooner and keep them there longer.

Under his proposal, city and private dollars would aim to send 1,300 more poor children to preschool, while also studying ways to reduce class time older students lose to suspension, expulsion or by dropping out of school.

But even with strong support — his office sent out statements written by 10 community leaders of groups ranging from free market-focused Friedman Foundation to the Urban League, which advocates on issues of race and poverty  — the changes he proposed are complex and leave unanswered questions.

Among them:

  • Can school districts afford his plan? Tax changes to fund Ballard’s plan could cost Marion County schools more than $3 million in revenue. He argues it will offer support for their preschoolers and future students.
  • Should the state play a bigger role? If enacted, Indianapolis’ preschool program would dwarf a small statewide pilot that Gov. Mike Pence just celebrated as his signature 2014 legislative accomplishment.
  • Can the city’s preschool system even support the plan? More preschools will have to earn high ratings to accommodate 1,300 new preschoolers Ballard hopes to serve.
  • Will it put concerns about discipline of black boys on the agenda? A series of recent studies suggest black children, especially boys, are disciplined more often and more severely than their peers, but efforts to address the problem stalled earlier this year.
  • Will a $50 million investment in children make a difference? Ballard is banking that, in the long run, better educated children will become more productive citizens, and that will pay off in lower crime rates.

Even with those challenges, preschool advocates praised Ballard for thinking boldly.

“The plan is really big, and it moves us beyond that pilot stage into a full implementation,” said Ted Maple, executive director of Day Nursery Association. “We’ll reach a critical mass of children.”

Costs raise concern

First Ballard needs to get the plan approved by the City-County Council, and council President Maggie Lewis is among those who want more information about its costs and how they will be paid.

“It’s important the mayor sit down with council leadership and talk this through,” she said. “I’ve been a strong advocate for quality preschool. But I am concerned that this plan will take dollars away from our existing education structure.”

Indeed, Ballard’s plan to raise funds for preschool by eliminating the homestead tax credit would trigger a cascade of effects to the county’s tax structure that could result in an estimated loss of more than $3 million to its school districts.

But Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth argued that Ballard’s plan is actually the best case scenario for schools when compared to several other proposals in recent years to cut the homestead credit and use the money for other city priorities.

“At some point the homestead tax credit is going to be eliminated and it won’t benefit school districts when it does,” Kloth said.

Most of the school districts in the city serve children from low-income families, who will come to them better prepared if they have attended high quality preschool, he said. Also, Kloth said, school districts, such as Indianapolis Public Schools, that offer preschool can directly benefit from the program. When new students from low-income families are enrolled, a share of the $50 million can be used as matching funds to support them.

Districts with preschool can also apply for grants to help raise the quality ratings of their preschool programs.

“Most school districts are going to more than make up for it in revenue through the program,” Kloth said.

IPS has been rapidly expanding its own preschool offerings, and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee praised Ballard’s proposal.

“I am pleased to hear that Mayor Ballard is proposing a variety of plans to curb the culture of violence, including pre-kindergarten scholarships for families challenged by poverty,” he said. “Indianapolis Public Schools is aware of the positive impact early childhood education can have as it sets students up for a more successful future; that’s why we’re proud to expand our pre-k program again this year.”

State’s pilot program starts up

Marion County is one of five Indiana counties named recently to receive funds from the state’s first-ever pilot program to do just what Ballard proposes to do: offer direct aid to poor families to enroll their children in preschool. If everything goes as planned, the state pilot and the city’s support for preschool would both launch in the 2015-16 school year.

The difference is the statewide program is just $15 million in public and private money, less than a third the size of Ballard’s proposal. Indianapolis’ share of financial support for poor preschoolers from the state pilot program isn’t likely to exceed $3 million.

But with the state’s biennial budget session coming in January, there is optimism that the pilot could soon get more money and serve more kids.

“I do believe in the next budget we will have more money in it for preschool,” said Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the House Education Committee.

In fact, Ballard’s approach of encouraging public and private partnership to expand preschool mirrors the state pilot — which will match $10 million in state funds with $5 million in privately-raised funds.

“This is what we would like to see communities across the state do” Behning said, “leverage public and private resources to make a difference for kids.”

Investing in quality

A requirement of both the city and state programs is to ensure that children using the tuition aid they offer spend those dollars at high-rated preschool. The state has a voluntary four-step rating system called Paths to Quality. To receive public dollars, both programs require a 3 or 4 rating.

That’s because all preschool programs aren’t equal. High-quality programs meet stringent health and safety standards as well as provide engaging, age-appropriate curriculum for children that prepares them for kindergarten.

But only 15 percent of the city’s nearly 800 providers currently are considered high-quality.

“If we’re not investing in high-quality programs, this isn’t going to have the impact we want,” Maple said.

The scholarships will make an immediate impact on already high-quality providers that have spots available. What’s stopping them now from serving more children is that their programs are cost-prohibitive, Maple said.

About $10 million, a fifth of the mayor’s program, will go toward grants creating more space in schools that already have strong ratings, helping existing preschools improve and creating more high-quality options.

“You’ll see a lot of providers step up to higher levels of quality,” Maple said.

Keeping kids in school

Another education-related phenomenon that Ballard suggested leads to crime is at the other end of the spectrum — older kids who are out of school, either due to discipline or because they dropped out.

“We are talking about hundreds of mostly teens who are cast into the streets,” Ballard said. “And we wonder why we have crime in our neighborhoods.”

To try to combat that problem, he proposed a study to examine the root cause of the most serious kinds of school discipline, which disproportionately affect black students. Ballard said 1,800 students in Indianapolis were expelled or dropped out of school last year, many of whom are black and from low-income families.

Mark Russell, education director for the Indianapolis Urban League, said the proposal is a step in the right direction.

“The discipline disparities, frankly, are obnoxious,” he said.

Ballard said he wants the study to be presented to a legislative study committee, which will likely meet in September. Proposed changes to state law aimed at addressing school discipline earlier this year were shelved to allow more time for lawmakers to research the issue.

Behning, the House education chairman, said Ballard is right to tackle the issue.

“The truth is, when you are looking at the population Ballard is talking about and dealing with crime, sometimes exactly what they want is to suspend or expel them or to put them out into the street,” Behning said.

Karega Rausch, a research associate at The Equity Project at Indiana University, agrees this study is a good first step. Keeping kids engaged and in school is important to the community, as is altering discipline systems in a way to ensure schools are both safe and productive.

But Russell and Rausch said they hoped the study would also address a problem with how discipline data is categorized: rather than choose one of 17 state categories for schools to explain severe discipline, the reasons many students are suspended or expelled is often listed as simply “other.”

Discovering the real reasons why kids face serious discipline should prompt schools to reconsider their policies, said Jamal Smith, executive director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

“We think that it is an issue and has been an issue for quite some time,” Smith said. “Statistically, all the data has built up over the years, and as they say on ESPN, the numbers don’t lie.”

The civil rights commission, Smith said, is already investigating racial disparities in discipline, which he said could eventually result in lawsuits on behalf of young people.

Schools might blame rapid demographic shifts, Smith said, but the problem is not a new one in many places, and schools must be held accountable.

“Unfortunately it not only speaks to the roles of education, specifically for young black boys, but it speaks to, indirectly, how it affects the community as a whole in a negative way,” Smith said.

Discipline disparity  is a problem that’s been overlooked for too long, said Rausch, who previously served as the city’s charter school director under Ballard.

“There’s something about race we have to figure out as a community together,” he said.

Will it make a difference?

When Pence jumped on board and helped push through the state pilot program earlier this year, it was a long delayed victory for advocates of public support for preschool.

The United Way was the agency most at the center of that push in recent years.

“The attention was really all on K-12,” Executive Director Ann Murtlow said. “No one was focused on birth to five-year-olds. In those early years, if the neural connections are not made, it’s not as simple as kids coming into kindergarten without knowledge. It impacts their physiological ability to be lifelong learners.”

Support for preschool has grown, especially in the business community.

“The attention on early childhood education really creates a good long term focus on improving our community,” Murtlow said. “When you’re working with young children, it’s going to be a long time before they are adults, but we’re providing the foundation for success.”

The more robust preschool system that Ballard envisions will have a trickle-up effect in the city’s schools, Maple said.

“It’s going to mean a lot for the city to have an education system that’s built on a stronger foundation,” he said.

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report. 

big debut

Memphis is about to open a major pre-K center. Advocates hope it’s just the start.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Porter-Leath's Early Childhood Academy readies for its grand opening on Friday. The center features a state-of-the-art preschool and teacher training institute.

Even the hallway walls of Memphis’ glowing new pre-K center are designed to engage 4-year-olds. Rows of textured blue grooves, symbolizing the city’s mighty Mississippi River, beg to be touched.

Classroom windows are positioned at eye level for small children to peek through. And an array of sturdy new props supports an environment for both learning and play.

Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy will open Friday as the first of its kind in Memphis. With 32,000 square feet of space developed with $9 million in private funding, the center will serve some 220 kids through Head Start, a federally funded program for the nation’s poorest children.

But equally important, the South Memphis center will become a hub of teacher training in an effort to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath serves children 5 and under in Head Start classrooms.

Porter-Leath has served the city’s poorest children since its founding in 1850 as an orphanage. Its offices are in the former orphanage building on land donated by Sarah Leath, a widow and mother who took the lead in organizing the charity. Today, the nonprofit organization has emerged as the lead provider of early childhood education in Memphis. In partnership with Shelby County Schools, it provides Head Start classrooms across the city and wraparound services such as special education screenings and health care.

Pre-K advocates are calling the new academy — and especially its focus on training quality pre-K teachers — unlike anything else in Tennessee.

How to define and measure “quality” pre-K has been a source of debate, especially since a Vanderbilt University study concluded in 2015 that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee pre-K classrooms flickered out by third grade. The surprising findings prompted a reexamination of the quality of early learning programs across Tennessee, and state lawmakers responded by passing a 2016 law designed to improve pre-K classrooms.

The new Memphis academy represents a major investment by Porter-Leath and its supporters to determine what practices are most effective in its own classrooms and to share those lessons across the city through teacher trainings. Speakers and highly ranked teachers will be brought in to share their expertise.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
An observation room allows teachers in training to peek into a classroom.

“Thanks to the classroom observation rooms, educators who just came from a seminar will be able to see that skill they just learned about in action,” said Rob Hugh, the organization’s development director. “Before they leave, they will have to go into the classroom and practice for themselves. We see this as a chance to raise the quality of our staff and the staffs of daycares throughout the city.”

Porter-Leath will provide “relief teachers” for those who can’t afford a substitute to encourage Memphis daycare operators to let their teachers take advantage of the training.

Tennessee has a three-star evaluation system for early childhood providers, but it focuses more on safety and health than quality of instruction, said Daphanie Swift, early childhood director at PeopleFirst Partnership, a coalition of business, government, academic and civic leaders.

“The vast number of child care providers in the city have a long way to go with providing quality education,” Swift said. “This new training academy is a new concept for early childhood, and we hope will raise the bar for rigor in instruction.”

Hughes said all of Porter-Leath’s 300 classrooms across the city, which serve almost 6,000 students a year, have three stars. However, only 15 classrooms reach the level of instructional quality required to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which Porter-Leath views as the gold standard.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A worker assembles toys at the new academy.

The 16 classrooms added under Porter-Leath’s new academy are significant as the city searches to provide more pre-K seats, especially in low-income areas.

The academy is located next to Alton Elementary School, a strategic move. The hope is that its pre-K students will feed the Shelby County school, which serves one of Memphis’ poorest zip codes.

Memphis has a shortage of quality pre-K seats, and the academy already has a wait list of 144 families. Estimates of how many income-eligible children lack access to quality pre-K range from 2,200 to 5,000.

Swift said that PeopleFirst Partnership will continue to push for more quality pre-K seats — and philanthropic support to pay for them. The coalition organized a pre-K summit last summer to discuss what impact a recent $70 million federal grant has made on Memphis pre-K so far.

“I think a light bulb has finally come on in the city that pre-K is a needed investment,” Swift said. “We have to pay attention to those critical years of 0-5. So much of what we’re trying to address, from crime to low third-grade reading levels, can be warned against in those early years.”