Early Education

Mayor Ballard praises revived city preschool plan

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Mayor Greg Ballard, speaking to the media in August, hailed a deal with City-County Council Democrats on his proposed plan to offer tuition aid for preschool.

Mayor Greg Ballard’s plan to enroll hundreds of poor children in a city preschool program next year took a big step forward Tuesday thanks to a compromise with the City-County Council’s Democratic leadership.

Ballard today praised the scaled-down deal for a $40 million, five-year plan funded by city funds and philanthropic aid brokered by Council Vice President John Barth. The plan is similar to the one Ballard first proposed over the summer as part of a wider effort to address the city’s growing crime rate.

“Today marks a great day for the future of our city and its children,” Ballard said in a statement. “Four months ago, I proposed a holistic approach to make our city safer by addressing the root causes of crime and poverty, including a plan to make preschool affordable to families in need. Indy is now positioning itself as a leader in local support for preschool.”

Ballard said there was no doubt more students in preschool would benefit the city.

“The research is clear – children from low-income families who attend high-quality preschool do better in school later in life and are less likely to get in trouble with the law as juveniles and as adults,” he said in the statement. “I encourage the council to get this agreement on my desk so I can sign it and we can start enrolling children in preschool next year.”

Ballard’s plan derailed because it didn’t have the support of top Democrats on the council, who didn’t like his preferred approach to pay for the preschool through the repeal of a local homestead tax credit. But talks have continued. What came out of the talks was a compromise: a slightly smaller, $40 million plan aimed at poor three- and four-year-olds, according to Barth.

The new plan will prioritize the poorest children first starting with families of four earning up to $30,290. City dollars used to support the new plan include $1.7 million that was saved through a change to the homestead tax credit program, higher interest expected from city investments, and money saved from the mayor’s education office budget if it decides separately to assess 1 percent fee to charter schools.

“My belief going in was we wanted to take a deep, rather than wide approach,” Barth said. “This is exactly how government should work. That people are willing to continue to come to the table and come to some consensus (is good for) the longterm health of the city.”

Deputy Mayor for Education Jason Kloth said the Office of Education Innovation, which is funded by an approximately $600,000 appropriation, has been thinking for some time of assessing a 1 percent fee to the charter schools it authorizes and that it is in the process of talking to its 39 schools about the fee. He said if that happens, the mayor’s education innovation office would no longer need a separate appropriation, so that money could be used to pay for the preschool plan.

“Our hope would be the council would consider reallocating those funds for an educational purpose, potentially preschool,” Kloth said.

Eli Lilly and Company and other corporate groups, which plan to give $10 million to make the plan work, were a key group in making progress on the compromise. Eli Lilly executives said the philanthropic support was contingent on city leaders coming together to find a workable solution this year.

“Both sides really stuck through this, through some difficult times,” said Michael O’Connor, the company’s director of state government affairs. “We’re pleased that this represents a true compromise. We are comfortable that a $40 million plan is substantial and impactful and will really be catalytic in getting this moving in a statewide manner.”

(Read more: Click here to read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage on Ballard’s preschool plan and the ongoing negotiations.)

The revived plan was hailed by preschool advocates in the city, including Early Learning Indiana president Ted Maple.

“I’m excited about our leaders coming together to create what appears to be a good solution,” Maple said. “Obviously, if a disadvantaged child has two years of high-quality preschool, I believe the impact will be greater. It’s still a very significant plan and I think it will help a lot of young children and families. It would really put Indianapolis on the map nationally with regard to the city taking on a leadership role in early childhood education.”

Stand for Children director Justin Ohlemiller, whose organization advocates for change in Indianapolis Public Schools and at the state level, said the compromise was a good sign for continued momentum to expand access to preschool.

“We have to look at the entire continuum of education for our children,” Ohlemiller said. “Anytime you have funding that will increase capacity for early childhood education, those institutions including IPS that see preschool as a key to the future of our children will jump in and try to expand their offerings. It’s absolutely necessary in IPS.”

The new plan will be formally introduced at Monday’s City Council meeting, where it is expected to have support of as many as nine cosponsors from both parties. Some Democrats, including Councilwoman Angela Mansfield, said in recent weeks the city should pursue other priorities ahead of preschool, like expanding animal control efforts and saving trees that are dying because of the deadly emerald ash borer beetle.

“With any proposal, you start by building a coalition and then you grow it based on the quality of your idea,” Barth said. “There’s no doubt that emerald ash borer is an issue to be dealt with. You weigh this opportunity versus addressing emerald ash borer. The priority’s pretty clear. That’s the debate we’ll be having.”

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.”