first steps

Anxiety at public daycare centers as system overhaul gears up

Students at the Stagg Street Center for Children

On a recent morning at Stagg Street Center for Children, in Williamsburg, a class of 4-year-olds put up an abstract, angular structure in the first-floor art gallery. The were inspired by Louise Nevelson’s “Sky Cathedral,” which they had seen on a recent trip to MOMA. Later, that same class sculpted in clay with a visiting artist, while a portable kiln warmed up behind them.

For more than four decades, Larry Provette, Stagg Street’s director, has provided rich, arts-focused experiences for low-income children in his neighborhood. But he fears that Stagg Street might not be around much longer.

That’s because a city initiative to boost early childhood education is requiring every publicly funded daycare center, from mom-and-pop operations working out of apartments to larger centers housed in city facilities, to prove that they are worthy of city funding. Directors welcomed the news late last week that their deadline to do so has been pushed back a month, to Sept. 12.

That deadline is for the first step in an ambitious overhaul, called EarlyLearn, of the city’s public daycare system. Under EarlyLearn, the city’s 647 daycare programs and family care networks, which together served 51,766 children in 2010-2011, will have to meet higher academic and developmental standards starting in 2013. By September, all programs must reapply for approval from the Administration for Children’s Services, which funds and oversees them. The proposals must describe each center’s existing programs and outline how they will be updated to meet the new standards. ACS and the Department of Education, which will help review applications, plan to announce which centers will receive new contracts in March 2012.

The new standards are steep: Programs must show how they provide support to parents, create a challenging curriculum that prepares students for kindergarten and instruct children in health and safety. They need to find more time for staff development, guarantee service for children with special needs and be assessed annually according to a new grading program. Children will need to be screened for health, social and hygienic needs and assessed for academic gains. Some programs will have to expand their hours of operation. And for the first time, centers will need to pay for a portion of this themselves.

The change is coming at a time when national focus is shifting to early childhood education. In May, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that $500 million in Race to the Top funds would be set aside for states that promise to boost their child care systems. EarlyLearn predates Duncan’s announcement but could help New York State’s bid, which Sherry Cleary, co-chair of the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisory Council, characterized as a “strong contender.”

Many center directors and early childhood experts applaud the spirit behind EarlyLearn. But they also say ACS isn’t giving centers enough time or money to overhaul themselves, and that the initiative could end up hurting some centers more than it helps the system.

The New Deal

The changes are meant to unify a sprawling system of daycare centers that have long ranged in quality and character.

“There is definitely a disparity [in quality],” said Letitia James, the Brooklyn City Councilwoman. “I’ve spoken to schools in my district about daycare centers, asking them if they come to school prepared. They can identify the children that come from certain daycare centers, because they are developmentally delayed.”

The impetus behind EarlyLearn is a desire to improve strong programs while pushing weaker ones to catch up — or be closed. 

“While the existing system has many high quality programs, the standards and services available vary based on funding stream,” Melanie Hartzog, the deputy commissioner for child care and head start at ACS, wrote in an email. “It is our goal to move to a system where services are seamless for families and all programs regardless of setting are resourced to provide successful learning environments for young children.”

In short, that means becoming more like a Head Start program. Head Start, a half-century-old federal initiative  that aims to help poor children start kindergarten on par with their middle-class peers, sets out over 1,700 standards for its programs, more than 250 of which are operating in the city. Head Start programs are considered rigorous and comprehensive, and studies show that Head Start graduates are more likely to complete high school and less likely to be charged with a crime.

“If you’re not ready, if you don’t want to be a Head Start, you’re still going to want to look at that program, and look in that direction,” Wendy Raver, an education consultant, told 15 childcare center directors at a recent workshop on how to craft their EarlyLearn proposals.

With what money?

But replicating the rigor of a Head Start comes with a hefty price tag, one that some center directors say they will not be able to afford. Since 2006, the city has spent more on daycare even as the number of children served has declined, according to a 2010 report from the city’s Independent Budget Office. And while City Council largesse has meant that only 10 programs have shut their doors in the past two years, budget cuts have gutted ACS’s central administration. 

“There have been across-the-board staff reductions since 2008,” said Elysia Murphy Carnevale, an ACS spokeswoman. “Agency-wide, we have gone through several rounds of budget cuts in response to the fiscal crisis. On top of that, the city has been facing a significant deficit in the childcare system.”

“This is an incredibly critical moment for the system,” said Betty Holcomb, Policy Director for the Center for Children’s Initiatives, a nonprofit that is currently analyzing EarlyLearn to determine whether the requirements can be met within ACS’s proposed budget.

Many center directors have already concluded that EarlyLearn is an impossible task for them right now. “It’s going to put us all out of business,” said Provette. “All programs are at risk, very much so.”

Wendy Raver’s workshop was sponsored by the Daycare Council, a membership organization that provides assistance to child care centers, to help directors write their proposals. At the workshop, she acknowledged daycare providers’ concerns about being able to meet the new requirements.

“There’s going to be a lot of centers at the table that don’t have this now,” Raver said. “You’re going to have to show in your proposals what steps you’re going to take to get there.”

One director, who wished to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize her proposal, complained that she lacked the personnel to implement the changes.

“Some of our employees only have a high school degree,” she said. “Now I have to train them to design a curriculum, and at the same time you’re cutting my budget?” (The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which sets the licensing requirements, said that daycare classroom teachers have always been required to hold a Bachelor’s degree.)

Andrea Anthony, the executive director of the Daycare Council, said there could be ways to meet some of the EarlyLearn standards without spending more money.

“Our official position is that it’s not enough money to provide the services that they are asking for,” Anthony said. “But there are options. … On some of this stuff we can get some help.”

She suggested, for example, that programs could meet a requirement that they teach about health by recruiting volunteers from local hospitals.

But even if centers can find ways to meet the new standards, they will still have to wrestle with two other financial pressures. Under EarlyLearn, ACS is now asking centers to pay for 6.7 percent of their operating costs, and, possibly, to shoulder their employees’ health care costs. Some leaders of nonprofit groups that support daycare centers say that these new stipulations cannot be met within the current budget.

“The funding formula will not meet the needs,” Liz Accles, of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, which provides services and assistance to public daycare centers, said. “The healthcare expenses that are said to be contained within the [budgeted rate] just don’t pan out when programs do their own analysis.”

She said she had concluded that EarlyLearn could not work while programs are already straining to provide services. “EarlyLearn is an interesting model in a time of ample funding,” she said, “not a time of protracted budgetary restrictions.”

Whether the time is ripe or not, directors are preparing for the change. At Stagg Street, Provette is figuring out ways to sell his program’s most valuable features, like his arts-focused curriculum, in its EarlyLearn application. But he worries that he still might not make the cut. “That would be devastating for this community,” he said.

 


EarlyLearn Comparison Chart

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.