Starting young

City reports improvement in Pre-K for All, shares individual site ‘snapshots’

PHOTO: Rob Bennett
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits pre-K class at P.S. 239 with Chancellor Carmen Fariña in 2014.

The quality of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K program is on the rise, according to new data released by the city’s Department of Education. And starting Tuesday, parents will have access to individual “Pre-K Quality Snapshots” to help them choose the right program.

Pre-K for All, the mayor’s signature education initiative, now serves more than 70,000 students in roughly 1,800 schools and community-based centers.

The Department of Education hasn’t assessed each of those sites, but has observed more than 1,500 of them over the past two years. On one measure, which uses a 7-point scale, 84 percent of the sites evaluated between 2013 and 2016 earned a 3.4 or higher, the threshold that indicates a positive effect on students, according to city officials. That’s up from 77 percent of the sites evaluated between 2012 and 2015.

“We’re really pleased with the results we’re seeing so far,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who oversees the program. “I think it really validates the approach the mayor and chancellor took to build quality while also expanding access.”

The evaluation tool, known as the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale – Revised, includes a three-and-a-half hour inspection to evaluate things like whether the students are engaged in regular conversation, classroom furniture is child-sized, and a wide selection of books are provided.

Steven Barnett, a Rutgers University professor who has studied preschool, said that New York’s scores are as good or better than those of other cities with pre-K programs in place for roughly the same length of time.

“To be in the second year of this rapid expansion and be doing this well, I think, is great,” he said. Ultimately, he added, the programs should aim for even higher scores. “This is the starting point, not the end point,” he said.

On a second measure, known as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, evaluators determine whether teachers are providing emotional support for their students, managing classrooms appropriately and encouraging student learning. On average, the programs improved slightly between 2014-15 and 2015-16 in the first two categories, but dipped slightly in the third, though still rating high enough to be considered effective, according to past research.

Also on Tuesday, the education department released public report cards on nearly every site. The “Pre-K Quality Snapshots” include each program’s scores on various assessments, along with families’ responses to survey questions on issues like safety and trust.

“We tried to make it really clear and concise, but at the same time we’re trying to give families a really holistic view,” said Wallack.

The reports are similar to the snapshots released for public schools, which were unveiled under Mayor Bill de Blasio in an attempt to provide more nuanced information about school performance than the A-F grades issued under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Cybele Raver, a senior vice provost at New York University, helped create the pre-K snapshots and said she’s encouraged by what she’s seen thus far.

“Giving kids more opportunities to go to preschool is a really important goal nationally, as well as a city and state priority,” she said. “But with that, we often run into the concern that with expanded access we might be at risk for lower quality.” This report, she said, “provides really good evidence that that’s not the case.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect the dates programs were evaluated.

(Very) early education

With a major but little-noticed move, New York City signals that learning starts at birth

PHOTO: Rob Bennett
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits pre-K class at P.S. 239 with Chancellor Carmen Fariña in 2014.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans last month to extend pre-K to 3-year-olds, a massive expansion of his popular Pre-K for All program. But a little-noticed element of the proposal could be just as significant: He called for the Department of Education to take over programs that reach children as young as six weeks old.

As planned, the department would create a cradle-to-college approach that shepherds students and families from infancy through 12th grade. The shift signals a recognition that learning starts at birth — and so do the inequities that drag down academic achievement later in life.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, called the decision “a big deal” and said it would put New York City in line with other nations that already prioritize infant and toddler learning.

“If you aren’t creating a really nurturing environment where there’s opportunity for learning and exploration for infants and toddlers,” he said, “you’re actually cementing a set of challenges in terms of how their brains develop and what their opportunities are going to be once they get to the point of pre-K or kindergarten.”

Under the proposal, the education department would assume responsibility for EarlyLearn programs, which currently fall under the purview of the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services. EarlyLearn was launched under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to streamline services for low-income families enrolled in Head Start pre-K or home-based daycare, for example.

Now, the city plans to take that consolidation even further, with Pre-K for All serving as a model. The city has been lauded for quickly rolling out universal pre-K for 4-year-olds while also ensuring quality through teacher training and regular site reviews.

“We really want to extend that structure to the younger ages and help all these programs get better,” Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in an interview.

At a city budget hearing Tuesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the mayor’s executive budget proposal includes more than $20 million to improve EarlyLearn programs. She also stressed that bringing early childhood services under the Department of Education will help students make a seamless transition to elementary school and enlist parents as early partners in their children’s education.

“Our commitment is just to start with kids — especially with literacy skills — as early as possible,” Fariña told Council members.

Consolidating programs could also simplify a process that now forces low-income parents to navigate four different city agencies for child care and creates a compliance maze for providers.

“It’s just easier when you’re dealing with one coherent system,” Wallack said.

Success is far from guaranteed. With more than a million students, the education department already oversees the country’s largest school system. EarlyLearn programs serve about 20,000 children ages 3 and younger.

Experts said the DOE will have to resist the perhaps natural inclination to focus too narrowly on preparing children for academics, when much of early childhood education should center around social and emotional learning.

“There are right and wrong ways to do education for those children, but children at that age are learning,” said Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president of advocacy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “Ideally, though, you’re going to create a segment of the education system where the joy of learning is actively cultivated.”

It remains to be seen just how sweeping the shift in responsibility will be. At least initially, the streamlining will only go so far: Voucher programs that help families afford child care are expected to remain under ACS.

Gregory Brender, co-director of policy and advocacy at the United Neighborhood Houses, which pushes for affordable childcare, said there are still unanswered questions. Discrepancies in pay between educators in city-run and privately-run centers, he said, will be chief among the concerns that will now fall to the DOE to resolve.

“What does [this move] look like for parents? We don’t really know yet,” he said. “And we don’t even know what that looks like for providers.”

top honors

New York City’s Pre-K for All recognized among top ‘Innovations in American Government’

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

New York City’s universal pre-K program already earns high marks from parents and early childhood experts. On Tuesday, the city gained another recognition.

The Ash Center, a research institute at Harvard University, named New York City’s Pre-K for All as one of this year’s “Top 25 Innovations in American Government.” The city is also one of seven finalists for the grand prize, which recognizes “excellence and creativity in the public sector.” The winner will be announced later this summer, and could be used as a case study by the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on the promise of providing free pre-K for every four-year-old in the city. Today, there are 70,000 students enrolled in Pre-K for All — a more than threefold increase since 2013-14.

The mayor recently announced plans to expand pre-K to all of the city’s 3-year-olds by 2021, an ambitious undertaking that would require $700 million in state and federal funding to become a reality.

“New York City recognizes the importance of investing in our youngest learners, and giving them the vocabulary and socio-emotional foundation they need to thrive in kindergarten and beyond,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.