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.

Pre-K outcomes

New York City’s latest pre-K quality data includes success stories — and room for improvement

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.

At P.S. 276 Louis Marshall, there’s a “hand-to-hand” policy for pre-K students: Parents come straight to the classroom to drop off and pick up their children, who pass directly from the hands of their caregivers into those of their teachers.

Along the way, parents are encouraged to read a book with their child — classroom libraries are stocked with titles in parents’ native languages, like Arabic and Haitian Creole — or chat with a teacher about their child’s progress.

Principal Yasmine Fidelia says that has been the secret to becoming one of the most-improved pre-K programs in the city. According to data released this week by the city Department of Education, P.S. 276 in Canarsie, Brooklyn jumped from 2.6 to 4.6 on a 7-point scale. That is well above the 3.4 threshold to be considered an effective program.

“The parents and the teachers were able to work more closely because we have a hand-to-hand policy,” Fidelia said. “It just made it easier to form a relationship.”

As New York City raced to make free pre-K available for all 4-year-olds, fulfilling Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision, observers have worried about whether quality could keep up with access. On Tuesday, the city released a second round of pre-K data that shows there is plenty of room for improvement — but also that some centers seem to have benefitted from the Department of Education’s emphasis on teacher training and curriculum.

Citywide, 84 percent of the sites evaluated between 2013 and 2016 earned a 3.4 or higher — up from 77 percent of the sites evaluated between 2012 and 2015. The tool — the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale – Revised — relies on a three-and-a-half hour observation and assesses things like teachers’ interactions with their students and whether kids get enough time to play.

P.S. 335 Granville T. Woods, on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, also showed an impressive leap in scores.

The program’s initial review found that teachers needed to work on building their students’ language skills. With the help of an instructional coach who visits twice a month and an on-staff coach that the school dips into its own budget to fund, teachers learned how to encourage deeper conversations with and among their students.

Principal Karena Thompson said she can see the difference. Now, teachers will listen to their students speak and follow up with questions like, “How do you know that?” or “What makes you think that?”

“We’re trying to make sure that the conversation and the language we use strengthens their thinking,” Thompson said. “They’re naturally so curious, so you want to tap into that.”

While city officials have touted the overall improvement across Pre-K for All sites, an analysis by Families for Excellent Schools — a pro-charter group and fierce critic of the city’s Department of Education — found much to criticize.

In order to meet demand quickly, the city relied on both private organizations and existing public schools to provide pre-K seats, with a split that is now roughly 60/40 private vs. public. FES found that privately-run centers are far more likely to be rated “excellent” or “good,” according to the most recent year of ECERS-R data.

Their analysis found that 93 percent of privately-run sites were rated “good” or “excellent,” while only 84 percent of sites run by the Department of Education received those top ratings. The group also reported that city-run programs were far more likely to be rated “poor.”

The performance gap between private and public pre-K centers actually grew six times larger since 2015, according to the advocacy group.

Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, called the FES report “grossly misleading.” FES only looked at the most recent scores, which Kaye said does not reflect a representative sample of all sites. The report also ignored another evaluation tool used by the department, under which DOE-run pre-K sites perform slightly better, she added.

“The latest data shows that we’ve built quality along with access,” Kaye wrote in an email. “NYC programs’ improvement is on par with nationally recognized pre-K programs.”

Pre-K diversity

Many of New York City’s pre-K classrooms are highly segregated, according to new report

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

As a growing number of parents, educators and policy-makers debate the best way to integrate the city’s schools, one word rarely gets mentioned: pre-K.

A report released Tuesday by the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on inequality, hopes to change the conversation.

New York City’s pre-K classrooms are more segregated on average than its kindergarten classrooms, the report found. One in six pre-K classrooms were highly homogeneous, with 90 percent or more of students coming from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms.

The report is based on data from the first year of the city’s universal pre-K program, which has earned praise for both its rapid growth and attention to quality. Launched under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has more than tripled the number of 4-year-olds attending free preschool since 2014.

Halley Potter, a fellow at the foundation who authored the report, said the city’s program creates an opportunity to bring young children from different backgrounds together in the classroom.

“But unless that opportunity is really cultivated, and unless we have data to support what diversity looks like, then it can be missed,” she said.

Ensuring diversity in pre-K classrooms could create a foundation for integration in later grades — but doing so will require better data collection and specific policy changes, Potter said.

Research shows that children develop an awareness of social and racial differences as early as kindergarten, and preschool students in integrated classrooms are less likely to show bias toward minorities. They also learn better: Students from all socioeconomic groups show learning gains in mixed classrooms.

“We think about it and talk about it all the time,” said Ken Jockers, executive director of Hudson Guild, a community-based preschool provider in Chelsea. “We want kids to have the most substantive experience possible, and the most substantive experience possible, from our perspective, includes broad diversity.”

But there are inherent difficulties in integrating preschools in New York City.

In order to ramp up universal pre-K quickly, the Department of Education relied on both city schools and community-based organizations. The majority of pre-K seats — 60 percent in 2014 — are provided in community-based “early education centers.”

The city announced in May that public schools could propose plans to consider student diversity in their enrollment, as early as pre-K, under the Diversity in Admissions program. But early education centers cannot participate. At the same time, the community-based centers are more likely to be racially and ethnically segregated, Potter found.

Even among early education centers, there are disparities. Black and Hispanic children are concentrated in certain programs that receive funding specifically for low-income students, according to the study.

There are other reasons the centers tend to be less diverse. They often cater to specific religious and ethnic groups, or have strong ties to the immediate community. And parents who can afford to enroll a 3-year-old in paid preschool get preference for a free universal pre-K slot at the same center the following year.

“That means when those centers are enrolling for universal pre-K, they’re getting mostly affluent families for those seats,” Potter said. Rather than eliminate that preference, Potter said the city should add additional seats for four-year-olds. “It’s a challenging problem because continuity is important for kids.”

The extent of socioeconomic diversity in pre-K classrooms is hard to know. Since all Pre-K for All students have the option of free lunch, families who enroll do not fill out eligibility forms for those meals — a common way public schools track student poverty. Pre-K is also excluded from annual school diversity reports, a new mandate passed by the City Council.

“It’s a big gap,” Potter said. “If we want to make sure that universal pre-K provides an opportunity for families of different socioeconomic backgrounds to have kids in a classroom together, we need to find a way to look at whether that’s happening.”

But the community-based model also provides unique opportunities, Potter said. Unlike district schools, early education centers aren’t tied to specific geographical boundaries. And parents may be willing to travel for quality, or so their child can attend a specific program, such a dual-language class, offered in a center. The city should work to help early education centers market those programs, Potter said.

She also called on the city to allow pre-K centers to pilot diversity programs, add more pre-K classrooms in public schools and ensure that preschool students are considered in rezoning and school integration decisions.

“We want to make sure that, in particular, some of our most vulnerable students have a chance to attend high-quality classrooms,” Potter said. “One of the best ways to do that is to make sure there are a lot of diverse classrooms.”

Updated with response from Department of Education Deputy Chancellor of Strategy and Policy Josh Wallack:

“In two years, New York City built a universal Pre-K for All program that serves every four-year-old with free, full-day, high quality programs, and more than 70,400 four year olds have registered for the 2016-17 school year. We’re serving families in every neighborhood, and with a centralized enrollment system and targeted outreach workers, we’ve made it easier for families to enroll and for programs to recruit students. Diversity in classrooms remains an important priority for the Department of Education, because we believe children in diverse classrooms learn from each other and learn better, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve on that through Pre-K for All and across the school system.”