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.

Starting young

Can ‘3-K for All’ and child care centers work and play well together? Here’s what we know

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

In late April, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced two new plans that could determine the future of the country’s largest child care system for poor and low-income families. First, the mayor wants to expand his well-regarded “Pre-K for All” program for 4-year-olds to provide free preschool to 3-year-olds as well. The projected multi-year expansion is called “3-K for All.”

Also huge — EarlyLearnNYC, the city’s massive subsidized early education system, will move from its current home at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to the city’s Department of Education (DOE), adding children as young as six weeks old to the department’s portfolio.

Both moves will depend heavily on the private sector, which already provides more than half the seats for Pre-K for All. But some private child care providers say Pre-K for All caused unintended consequences, including teachers leaving for higher paying Department of Education jobs and major drops in enrollment. And 3-K for All could exacerbate those problems.

If 3-K for All succeeds — meaning that it is funded and brought to scale — child care centers will be an essential part of its capacity. To avoid the same problems that centers faced when enrolling 4-year-olds, directors say that DOE will need to do things differently.

“I’m thrilled the attention is now on the younger years,” says Laura Ensler, founder of the FirstStepNYC early childhood center and early education leadership institute in Brownsville, Brooklyn. But, Ensler adds, “in order to be successful, there must be a plan that does not further destabilize the current system.”

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There are many facets of the city’s subsidized child care system that will be new to the DOE when it takes on younger children. For instance, it will have to train hundreds of women who look after infants and toddlers in their homes across the city as part of EarlyLearn. But in theory, at least, the DOE seems a natural home for a diverse range of programs that share the common goal of preparing young children for school.

Moving EarlyLearn from ACS to the DOE would have the added benefit of allowing ACS to have greater clarity of mission and focus on the already gargantuan task of keeping kids safe while helping stabilize families in crisis.

But, as the Center for New York City Affairs predicted before the UPK expansion occurred, there are drawbacks, too. Many preschool and EarlyLearn teachers have left private centers for city schools and pre-K centers, where pay is higher.

The UPK expansion has also hit enrollment at the privately run centers. Data provided by ACS show that since the city’s expansion of UPK programs in September 2014, enrollment in EarlyLearn programs of children eligible for UPK (4-year-olds or those about to turn 4) has decreased by nearly 20 percent — from 12,269 in January 2014 to 10,073 in January 2017. This has left some EarlyLearn pre-K programs severely under-enrolled or in constant flux, with the centers struggling to adjust their budgets.

That’s because when Pre-K for All was launched, families eligible for EarlyLearn services suddenly had far more choices for where to enroll their 4-year-olds, including child care centers, public schools or the DOE’s standalone pre-K centers. In this competition, the programs housed in schools and DOE-run pre-K centers have some key advantages over EarlyLearn programs in recruiting families. For one thing, there’s a perception that because their teachers are paid better and because they are school-based and don’t have to spend resources on rent, the programs are stronger.

Also significant for parents, the DOE’s eligibility requirement for pre-K programs is simple — it asks only that children be born during a specified year. EarlyLearn and Head Start programs, on the other hand, have stringent income eligibility rules, reducing the pool of families they can recruit from. Moreover, EarlyLearn programs require enrolling families to complete much more paperwork to register — a complicated and sometimes lengthy process.

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Hudson Guild is a community agency that runs several early childhood programs in Manhattan, including Head Start, UPK and EarlyLearn classes. Before the expansion of UPK, Hudson Guild relied on about 90 percent of their 3-year-olds moving on to their classrooms for 4-year-olds; now that retention rate is only about 60 percent. LeAnn Scaduto, deputy executive director at Hudson Guild, points out that she and her colleagues now must spend far more time and energy recruiting and retaining kids for these classes, which plays havoc with classroom planning.

Even if their classrooms are filled, early education centers may encounter yet another obstacle to stability: part-time students. Most early education centers are built on a business model that assumes children will be enrolled 12 months a year for eight-10 hours per day, but DOE pre-K runs 10 months per year for a little over six hours per day. But DOE policy prevents center directors from picking and choosing only those children who need a full day or full-year care. This means for each UPK child who does not need summer or extended-afternoon care, they lose money.

“If my budget is predicated on having children all day, and they aren’t there all day, it will put me out of business,” says Maria Contreras-Collier, executive director of the Cypress Hills Child Care Corporation, which provides UPK in its EarlyLearn program.

Three years into Pre-K for All, many EarlyLearn centers are still struggling to adjust to these changes. Some have decided that even if it is against DOE policy, they will do everything possible to take only those kids from their waitlists who need a full day and full year of care. Others have moved into survival mode and moved resources away from the classrooms and into teacher and student recruitment.

Deciding it is simply too difficult to enroll as many 4-year-olds as before UPK, others have turned their attention to enrolling children ages 3 and younger.

But while there is a great demand for more infant and toddler care in centers, converting a preschool classroom to one suited for babies is difficult and expensive; it requires a different permit and, along with that, different space and staffing requirements, including a lower child-to-teacher ratio.

In the best-case scenario, directors say, with the DOE as EarlyLearn’s new home, the department will embrace these challenges as their own and become an advocate for subsidized child care, taking on the thorny issue of salary disparity among teachers and setting up equitable and sustainable systems for recruiting and retaining students.

In the worst-case scenario, the youngest children from the poorest families will inhabit the lowest rung of a child care hierarchy, one where their teachers are paid the least and where their centers struggle to stay open.

“Ultimately all these plans are well-intended and investing in young children leverages amazing benefits,” says Contreras-Collier. “You just have to do it right.”

This article is adapted from a policy brief by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

making plans

New York City is finally releasing its school diversity plan. Here’s what it says about pre-K and middle school admissions

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.

After months of anticipation, New York City will soon get its first glimpse at a plan to address school segregation — starting with the youngest learners.

As part of a larger plan to be released Tuesday, some details of which were shared with Chalkbeat, the education department will allow privately run preschools to join its Diversity in Admissions initiative. Schools that apply to that program are allowed to set aside a percentage of seats for students who are low-income, learning English, or meet other criteria.

Another element of the long-awaited plan, according to education officials: allowing middle schools to open up enrollment borough-wide. The changes would apply in the 2017-18 application cycle.

Whether either proposal will lead to significant integration is an open question.

While schools in the Diversity in Admissions program have mostly met their targets for admissions offers, it’s not yet clear whether the schools have successfully changed or maintained the diversity of their student bodies.

And while opening middle school enrollment could encourage students to leave segregated neighborhoods, it won’t necessarily change the makeup of schools. The city already allows open enrollment at the high school level, yet those schools remain starkly segregated by race, class and academic achievement level.

Met with growing demands for school integration, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in August to release a “bigger vision” to address the problem. The city’s full proposal is being called “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools.”

Until now, only public pre-Ks have been able to apply for set-asides under Diversity in Admissions. But a majority of seats in the city’s Pre-K for All program — 60 percent — are provided through community-based organizations.

“Increasing the diversity of classrooms from pre-K through 12th grade is a priority,” Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in an emailed statement.

Opening up the process could be especially significant since a recent study found that pre-K classrooms are more segregated than kindergartens. Halley Potter, who completed the study for the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, said that integration in pre-K is important because students are just beginning to develop awareness around race and class.

Research has shown that diverse pre-Ks have cognitive benefits and can help combat prejudice.

Potter had not seen the city’s Diversity in Admissions plan. But, speaking broadly about ways to integrate pre-Ks, she called that initiative a “great first step.”

“We need to think about efforts like the pilot diversity program as really important to help move some schools communities forward,” she said. “But in order to really move the needle in a much wider range of schools, those lessons needs to be applied in a broader way.”

As one example, she suggested offering transportation for families to widen their pre-K options.

Some have criticized the set-aside approach as piecemeal and say the education department hasn’t studied the potential impact of the initiative on other area schools. Only 21 schools so far have joined the initiative, out of about 1,800 across the city.

The city did not provide specifics on its plans for opening up middle school admissions. Parents in multiple districts have already been discussing ways to make the process more fair and less stressful for parents. Among them: District 2, which includes much of lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side; District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and part of Harlem; and District 15 in Brooklyn.