(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.”

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.