Early Education

Pre-K advocates pursue small strategies toward big goal

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

A coalition of pre-K advocates are moving forward with a collection of small strategies that they hope will result in every child being prepared to start kindergarten.  They are regrouping after losing a second referendum in November to fund universal pre-K with an increased sales tax.

“We have to be pursuing multiple strategies at the same time,” said Kathy Buckman Gibson, one of the leaders of the effort at the Chamber of Commerce. “Putting all our eggs in one basket is not going to move the basket sufficiently and as quickly as we feel we need to.”

Advocates contend that only 30 percent of students currently enter kindergarten are prepared for school and universal pre-K would fix that.  But the referendum to fund pre-K last November lost, in part due to criticisms that a sales tax disproportionately falls on the poor and that the revenues might be used to lower the property taxes of the rich.

Pre-K advocates at the non-profit People First and the Memphis Chamber of Commerce brought in stakeholders from across the city a little more than a month ago to discuss their next steps. The meeting included nearly 50 interested politicians, non-profits, philanthropists, professors, church and business leaders to brainstorm and discuss new ideas. Although they’ve stopped short of calling what came out of the meeting a full-on strategy, they are now pursuing several possible ways forward, including identifying new funding, raising standards for daycare centers, and even returning to voters to ask for more funding.
New sources of funding
One potential source of funding fell through two weeks ago. The Shelby County Commission voted down a proposal to spend $2.8 million to fund pre-K for 500 children that had been cut as a result of losing Race to the Top funding.
Commissioner Steven Mulroy believes some form of that proposal could still pass if it’s bundled with other initiatives favored by commissioners who are currenlty on the fence. Even if it doesn’t pass this budget cycle, Gibson said that pre-K advocates will be paying close attention to the makeup of the board after the coming election and could return again.
At the most recent Shelby County Commission meeting, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson argued once again that it’s no coincidence that only 30 percent of third graders are proficient in literacy and 30 percent of 7th graders are proficient in math: only 30 percent are prepared for kindergarten.
The importance of commission funding, isn’t just local, according to advocates; it could bolster an application for a new federal program that funds pre-K expansion.
“By demonstrating our commitment to pre-K funding at the local level, we’ll be able to leverage that funding at the federal level, so more than 500 children would be able to receive pre-K instruction,” Mulroy said.
But there are two major hurdles for accessing the millions of dollars in funds that have been made available through the US Department of Education through a program intended to seed the expansion of pre-K. The first problem is that the funds are supposed to pass through states not local districts. Gov. Bill Haslam has made it clear that he won’t support any expansions of pre-K funding in Tennessee until a new pre-K study from Vanderbilt is released.
So supporters are hoping that they can negotiate a political work-around, so that several of the large municipal districts in the state, such as Shelby County and Nashville, can apply for the funds directly, rather than applying through the state. But even if this worked, the funding is only temporary and they would have to look for more funds again in four years.
If supporters can cobble together some funding and put together a more detailed proposal for tax-payers, Cardell Orrin, the Memphis director of Stand for Children, thinks they could even go back to voters a third time to ask for a permanent source of funding
“Some people think that people just don’t support pre-K,” Orrin said. “I don’t think any of the data shows people don’t want pre-K. I think they would support it if you developed the details of how you’re going to distribute the money.” He also thinks voters want to know the plan for what will happen to the private pre-K providers.
“The issue is caught up in a vicious cycle of politically polluted waters,” said Keith Norman, president of the Memphis NAACP, who blamed political opponents for spreading misinformation about how the money would be spent during the November pre-K referendum. “I don’t think that [the referendum] was understood by the general population.”
Leveraging Day Care and Head Start
Supporters are also looking to take advantage of federally-subsidized private daycare for working parents. If the daycares functioned more like pre-K classrooms, they wouldn’t need to find as much funding.
They are planning to push for tougher certification standards for daycares at the state level: the current three star rating system is more focused on child safety, they say, than preparation for school. They also believe that if parents were better informed, they would put their children in higher quality daycares.
“We have to do some real awareness with parents about selecting places that will really help their child be prepared,” said Barbara Prescott of People First. “We have thousands of children in child care, but only 30 percent are reaching kindergarten with pre-literacy skills.”
“We want all those daycares that are in the community to be a part of the solution as well,” said Andre Dean, an advocate from the Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not trying to put anyone out of business or recreate the wheel. But we want to raise the levels and standards.”
There is also some hope that improvements in the local administration of Head Start — a federal program for children below the poverty line that includes preschool as well as nutritional and health services — will help. Shelby County’s contract to administer Head Start expires on June 30. Representatives for Shelby County Schools could not confirm that the school district will be the new administrators of the program on July 1. But pre-K advocates are hopeful that, if the school system does take control as many are expecting, they will do a better job at preparing students for kindergarten.
“If it is Shelby County Schools,” Prescott said. “They really would be looking toward having entities deliver services that would be…more focused on children reaching kindergarten with the pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills that would set them up for success.”
More than 20 Head Start workers protested looming layoffs at Monday’s school board meeting.  Read our story here.

crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report.