Kara Ahmed, NYC’s head of early childhood education, to leave after turbulent tenure

An adult woman in business clothes stands in front of a classroom full of young students sitting on a colorful rug on the floor.
Deputy Chancellor Kara Ahmed, pictured in February in the Bronx, is leaving her post after a turbulent two-and-a-half year tenure. (Courtesy of New York City Public Schools Press Office)

This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between Chalkbeat and THE CITY.

Kara Ahmed, the deputy chancellor who oversaw New York City’s early childhood education programs during a turbulent two-and-a-half year period, is leaving her post, she told staffers in a Tuesday morning video conference.

Ahmed will take over in September as the president of Educare Network, a group of 25 birth-to-5 schools across the country serving approximately 4,000 students, according to a press release. Ahmed told staffers the job would allow her to “help elevate the quality of early childhood education on a national level,” according to a recording of the video call obtained by Chalkbeat.

“While that is extraordinary, and I’m excited and I’m thrilled,” she said, “it certainly does not take away the feelings I have of sadness and just absolute emotion to think about the work that I’m leaving.”

Ahmed’s tenure at the Division of Early Childhood Education, which oversees publicly funded child care for some 140,000 students enrolled in universal prekindergarten (for the city’s 4-year-olds), 3-K (for 3-year-olds), and subsidized programs for infants and toddlers, was marked by upheaval.

Since her start in January 2022, the free 3-K system has grown dramatically, but has also seen budget cuts and thousands of unfilled seats. Ahmed presided over a crisis in payment delays that forced some contracted early childhood to shutter — a problem she said she inherited and has worked hard to fix. She also revamped the way central staffers support programs and introduced a controversial universal curriculum.

Ahmed and schools Chancellor David Banks have steadfastly defended her record, arguing that she took over a deeply flawed system that needed to be rebuilt from the ground up.

“Dr. Kara Ahmed has been with me since Day 1 of this administration,” Banks said in a statement, “and I am immensely grateful to her for her service, dedication, and unparalleled passion for high-quality, equitable Early Childhood Education.”

But critics, including many staffers in the division of early childhood education, say she’s done more harm than good.

“What they did was they came in and dismantled the entire system,” said one early childhood staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “Instead of making it better, they made it more chaotic.”

Ahmed faced battles over payment delays, staff restructuring

Some of Ahmed’s early struggles centered on payment delays for early childhood operators, which crippled many programs and forced some to shutter. In October 2022, the Early Childhood Division official in charge of overseeing those payments left the agency.

Officials blamed the broken payment system on their predecessors and said there were scores of unsubmitted invoices from providers. Some current and former staffers disputed that, arguing that Ahmed and the new leadership drove out long-time staffers with the institutional knowledge to keep the payment systems running smoothly.

In October 2022, officials introduced plans to eliminate the delays, efforts they said have paid off. In his statement Tuesday, Banks credited Ahmed with “removing barriers and delays to provider payments.”

But one leadership coach at the Division of Early Childhood Education, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of reprisal, said that while the payment delay problem was no longer as acute, the issue hasn’t gone away entirely. The leadership coach cited one contracted early childhood provider who recently couldn’t make payroll because they were waiting for a payment from the Education Department.

The payment delay crisis collided with another controversy over a major reorganization of hundreds of centrally employed instructional coordinators who offered coaching and support to early childhood teachers and program leaders. Ahmed argued that the move would help bring the staffers closer to schools. But the reshuffling spurred confusion and fear for many of the staffers, and ultimately prompted the city teachers union to hold a rare vote of no confidence in Ahmed.

(In a statement Tuesday, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said, “We look forward to working with the DOE and the administration to ensure that there are robust early childhood programs in every neighborhood in the city.”)

Nearly two years after the restructuring, the leadership coach said many of those staffers have left and have not been replaced.

“It has taken support away from classrooms, teachers, children and families,” the coach said.

A new curriculum sparks controversy

In recent months, Ahmed has touted the results of another seismic change that she helped usher in: the introduction of a universal curriculum in the city’s 3-K and pre-K programs.

Similar to the Education Department’s efforts to standardize classroom literacy instruction in elementary schools, the early childhood division has rolled out a single curriculum, called Creative Curriculum, in almost all of its programs, Ahmed recently said.

“It has been thrilling and exciting and absolutely amazing … to see a singular curriculum, a singular assessment system, a singular screening, all of these instructional schools taking place in 90%” of early childhood programs,” she said at a March press conference.

The idea behind the push, Ahmed said, was to “ensure instructional coherency and cohesiveness so all children in all ZIP codes have access to high quality early childhood education.”

But the mandate, and the curriculum itself, have ignited a groundswell of opposition among many early childhood educators, administrators, advocates and parents.

A petition launched by a coalition of opponents of the curriculum called “People’s Early Childhood Education NYC” called on the city to “halt all restructuring and roll out of costly and inappropriate corporate curriculum.” It has garnered more than 900 signatures in about three months.

Lacey Peters, a professor of early childhood education at Hunter College who trains city preschool teachers and has been studying the rollout of Creative Curriculum, said in an email she’s seen how it “prioritizes teaching content over teaching children, and 3 and 4-year-old children are being deprived of opportunities to learn in developmentally appropriate and meaningful ways.”

The new curriculum also came with significant new data reporting requirements. Teachers are now asked to evaluate children on roughly 30 developmental metrics three times a year, early childhood staffers said.

“Teachers are spending more time uploading data than actually having natural interactions with their children and seeing how they progress and seeing their social-emotional needs,” said one early childhood staffer.

Future of 3-K expansion remains murky

The last year of Ahmed’s tenure was marked by clashes between the City Council and Mayor Eric Adams over the budget of the newly expanded 3-K program.

Adams, Banks, and Ahmed have argued that overall, the system has an excess of seats, but that many of them are just located in the wrong places. Banks said Tuesday that Ahmed has helped shift 7,000 of those seats, and has overseen the addition of 800 seats for children with disabilities — though hundreds of children with disabilities were still waiting for a seat as of this spring.

The city commissioned consulting firm Accenture to study where to move seats, but the city has yet to publicly release the $760,000 report.

Despite officials’ promise that every family that wants a seat in 3-K will get one, approximately 6% of the 43,000 who applied on time for 3-K this year, roughly 2,600 students, didn’t get an offer this year, according to the Education Department.

Adams committed this year to using city funding to replace some of the expiring federal pandemic aid that paid for the expansion of the 3-K program, but had still proposed to cut the program’s budget by roughly $170 million next year. Ultimately, Adams and the City Council agreed to add $20 million back into 3-K in the recently-adopted budget, lowering the total amount of the cuts from $170 million to $150 million.

But advocates say it’s not enough, and hope that Ahmed’s successor will push for a more aggressive expansion.

“They’re making a big deal about adding these seats, but it just comes after cutting outreach teams and cutting the seats in the first place,” said Rebecca Bailin, executive director of New Yorkers United for Child Care, a grassroots organizing group. “We need a leader and the mayor to make 3-K a priority because it’s certainly a priority for New Yorkers.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

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