Starting early

City to expand pre-K offerings with new seats and a new school

City officials and philanthropists announced two new early childhood initiatives today. From left: Administration for Children's Services Commissioner Ronald Richter, Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Dennis Walcott, and Susie Buffett, of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund.

Instead of waiting until children are turning five years old to start educating them, the Department of Education is going to start targeting some children at five weeks.

Citing research that shows a correlation between long-term achievement and enrollment in high-quality early childhood programs, Mayor Bloomberg announced this morning that the city will open a school next year that enrolls children from infancy through pre-kindergarten — and their parents.

Bloomberg also announced a $20 million initiative to turn 4,000 oft-unused half-day pre-kindergarten seats into full-day slots that many parents find more attractive.

Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott made the announcements today in conjunction with “Education Nation,” NBC’s annual extravaganza of education policy programming hosted in Midtown Manhattan. This year’s summit is focusing on innovations that have been proven to work.

One of those is early childhood education, which primes children for academic success in elementary school and beyond. Children’s minds are already 85 percent developed by the time they are old enough for kindergarten, a 2005 study found, and early education advocates say interventions in infancy can have a far greater impact on the achievement gap than at any other period in children’s lives.

In the proposed new school, which would open next September inside Brownsville’s P.S. 41, low-income parents would be pushed to develop stronger social and emotional skills with their children while the children are infants and toddlers. Ultimately serving between 115 and 125 families a year, the school will be part of the Educare Schools network, which already operates 17 early childhood schools in 13 states.

In Educare schools, “the first thing that [parents] do is they hold [their children] and talk to them and look them in the eyes,” said Susie Buffett, daughter of philanthropist Warren Buffett and chair of a foundation that is a major donor to the network. She said interaction with adults who share their knowledge with children is not only “the foundation of literacy, but it’s also the foundation of curiosity, self-confidence, self-control and the ability to persist in hard tasks.” (This research is detailed in “How Children Succeed,” the new book by Paul Tough.)

The Educare school’s facility design calls for many large open spaces as well as smaller rooms where children and parents can work together while being observed. Renovations to P.S. 41 could cost up to $20 million, Walcott said, with half coming from the Department of Education’s capital funding and the other half coming from private donations.

Officials said they could not yet estimate the cost to operate the school once its space is complete, but they said 80 percent of the costs could be borne using federal and state funding streams that already pay for a constellation of early childhood programs. The other 20 percent will need to be matched by private donors, whom Bloomberg said he has yet to find.

Ultimately, officials said today, the Educare school could become a model for applying “attachment” interventions citywide, even in schools not designed specifically to foster them.

The second early childhood initiative that the mayor announced this morning would break less ground. Instead, by funneling more city funds into supporting full-day pre-kindergarten spots, the city will be taking an action that advocates have been demanding for years.

Currently, state funds for pre-kindergarten can only be used to fund half-day programs. While many programs pitch in to extend the day for their students, the city ends up returning about $30 million a year to the state in pre-kindergarten funding because many families steer clear of half-day programs.

“If you’re a working parent or parents, and you need to have your child in a full-day program because that’s more convenient, you may not enroll [in a half-day program] because of that,” said Sophia Pappas, executive director of the city’s Office of Early Childhood Education. “We think that is one of the big barriers.”

Last year, Comptroller John Liu urged the city to lobby the state for permission to use pre-kindergarten funding for full-day programs, something the city had done before. But in the absence of a state policy fix, the city has decided to use $20 million of its own funds to grow its pre-kindergarten capacity by 4,000 seats.

The new seats will represent a 25 percent expansion in the number of full-day pre-kindergarten seats operated by the Department of Education. Until now, 16,000 of the city’s 60,000 pre-kindergarten seats have fallen into that category, with the rest being a mixture of half-day programs and programs offered by the Administration for Children’s Services.

Only about 58,000 of the seats are filled each year, officials said, and about 7,500 eligible children are not enrolled in any kind of pre-kindergarten program. The enrollment rates being lowest in poorer neighborhoods, the officials said.

The announcements drew praise from advocates who are usually Bloomberg’s fiercest critics. Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education and a mother of eight children who attended city schools, said she welcomed the new initiatives.

“In this climate of the economic crisis, education budget cuts, school closings and lay-offs, I am happy to see that Mayor Bloomberg, City Council and the NYC Department of Education are prioritizing our youngest students and giving them a chance to succeed,” Ansari said.

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

hope on the horizon

With promise of new federal money, more low-income Colorado families could get help with child care

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Thousands of additional Colorado families might be able to pay for child care if a federal spending bill due in March fulfills the pledge of a recently approved budget deal.

That’s because the deal, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump earlier this month, promised new money for a subsidy program that helps low-income parents pay for child care. In Colorado, the program is oversubscribed with more than 1,300 children on waitlists statewide.

While the spending bill won’t be finalized until March 23, advocates in Colorado say they think there’s a good chance the new child care money — $2.9 billion for the whole country over two years — will survive the negotiation process.

“I think that we will see this go through,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“I don’t think that child care and the block grant will be the major point of contention,” he said, referring to the federal grant that helps fund the subsidies.

(Trump’s own budget proposal, released three days after he signed the budget deal, doesn’t include increased child care block grant funding, but some observers say the budget deal holds more sway.)

If the two-year spending bill passes with the new child care funding included, Colorado could gain around $35 million, according to an estimate from the national anti-poverty group CLASP. That’s on top of the $150 million Colorado would get over the two-year period if the program’s funding simply stayed flat.

Practically speaking, the additional $35 million could mean child care subsidies for an additional 2,700 Colorado children over two years, according to a separate CLASP analysis.

State officials declined to comment on the federal budget proposal, saying in an email, “It is possible that, if approved, we could see an increase in services, but right now it’s all theoretical.”

Low-income parents who are working, looking for work, or in school make up the largest chunk of people eligible for child care subsidies, which are offered through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program and administered by the state’s counties. About 31,000 children were served through the program last year.

In addition to child care subsidies, the federal block grant helps pay for a number of other programs, including child care licensing and the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

El Paso County officials say the new federal money could help them eliminate the waitlist for subsidies they had to start for the first time in January. There are 196 children on the list, and it’s growing steadily.

Julie Krow, executive director of the county’s human service department, said some parents may opt for unlicensed child care if they can’t get a subsidy, sending their children to stay with relatives or neighbors during the workday.

The quality of such care varies widely and is mostly unregulated by the state.

“We don’t want to see kids left in unsafe situations because of this,” Krow said, referring to the shortage of subsidies.

When early childhood programs are underfunded, she said, child abuse and neglect cases, which are also in her department’s purview, can rise.

The new federal child care dollars would help reduce or eliminate subsidy waitlists across Colorado, but wouldn’t completely satisfy the need. That’s because the number of children on waitlists represents only a fraction of those eligible for subsidies but not served.

For now, Krow is hopeful the new money will be approved and sent quickly to states and then to counties.

“It’s a program I really believe in,” she said. “As soon as those federal dollars come out, I’m hoping the state has a plan and they are out the door.”