early commitments

De Blasio tabs team tasked with making pre-K plan a reality

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio with members of his early education working group.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s ever-expanding transition team just got a little bigger.

De Blasio today introduced the six-person group in charge of figuring out how to make a reality out of his campaign’s boldest pledge, to provide full-day pre-kindergarten to nearly 70,000 four-year-olds. De Blasio first announced he would convene the group last week in a speech to build support for his plan.

Much attention up to now has been focused on how de Blasio wants to fund the expansion, an income tax hike that first needs approval from the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And while that part of the plan remains in doubt, a series of logistical hurdles also await de Blasio even after he secures funding from Albany.

De Blasio’s “all-star” working group will be tasked with advising him on those challenges. They include finding and renovating space to make room for 50,000 students who aren’t currently in full-day programs, hiring new teachers to teach those students, and setting standards to ensure New York City’s pre-K programs deliver a high-quality education.

“To achieve that pre-K initiative, we need some of the best minds in the city to start work right now on developing the practical approaches of making sure that we’re ready to go as soon as legislation is approved in Albany,” de Blasio said at a press conference inside of a crowded Head Start classroom in East Harlem.

It was one of the few public appearances that de Blasio has made since being elected a month ago and lacked details about more significant decisions, such as who he’ll pick for chancellor and when that choice will be made. De Blasio has created several groups to help him make those decisions and prepare for his new job, including a core transition team, a 60-person transition committee, and another big group that is planning his inauguration.

Responding to critics who say he is backing away from comments he made during the campaign about publicly screening his chancellor candidates, de Blasio said that it was an “open process” that was already underway.

“That was clearly a reference to an unfortunate chapter in our city’s history related to Cathie Black and I am totally sure that we will never have a situation like that again on my watch,” de Blasio said. “We are talking to a number of individuals with extraordinary careers in education and we are accepting nominations through our…large transition committee and through our web site.”

The early education group is made up of five women and one man who have decades of combined experience working in early education and social welfare services: De Blasio’s transition co-chair, Jennifer Jones-Austin, a former official for the Administration for Children’s Services; Josh Wollack, a former City Council staffer for de Blasio and director of Children’s Aid Society’s early education programs; Sherry Cleary, who runs an early education professional development program at CUNY, Elba Montalvo, founder and CEO of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families and a foster care advocate; and Gail Nayowith, executive director for SCO Family of Services.

De Blasio said that the group would be responsible for coming up with answers to many lingering questions about how his administration will implement the full-day pre-k expansion, though he offered some of his own hints.

He said he’d be able to find teachers who have been unable to get jobs in Department of Education schools because of hiring freezes. He also suggested that one option to find space could be in city-owned school buildings, which the Bloomberg administration has used primarily to open new K-12 schools.


To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.