next steps

City hurrying to allow charter schools to open pre-K programs, but big questions remain

PHOTO: Rob Bennett
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits pre-K class at P.S. 239 with Chancellor Carmen FariƱa in 2014.

The city is racing to allow charter schools to tap into new state funds allotted for its ambitious pre-kindergarten expansion plan. But charter leaders are now waiting for answers to a number of thorny logistical questions that may determine whether they try to open pre-K programs at all.

At issue are how charter schools will get money to pay for pre-K facilities, whether pre-K students will be allowed to skip the admissions lottery to return for kindergarten, and how those pre-K programs will be approved. Those questions were the subject of a meeting last Thursday between city officials and charter school leaders at the Department of Education headquarters.

Those answers are significant, said charter school leaders who attended the meeting, because they were told that the applications for pre-K programs would be released today and due back to the city in just two weeks—as early as May 12. In an acknowledgment that many issues have yet to be ironed out, officials said Sunday that they were now hoping the request for proposals would be released later in the week.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions, so there was trepidation,” said Kathleen Mone, a member of the board member at Ethical Community Charter School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “But on the other hand, we all want to help these kids as early as we can.”

Thanks to new laws passed in the state budget deal earlier this month, charter schools are now eligible to provide state-funded pre-K for the first time. And although charter schools had been pushing for months to be able to access the pre-K funding as well, Mayor de Blasio has so far not said much about charter schools’ role in the city’s pre-K push.

Under de Blasio’s plan, the city wants to offer enough full-day pre-K seats for 53,604 four-year-olds this fall, more than twice as many as were available this year. But the city can only tap into $300 million in state funds to pay for once students actually sign up for programs, and the city is moving aggressively to recruit those students.

“The funds come when we have the specific children registered in the specific schools with a specific teacher in it,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said last week. “Money always follows the child.”

Last week, officials announced they received 41,000 applications for public school pre-K programs, a 36 percent increase over last year. That number is twice the number of pre-K seats available in public schools, but it’s still 12,000 under de Blasio’s goal.

The majority of seats will be provided by community-based organizations. But an education department spokeswoman said officials were also eager to allow charter schools to serve students as well.

“The DOE is excited to include charter schools in the historic implementation of universal pre-kindergarten,” spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.

Kaye said the department was “confident charter schools will play an important role in our first year expansion and add to the many high quality full-day pre-K options for families.”

It’s a further sign that the relationship between the charter school sector and City Hall is on the mend after de Blasio’s cancellation of three charter school co-location plans set off weeks of attacks from advocates that eventually led to legislation that stripped away some of the mayor’s control over how the city allocates facilities for new charter schools.

“They sounded like they were willing to bend over backwards to help us,” Mone said of city officials during the meeting with charter school leaders last week.

But she said for her school, which is co-located in a public school building, the big questions are space and how they would get the funding for the facilities upgrades they need. Officials said they weren’t sure if charter schools that add pre-K programs would eligible to receive city space (or funds for space), as new state laws now require for charter schools that modify their charters to add grade levels.

Another open question is whether students who completed pre-K in a charter school would be entitled to a seat in the school’s kindergarten, which by law is determined through a lottery. If students weren’t allowed to stay with the school automatically, Mone said it would disrupt the school.

There are a small number of community-based organizations, such as Harlem Children’s Zone, that currently operate pre-K programs separately from their charter schools. To ensure that its pre-K students are guaranteed a seat in HCZ’s charter schools, Promise Academy I and II, a spokesman said the schools revised their charters so that lotteries for kindergarten were held when children are just three. That way, they can enroll in a HCZ pre-K program and already be accepted to the charter school.

The spokesman, Marty Lipp, said Harlem Children’s Zone had no plans to switch its system.

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By the numbers

As city gears up for year three of its pre-K expansion, applications hold steady

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

More than 68,000 New York City children applied for full-day pre-K this year, jumpstarting the third year of the city’s expansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday.

The total number of applications is in line with last year’s total, but the Bronx and Manhattan both saw drops in the number of families that applied. The Bronx had a 5 percent decrease, from 14,280 applications last year to 13,529.

Brooklyn, the borough with the greatest number of families who applied for pre-kindergarten, saw an increase, with 22,046 families applying — up from 21,500 families last year. Staten Island and Queens saw marginal increases.

The number of applications is just shy of de Blasio’s original goal of enrolling 70,000 four-year-olds in pre-K. The city pointed out that the number of applications represents three times the number of children enrolled in full-day pre-K before the expansion started in 2014.

De Blasio’s push for universal pre-K has largely been seen as a success, with seats generally meeting or surpassing quality standards. A recent, limited survey found that families said that pre-K saved them money and helped their children learn.

This year, the city has made a few changes to the application process. The application period opened earlier to give families more time to decide where to apply. Families will also receive offers in early May, a month earlier than last year.

Families who have not yet applied will be able to apply to programs with available seats from May 2 to May 20.

pre-k report card

City touts record 68,500 students in pre-K, releases data on program quality

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.

The city released new data Friday about the quality of its rapidly expanded pre-kindergarten program, which officials touted as evidence that the program has maintained high standards even as it enrolled nearly 50,000 additional students over the past two years.

With free full-day preschool as the centerpiece of his education agenda, Mayor Bill de Blasio has more than tripled enrollment since he took office — leaving some observers to wonder whether the city was trading quantity of seats for quality. The new data, compiled from reviews of a portion of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites that were conducted from 2012 to the present, shows that the quality of New York’s pre-K program is on par with other cities.

The inspected sites on average met or surpassed the national average on a measure of teacher-student interactions, according to review of 555 cites. On a different measure, 77 percent of reviewed sites earned a 3.4 or above on a 7-point scale, which city officials said is the benchmark that programs must reach to have a positive impact on students.

However, Steven Barnett, a professor at Rutgers who is an expert on preschool programs, said that programs should strive to score a five or higher on that scale. The results are promising, he added, but should be seen as a baseline that the city should improve upon.

“They’re OK, but they’re not nearly as good as they should be five years from now,” he said. “It’s not an overnight process.”

Officials also announced that pre-K enrollment reached over 68,500 — just shy of de Blasio’s goal of 70,000 — and said that a recent crop of new students came primarily from low-income backgrounds. Of the 3,000 students who have enrolled since September, 90 percent live in zip codes with incomes below the city’s median.

The pre-K expansion has been one of de Blasio’s only initiatives to garner positive reviews from most observers.

“We’re proud Pre-K for All is performing on a level with some of the most highly-regarded programs in the nation,” de Blasio said in a statement.

The education department used two observation-based measures for the report.

The first, known as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, focused on how teachers interact with students. It uses smiling and laughter to gauge school climate and judges the quality of questioning in a class. The second, called the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale, used room set-up and student hygiene, as well as the quality of instruction.

More than 1,000 pre-K programs were evaluated using the second measure in the past three years. On average, they scored 3.9 on the 7-point scale. City officials said a 3.4 is correlated with “improved student outcomes,” including better reading, math, thinking, and social skills.

Barnett, who has studied New Jersey’s celebrated pre-K expansion, said it’s encouraging that categories like “language” and “interaction” were scored higher than “space and furnishings” or “personal care routines.” That implies physical space and classroom routines weighed down the ratings, not teacher instruction, he said.

New York’s scores align with pre-K programs in other cities. New Jersey’s Abbott program scored a 4.0 on the ECERS-R scale in 2002-03, just 0.1 points higher than New York’s rating.

Not all of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites were evaluated, but soon the city plans to assess all programs. Every three years, each pre-K program should receive both ratings, city officials said.

City officials said they will direct more resources to pre-K programs with low scores on these measures, including extra social workers or more professional development.

They did not offer any specific plans to close struggling pre-K programs based on these observations, though they said that is a possibility in the future. The officials also said they would consider a site’s scores when considering whether to renew providers’ contracts.

For K-12 schools, the city publishes data in annual progress reports for parents. City officials did not say they plan to present pre-K information in a similar way, though all of the data is available on their website.