internal logic

Across elementary schools, an array of motives for adding pre-K seats

PHOTO: Courtesy New Bridges Elementary
Pre-K students during a performance at New Bridges Elementary.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made clear that he wants all kids to have the head start that full-day pre-kindergarten can provide. But he can’t serve four-year-olds from City Hall, and his ambitious plan to place 4,268 more pre-K students in public schools by September rests on schools across the city being ready to receive them.

At five schools that are preparing for pre-K next year, principals and teachers all agreed that pre-K gives students a leg up academically and socially when kindergarten rolls around. The school leaders also shared the logic behind their individual decisions to apply for new seats, offering a window into the varied hopes and calculations at play as schools across the city prepare for the pre-K push.

Boosting enrollment in a competitive district

In some grades, P.S. 63-S.T.A.R. Academy in the East Village only has enough students to fill one class. Principal Darlene Cameron said she wants to be able to fill two classes per grade and thinks opening a second pre-K class might help.

“That’s best way to grow your school: Start with an early grade and work your way up,” she said.

Given District 1’s choice policy, which allows parents to apply to any nearby elementary school, schools are constantly competing for students. Cameron’s hope is that students who enroll at P.S. 63-S.T.A.R. academy for pre-K will decide to stay.

Administrators have been recruiting students at local Head Start preschool programs and offering tours of the school’s building and existing pre-K class, hoping to fill up the new one. One of the challenges, Cameron said, is figuring out which parents are truly interested in the school, and which are planning to stay for a year and apply elsewhere for kindergarten.

“We’re trying to steer towards families that really want their child here for the long run,” Cameron said.

Pre-K students at P.S. 63-S.T.A.R. Academy during a literacy lesson.
Pre-K students at P.S. 63-S.T.A.R. Academy during a literacy lesson.

Securing funds to fill existing facilities

For many city schools, preparing to add pre-K classes means building new bathrooms, since pre-K classes are required to have their own.

But at P.S. 115 in Canarsie, the necessary construction took place more than 10 years ago. The school has five classrooms with bathrooms and preschooler-sized furniture, grouped along a hallway intended for use as a early education wing.

Without enough funding to run more than three pre-K classes, parent coordinator Jayne Sclavos said the school has been using one of the classrooms as a dance studio and another as a theater room. Through the city’s universal pre-K initiative, the school will open two additional full-day pre-K classes in September.

“We’ll be getting to better utilize the building now,” Sclavos said, adding that the school is constructing a new dance studio and plans to move theater classes to a multi-purpose room.

With nearly 1,200 students in the upper grades and many parents eager to send their pre-K and elementary-age students to the same school, Sclavos said she doesn’t expect to have trouble filling the new seats.

Building a strong foundation in Far Rockaway

When Christina Villavicencio became principal of P.S. 197 in 2011, the Queens elementary school had only one pre-K class. She saw students struggling in older grades and wondered what it would take to help them earlier.

“We’re a school with need, and I’m saying gosh, what’s going on?” she said. “We need to build the foundational grades. One way to really boost up rigor and performance is to build strong early childhood programs.”

She said most pre-K students stay at the school and arrive in kindergarten already familiar with daily routines and with the school’s approach to literacy, math, and science.

The differences between rising kindergartners who had attended pre-K and those who hadn’t was so great, she said, that when a teacher suggested keeping the pre-K students together in one kindergarten class for this school year, Villavicencio said no on the grounds that it would constitute “homogenous grouping.”

Running five pre-K classes next year will be challenging but worthwhile jump, she said, given that pre-K options in already-isolated Far Rockaway have been particularly limited in recent years, after many of the local churches and community organizations that used to offer pre-K were damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Responding to a request

Roberta Davenport, the principal of P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill, said she didn’t initiate the application process for new seats.

“I didn’t ask the department for seats. I got a phone call,” she said.

The school has four pre-K classes already and will open two more this fall. Once she agreed to the new seats, she said, she launched into planning mode.

“I don’t like chaos. I like executing a smart plan,” she said. “When you’re looking at organization of school around 108 four-year-olds, you look at breakfast, lunch, dismissal.”

Growing a new school in two directions

Principal Kevyn Bowles was in his first year as principal of New Bridges Elementary, a new school in Crown Heights, when de Blasio called on schools to apply for universal pre-K funding.

Expansion was already part of Bowles’s plan for the 2014-15 school year, since the school currently only serves students up to second grade. New Bridges is replacing P.S. 167, a school being phased out of the same building.

Universal pre-K funding is allowing Bowles to expand “down” as well as “up.” The school currently has two pre-K classes and will open three more in September.

“To be able to say that we’re going to basically start a year earlier—for so many students it’s such a big opportunity,” he said.

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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.