Getting to 53000

In pursuit of pre-K goal, city goes to great lengths to enlist yeshivas

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been accused of delaying an investigation into whether yeshivas provide an adequate secular education.

As the city scurries to make 53,000 full-day pre-kindergarten slots available this September, every seat counts.

But when officials tried to round up pre-K seats in Jewish schools, the largest group of non-public schools in the city, some ultra-Orthodox yeshivas hesitated to add full-day programs that would limit their time for religious instruction. So the administration came out with a set of guidelines tailor-made to ease their concerns.

The guidelines, released just days before applications to provide full-day pre-K were due last month, assured religious schools that they could hold publicly funded pre-K classes on Sundays, screen would-be teachers based on their religion “to the extent permitted by law,” use religious texts in class “when presented objectively,” and give lessons in other languages, such as Yiddish or Hebrew. The Jewish newspaper Hamodia first reported on the guidelines last month.

The guidance grew out of a series of meetings at City Hall convened by the mayor’s office to sell the ultra-Orthodox community on full-day pre-K. Jewish leaders explained that a full day of secular preschool would subvert the role of yeshivas in the eyes of many parents and school leaders, and wanted to know how they could maintain their religious character without violating any rules tied to the public funds.

At one summit that Mayor Bill de Blasio attended part of, city officials said the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark is sufficiently well known in the popular culture to be suitable for a city pre-K class, according to three attendees.

“The mayor really wanted to make this happen and have as many spots as possible,” said Jeff Leb, the New York state director of the Orthodox Union, who took part in the meetings. “It was definitely an aggressive, proactive approach by the city.”

But the city’s decision to count seats in religious schools such as yeshivas, where most students share the same religious background and many do not speak English, as part of its open-to-all pre-K initiative raises questions about whether those publicly funded seats seat will be accessible to every student.

Those questions are especially pertinent as the mayor encourages parents to apply for one of the roughly 25,000 pre-K seats run by outside groups now that most public-school spots are filled.

“It is hard to imagine that children of all faiths will feel welcome in schools where teachers are screened by religion,” New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said after reviewing the city-issued guidelines. “The NYCLU will be looking at this matter closely to determine how to best protect New York City families and children from the kind of religious discrimination this invites.”

Administrators at several yeshivas that currently offer city-funded pre-K said almost all of their students attend the school’s nurseries before pre-K (“our feeder classes,” as one site director put it) and stay in the private schools after pre-K. They said they avoid religious instruction during pre-K time, though some said students might sing Hebrew songs or learn the Hebrew alphabet in class. Several said that most of their students speak Yiddish at home, so teachers deliver some of their lessons in that language.

Shulem Greenbaum, the director of Bnos Square of Williamsburg, which has 66 half-day pre-K seats and applied to offer full-day seats in September, said he was not sure how the school would accommodate a non-Jewish student if one wanted to attend his school’s free pre-K classes.

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I don’t even know if it’s possible, since we speak Yiddish mostly.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made no distinctions between the different pre-K providers, only saying that they “will be held to the exact same high standards” as public schools.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio has made no distinctions between the different pre-K providers, only saying that they “will be held to the exact same high standards” as public schools.

Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, Protestant and other religious schools have long offered city-funded pre-K classes that are free, secular, and open to all students. The city’s pre-K guidelines apply to all religious schools, though they emerged after the City Hall meeting with Jewish leaders.

The number of students at Jewish schools in the city now outnumber those at any other type of non-public school, according to a recent analysis by the Independent Budget Office. Some advocates estimate that as many as 10,000 children likely to attend Jewish schools are pre-K aged.

That makes those four-year-olds an important group for the city to include in its pre-K expansion, and their schools a valuable source of space to help the city reach its 53,000-seat goal. The full $300 million the state has promised the city for full-day pre-K depends on the city hitting such targets, according to state officials.

Many yeshivas had opted only to offer half-day seats in the past, according to several yeshiva leaders and their representatives, since that allowed them to offer secular classes for part of the day then religious instruction for the rest, with a meal and prayers in between.

But the mayor’s plan — and the state funding — calls for thousands of new full-day seats. So city officials have prodded schools and community-based organizations to switch from half to full-day seats or offer them for the first time.

“There were constant emails, phone calls, ‘How many [seats] could you do?’” said the director of a Jewish daycare center who requested anonymity because she is seeking city approval to provide full-day pre-K. “It just seemed like there was pressure from above.”

At the City Hall meetings, the Jewish leaders described the difficulty of satisfying the full-day time requirements while still squeezing in religious instruction before or after pre-K and letting children out early for Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. But more importantly, they wanted clear instructions on how yeshivas with full-day pre-K could preserve their religious character.

The guidelines answered some of their questions. For example, yeshivas may keep up their mezuzahs, or small cases containing scrolls inscribed with Torah verses, but must remove other religious symbols. Students may pray before meals, but staff cannot lead the blessings, and some instruction must be in English, the guidelines say.

But other rules, such as the one allowing certain religious texts, left the schools unconvinced that they would be safe under the law.

“The fact that the schools are following city instructions doesn’t mean the city’s instructions are consistent with federal law,” said Rabbi David Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, who attended one of the meetings, “especially when we get into the murky water of what is religious and what is cultural.”

Several yeshiva leaders said that even though they applied to run full-day programs, they are waiting to see whether “the rules will be loosened more,” as one director put it, before they decide whether to actually offer full-day pre-K. Others are considering applying directly to the state for full-day money, since the state’s definition of full day is five hours, compared to de Blasio’s 6 hours and 20 minutes.

Ironically, the city’s behind-the-scenes campaign to bring free full-day pre-K to the ultra-Orthodox community may actually drive some parents away, according to the yeshiva leaders and some parents. In their view, a full day of secular studies misses the point of a yeshiva — city guidelines or not.

“It has to be religious,” said Chany Friedman, a Williamsburg parent who plans to send her child to a non-public preschool program. “That’s just the way you want them to grow up.”

The mayor’s office and the education department did not respond to questions about the guidelines. They also would not say how many religiously affiliated groups currently offer publicly funded pre-K (next year’s providers are still being selected). Department officials would only say that all pre-K providers, religious or not, underwent an application review and site visit before they were approved and will be subject to ongoing reviews.

As de Blasio has urged parents to apply to privately run pre-K programs funded by the city, he has made no distinctions between the different providers, only saying that they “will be held to the exact same high standards” as public schools.

Pamela Wheaton, managing editor at Insideschools, a nonprofit that reviews the city’s public schools, noted that some pre-K sites also advertise some instruction in other languages, such as Chinese or Spanish. She said those sites or religiously affiliated ones could be a “hard sell” to families who come from different backgrounds.

But she said it is the education department’s job to make sure the sites are accessible to everyone.

“And if they’re not,” she added, “the department shouldn’t give them public funding.”

Update (5:10 p.m.): Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye issued the following statement after this story was published:

“We want parents to understand this is one, single system, with uniform standards for the quality of every program. Our goal is pre-K for all, and we’re going to achieve it by offering a wide range of options that meet the needs of parents as their children enter the educational system. We have a tremendous number of high-quality community based educational options across all neighborhoods to meet that demand, and we are reaching out to families directly to make sure they know their options and can find the right fit for their child.”

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.