Pre-K Prep

As the first day of school approaches, the city trains thousands of universal pre-K teachers

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janet Lo (left) and Stacey Gong-Zhang attend a training program for pre-K teachers.

On Tuesday, about 40 teachers listened, with notebooks open and pens ready, as Sharon Burns lead a discussion on classroom learning.

Hired by Bank Street College of Education to prepare teachers for the first year of the mayor’s expanded universal pre-K, Burns asked the teachers how they’d help students learn to problem-solve.

“Zippers,” one teacher offered. The answer made sense. “Some kids keep trying and trying. Then a lightbulb will go off,” she explained. “That will be the kid who wants to teach the others.”

Weeks away from the first day of school, the city has put a lot of faith in Bank Street to train a whopping 4,000 teachers to ready them to teach the city’s four-year-olds. The program cost $2.2 million and will include four separate three-day sessions, the first day of which was Tuesday.

The training offers a glance into the city’s goals for universal pre-K, which includes familiarizing educators with the pre-K Common Core standards and with ways to help students develop social and emotional skills. And, consistent with Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s past initiatives, the program is designed to help teachers share their own learning and connect with colleagues who can help them in the future.

In its effort to reach as many pre-K teachers as possible, the city offered the program free to anyone teaching universal pre-K this fall. That means teachers from public schools, charters, and community-based organizations. They range in experience from brand-new teachers, to new to pre-K, to veteran early education teachers. Some were very familiar with the terminology and philosophies in the handbook, others were brand new to it.

“New York City is very uneven,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the former deputy chancellor who is now the president of Bank Street College of Education. “It’s an opportunity to shift the practice.”

Some teachers said one obstacle is overcoming parents’ — and some teachers’ — view of pre-K as glorified child care.

“This is not babysitting,” said Bank Street’s dean, Virginia Roach.

“The biggest challenge is getting people to understand that children are learning through play,” said Donna Fuentes, a pre-K teacher at the Ralph Hirschkorn Child Care Center in Queens.

Participants take home a hefty handbook designed to help teachers turn fidgety little-kid behavior into learning opportunities, for example. What does that look like in the classroom? If you have a student who bumps into other kids, the handbook suggests giving that child extra space on his rug square to help him define his personal space.

Polakow-Suransky offered a personal example. During a pre-K class at Bank Street, he noticed that one student had a large glob of playdough and another student had none. Resisting the impulse to pointedly ask that student to share, Polakow-Suransky instead asked him how he thought the other child felt without any playdough.

The student parted with a pea-sized ball of dough, then a little more. “It was enough to make it work,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Many of the teachers in attendance were already familiar with these ideas, but others had a ways to go.

“It’s a little more than I expected,” said James Cervantes, who is set to start as an assistant teacher at Alpha Academy, a new school still enrolling kids. “I honestly didn’t know it’s that detailed for little kids.”

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.