path to pre-k

Buery defends pre-K prayer breaks as city celebrates enrollment kickoff

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As the city kicks off year two of its universal pre-kindergarten initiative, the official at the head of the push defended the city’s new policy to allow religious providers to include prayer breaks during the school day.

“We’ve always had religious providers as part of the system. What we do is make sure that we have a strict separation, of course, of church and state,” Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said Tuesday on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. “Public dollars can only be used for secular instruction, but providers are allowed to – they’ve always been allowed to – have instruction outside of the hours that the public pays for and that’s been true for 20 years, perfectly consistent with the Constitution.”

The city requires full-day pre-K providers to offer 6 hours and 20 minutes of secular instruction, five days per week. Last year, officials told participating religious schools that any religious activities or instruction would have to take place before or after the school day — concerning leaders of many Jewish yeshivas, who said the rules would make school days uncomfortably long for four-year-olds. Many of those schools opted not to participate in the program last fall.

But as the city looks to add an additional 17,000 seats by September, the city has now told providers they can now have one short break for “nonprogram activities” during the school day, spread instruction over six days, and operate on federal holidays to meet the required 180 days of instruction per year, according to the Jewish newspaper Hamodia. That has prompted criticism from civil liberties groups, with NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman telling the Associated Press this week that the prayer break is “an end run around the separation of church and state.”

On Tuesday, Buery said “there are very clear opt-out rules” from religious instruction and noted that providers are obligated to provide children that do not want to participate with “high-quality, enriching activities during that break.”

All of the city’s full-day pre-K providers must give the same amount of non-religious instruction per week and pass the same quality review, he said, while the new flexibility ensures that “high-quality providers can be a part of the system.”

The city has approved an additional 200 programs to offer full-day pre-K next year, including charter schools, district schools, religious schools, and nonprofit organizations, Buery said. The city’s goal is to provide seats for 70,000 city four-year-olds by September, with a seat available for every child whose family wants one.

The application process for pre-K programs launched Monday, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said nearly 22,000 families submitted applications in the first 24 hours. The deadline for fall enrollment is April 24.

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.