final countdown

With pre-K applications almost due, parents’ phones keep ringing

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Members of the city's pre-K outreach team encourage parents to enroll their four-year-olds during the last admissions cycle.

Phone headsets on, color-coded maps pulled up on their computers, and coffee by their sides, the city’s 30 or so pre-kindergarten outreach workers were in overdrive early Thursday: They had less than 37 hours before pre-K applications were due.

With names culled from birth records, public child-care centers, and responses to robocalls, the workers have already dialed up more than 135,000 parents of four-year-olds to encourage them to apply for free pre-K. Other days, they ventured from their fifth-floor office in a nondescript building overlooking City Hall out to playgrounds, laundromats, and hair salons across the city to pitch parents on the importance of pre-K.

Their work has paid off. By noon Thursday, they had helped convince 64,785 parents to apply for full-day pre-K slots, officials said, making the city likely to meet its goal of getting 70,000 children enrolled well before school starts in September.

While families will still be able to apply after Friday night, officials are emphasizing the deadline since it will help the city plan and give parents the best chance of securing a spot at their top-ranked pre-K sites. So to spur the workers toward the finish line, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery stopped by the “war room” Thursday to deliver pep talks.

“I want to thank you for this heroic effort,” Fariña told the workers gathered around her, adding that pre-K is a “life-changing” opportunity for children. “Don’t ever think of this as a job: You’re on a mission.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery gave pre-K outreach workers a pep talk Thursday.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery gave pre-K outreach workers a pep talk Thursday.

Buery said that the number of children they had already enrolled was “unprecedented,” but that thousands more have yet to apply.

“I am in such awe of your hard work and your passion,” he said. “And I know there are 64,875 children and counting who owe you all an immense debt of gratitude.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio made the pre-K expansion the central initiative of his first year in office and, while it has largely been a success, Buery said Thursday that some challenges remain.

In order to boost the number of full-day pre-K seats from 19,000 to 53,000 last year, the city scoured public schools for available classrooms, hired real estate brokers to locate private spaces, and even created an online database to help pre-K providers find suitable facilities. Still, the city has a way to go to make sure that safe, high-quality seats are ready for another 20,000 or so pre-K students by September.

“It’s a big, big, big challenge,” Buery said. (An aide noted that the city already has space for about 75,000 students, but is looking to add more seats in order to give families additional options and account for high demand.)

About 60 percent of the city’s public pre-K seats are operated by private groups, which must follow the same regulations and use the same curriculum as the programs inside public schools. The city has tried to walk a fine line with those community-based groups, encouraging as many as possible to apply to offer public pre-K while demanding that they match the quality of school-based sites.

Members of the city's pre-K outreach team urged parents to enroll their four-year-olds before this week's deadline.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Members of the city’s pre-K outreach team urged parents to enroll their four-year-olds before this week’s deadline.

To that end, city agents conducted thousands of site visits last year, delayed the opening of dozens of new sites where problems were found, and rejected nearly half the applications from would-be providers for failing to meet the city’s standards. Officials also urged religious schools to add full-day slots, assuring them that they could hold prayer breaks during the day — a policy that civil-liberties groups said could violate the separation of church and state.

The city has invested millions of dollars in teacher training. It hired Bank Street College of Education to prepare 4,000 new-to-pre-K teachers last summer, and created a fast-track fellowship program that speeds teachers with just a few months of training into pre-K classrooms while they work toward full certification. Whether those teachers will deliver on de Blasio’s promise of top-notch instruction at every pre-K site remains to be seen.

After the speeches Thursday, the workers turned back to their phones, asking those on the other end whether they had 10 minutes to enroll their child in pre-K right now.

One of those callers was Chris Yarrell, the team’s Bronx outreach manager. He recalled contacting a woman three times before she finally had to time to enroll her child. After that, she became so excited about the program that she volunteered to encourage other parents to sign up at a Bronx pre-K event, Yarrell said.

“That’s just one example of many,” he added. “I’m very happy to be working in this environment.”

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.