moving on

An exit interview with Sophia Pappas, who led New York City’s historic expansion of universal pre-K

PHOTO: New York City Department of Education
Sophia Pappas reads to a pre-K class.

Her job was described as “high-stakes” and “daunting.” But leading New York City’s massive, breakneck effort to make universal pre-K a reality was nothing short of a dream for Sophia Pappas.

Pappas was head of the Department of Education’s Office of Early Childhood Education when Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected — partially on the promise of free, universal access to preschool. The mayor wasted no time in getting the program off the ground.

“Knowing that this is a really critical and unique time in a child’s development, I was thrilled with the ambitious timeline,” Pappas said. “Because a kid is not going to get that year back.”

A little more than three years later, the number of students in pre-K has tripled to more than 70,000 and the program is highly popular with parents. Not bad for someone who, like many young teachers, struggled with classroom management and was fired from her first teaching job in Newark, New Jersey.

Now, after leading an expansion effort that has been watched across the country, Pappas is moving on.

To what and where, the 35-year-old Georgetown and Harvard grad — who also led early childhood efforts with Teach For America — isn’t yet sure. She expects to wrap up her tenure this month.

On her way out, Chalkbeat spoke with Pappas about her role in the city’s historic effort. Here’s why she says “joyful learning” isn’t an either-or proposition and what motivates her to get out of bed.

A former pre-K teacher herself, Pappas also shared some departing tips for pre-K teachers:

“Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Stick with it. Just bring it for your kids and families every day,” she said. “And crouch down, at eye level, to meet the kids where they are — for every one of them when they enter the door.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Implementing universal pre-K in the country’s largest school system is quite an undertaking. Did you have any anxiety about it?

Remember, I came in before de Blasio was here. But when the mayor came in and his number one priority was making high-quality, full-day pre-K available to all 4-year-olds, this was like a dream for me.

As an early childhood educator, and somebody who deeply believes in the importance of high-quality, full-day pre-K, having a mayor who’s setting a clear vision and sort of leading the charge for us to make this a reality was just incredible. And so, while yes, it seemed like a really big task, I had a lot of support.

What did you think about the speedy ramp-up? Did it seem impossible?

Having been a pre-K teacher who saw first-hand how important this year was for kids and knowing that this is a really critical and unique time in a child’s development, I was thrilled with the ambitious timeline. Because a kid is not going to get that year back. So being able to do this quickly, while really focusing on building both access and quality at the same time, was very appealing to me.

I knew it would be a big job but I also knew at every step of the way, even at the beginning, that we had the strong support and leadership from the mayor to the chancellor and so forth.

The city opted to work with many private early education providers — about 60% of the programs are in private centers. What challenges or opportunities did that present?

I think we have incredible opportunities in this city to both offer families a unified system of pre-K that’s going to deliver on quality — whatever door a child is entering through — and to have diverse options for families in different settings. And so one way that we do that is through community-based partnerships.

From the beginning of expansion, our community-based providers — whether we were already working with them as half-day programs or programs that maybe were providing early childhood services privately — really stepped it up and responded to the mayor’s call by applying through our rigorous application process.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has talked about the importance of making pre-K fun and joyful, but this initiative is also a way to set kids up for success in school. How do you balance that?

I don’t think it’s a choice you have to make, ‘either-or.’ It’s not joyful or setting a foundation. You set a foundation for children by having a fun and joyful environment where there is a lot of play, which is just how young children learn. It happens to also be what gets kids excited about learning, which is a really great benefit and outcome of pre-K.

So a lot of our work has been focused on — in our professional development, in the standards we set, in the curriculum units that we created — showing programs how you teach various skills through play. That goes for our community-based centers. That goes through our schools and for us, that’s really the focus.

Now that we’re a couple of years in, how should we be judging whether pre-K has paid off the way the city hoped it would?

When we first made this happen and rolled out all the programs, there was a lot of effort put into making sure families knew how to enroll and had support in that process. So the fact that we are now at nearly 70,000 kids who are enrolled, up from 20,000 when we started, I think is a really important marker of success and we should continue to look at enrollment in the program.

The other big way is, we were — in the beginning especially — doing a lot of work to make sure we had enough programs to provide pre-K in our schools and our community-based centers. And in both of those cases, they went through rigorous processes to even become pre-K providers. So the number of pre-K providers we have year after year running pre-K is also a marker of success.

The other way is we look very closely at what’s actually happening in the program. So looking at the quality of the learning environment and the interactions happening, to really make the most of this opportunity for kids ,is something that we monitor with two valid and reliable assessments. And we recently reported out, and did this last year as well, how we’re doing on those measures.

Quality has improved over time, but there are still some schools and centers deemed ineffective under the assessments the department uses. What is the city doing about that?

As you can imagine, in any big system you’re going to have programs with different strengths and things that they’re working on. Our focus is on working with each program, based on things that are going well and things that they need to work on, to provide support. We do that through a few different strategies.

One is, there’s ongoing professional learning — not just for the teachers but also for the leaders of the program. So this is teaching teams — lead teachers and assistants — and the administrators. That’s really important because we know what happens in the classroom day-to-day is important and we also know the leaders of that program, in their ongoing work with their teachers, need training and support. So that’s one way.

The other way is we have a dedicated team of 100 instructional coaches and 125 social workers who are regularly going out to sites to provide direct coaching.

Both of those things are happening throughout the school year and we really home in on what each program needs to continue to move forward.

What about as kids enter and progress through school? Will they be taking specific assessments? How will you measure whether they’ve made gains because of pre-K?

There may be other places in the country where they have a kindergarten entry assessment. We are not using that here in New York City. I think we always have to balance having ways of looking at progress and being mindful of what is developmentally appropriate for young children.

You taught pre-K yourself. How did that affect your approach to the work?

Teaching pre-K just showed me firsthand how important high quality pre-K is. I taught in Newark, New Jersey, in a school-based pre-K program. My kids came in with a wide variety of skills, and over the course of a year, grew a lot. That was through play-based learning.

I also saw how important partnering with families from the beginning is … I would say that had a lot to do with how we’ve approached the work here. When we talk about program quality, we talk about both classroom instruction and family engagement.

The experiences that I had as a teacher and my memories of my children and their families really are what get me up in the morning, because I had that direct experience. And in this job I’ve had the fortune of impacting thousands of children.

What’s next for you?

I am committed to staying in early childhood education because I’m so passionate about it. It’s where my heart is. I’ve also seen, through the Pre-K for All experience, what’s possible when you have strong leadership coming from the top and everyone working together to make something happen.

'class of 2031'

An earlier start: Once rare, more Denver charter schools are embracing preschool

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeastern Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics LIon."

In many ways, the new preschool in Denver’s growing Green Valley Ranch neighborhood looks like any other preschool.

At playtime, a little girl trots toy dinosaurs across a table heaped with plastic animals. Nearby, a 4-year-old boy shows off a picture he drew with lots of red scribbles and dots. There is the usual collection of books, tiny plastic chairs and colorful rugs.

There are also telltale signs that the preschool is run by KIPP, one of the country’s largest college prep charter school networks. The classrooms are all named for colleges, like in KIPP’s higher grades. The preschoolers wear blue polo shirts emblazoned with the school’s logo. A crisp blue banner in the hallway proclaims them the “Class of 2031.”

Across Denver, a growing number of preschoolers are getting their first dose of formal education at charter schools that have retrofitted their models to meet the needs of younger students. The trend is fueled by a growing awareness that getting kids in the door early pays off later academically and by a hunger among parents for affordable, high quality preschool options.

It also signals charter leaders’ increasing willingness to navigate the complicated — and often unfamiliar — early childhood funding and regulatory landscape.

At least six Denver charter schools, most serving large low-income populations, have launched preschool programs in the last five years. Besides KIPP — which enrolls 48 preschoolers at its Northeastern Elementary School — they include two locations of Rocky Mountain Prep, Highline Academy’s school in Green Valley Ranch, Academy 360 in Montbello and REACH Charter School in central Denver. (A couple charter schools offered preschool even earlier, but have since closed.)

There’s little dispute about the need for more quality preschool programs. Several neighborhoods in Denver, including parts of Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, are considered “child care deserts” because of the dearth of licensed preschool and child care slots, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

A banner outside the preschool classrooms at KIPP Northeastern Elementary School in Denver.

Lindsey Lorehn, the school leader at KIPP Northeastern Elementary, said when the school first opened in a smaller location with kindergarten and first grade in 2015, “What we heard pretty resoundingly from families was they wanted a high quality early childhood education program.”

The school’s new building, nestled among recently built homes in Green Valley Ranch, made that possible. Its three preschool classrooms opened this fall, just as a highly regarded child care center in the same neighborhood was closing its doors. There already are 41 children on KIPP’s preschool waitlist.

Rocky Mountain Prep, which offers preschool to both 3- and 4-year-olds, has more than 150 children on waitlists for a spot at one of its two Denver schools and about 30 children on the waitlist at its newest school in Aurora.

Of the six charter-run preschool programs in Denver, four have Level 3 or 4 ratings, markers of quality under state’s child care rating system. Like other new preschools, KIPP’s program has the lowest Level 1 rating, which means it’s licensed but hasn’t yet gone through the lengthy process required for a higher rating. Leaders there hope to reach Level 3 by next year.

While preschool programs run by charter schools aren’t new, experts say they make a lot of sense educationally — with one major caveat. They must be developmentally appropriate and not overly academic. In other words, plenty of play and lots of time devoted to social-emotional skills. No rote memorization, drill-and-kill tactics or long sit-down lessons.

“There’s no doubt you’re gonna get better outcomes if you start with those children at a younger age,” said Geoffrey Nagle, president and CEO of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago graduate school focused on child development.

Many charter schools initially launched with a K-5 or K-8 structure mainly because of the way school funding was allocated, he said. Their leaders later realized, “We have to go upstream and get these kids earlier.”

Nationwide, the prevalence of charters with preschool programs varies by state.

In Colorado, 33 of 149 charter schools that include elementary grades, or 22 percent, offered preschool last year, according to state education department officials.

Figuring out how to pay for preschool is one of the challenges for Colorado schools, charter or otherwise. The state funds some preschool slots for at-risk children, but most are half-day spots and there’s not enough to meet demand. There’s also limited state funding for preschoolers with special needs.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A preschooler at KIPP Northeastern Elementary School plays with dinosaurs.

A 2015 report from the Fordham Institute designated Colorado as offering charters that wanted to provide preschool a “somewhat hospitable” climate — the middle of three ratings. The state was dinged for its relatively low level of state preschool funding and because most charter schools have to seek the funding through their authorizing districts, which the report authors described as a barrier.

But it’s not a problem in every district. State officials say Denver Public Schools is exemplary when it comes to sharing state preschool funding with charter schools and community-based providers.

Even so, Denver charter schools that offer preschool usually have to cobble together dollars from lots of sources — the state, the city, the school district and in-house fundraising. Many offer the programs free to families or charge a sliding-scale fee.

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, said the rest of his program helps subsidize preschool, which is a money-loser.

In Denver, the number of charter schools offering preschool is likely to grow.

KIPP officials say they’ll include preschool in their planned southwest Denver elementary school, which could open in 2018 or 2019.

A spokeswoman for STRIVE Prep, Denver’s second largest charter network, said via email that leaders there will “absolutely” consider adding preschool at five planned elementary schools if those school communities see it as a need and priority.

In 2012, when Rocky Mountain Prep first launched preschool with the opening of its Creekside school in south Denver, there weren’t many charters in the city offering preschool. Subsequently, a number of charter school leaders contacted Cryan to ask how his team had untangled preschool licensing and funding rules. Since then, most of those leaders have added preschool.

“Where I’m excited is that I think high quality charter (schools) help provide new options and innovative approaches in the Pre-K space,” he said.

While there’s already lots of research showing that high-quality preschool boosts student achievement, there’s also evidence showing the impact of certain charter preschool programs.

A recent study by Mathematica Policy Research found that KIPP students who started in preschool had an advantage in reading over their peers who started in kindergarten. It also found positive effects in both math and reading for kids who attended preschool through second grade at KIPP. More than two-dozen KIPP schools have preschool nationwide.

Cryan said internal data from Rocky Mountain Prep show that students who start in the school’s preschool program at age 3 enter kindergarten more than half a year ahead in reading compared to peers who didn’t attend at age 3.

So how do charter schools, particularly ones that advertise rigorous college-prep environments in the upper grades, create preschools suitable for little kids who may not be adept at sharing toys, much less holding a pencil?

It was a worry for Aidan Bassett, KIPP Colorado’s director of early childhood education and a former early childhood special education teacher with Denver Public Schools,

“You think, ‘Charter — oh, it’s gonna look like kindergarten in preschool,” she said, “And that was not what we wanted.”

To prepare for the preschool launch at KIPP Northeastern, Bassett visited a KIPP preschool program in Washington, D.C., where she was pleased to see a focus on play.

She said it’s a key part of the Denver program, which runs eight hours a day and offers dance, Spanish and art as “specials.”

While KIPP sometimes has very structured ways of doing things at higher grades, Bassett said teachers can tweak them to work better for preschoolers. For example, they might urge 4-year-olds to keep “all eyes on” whomever is speaking, a gentler version of the “tracking the speaker” approach used with older kids.

While, KIPP’s version of preschool looks familiar, there’s no mistaking the school’s emphasis on early literacy.

KIPP’s preschool teachers make a concerted effort to expose kids to a wide variety of language and vocabulary in and out of structured lessons. A list taped to a shelf reminds teachers to “push in” words — empty, full, float, sink, funnel, measuring cup, carefully — related to a current story or theme during the natural course of children’s play.

But even formal lessons come with plenty of lightheartedness.

During circle time on a recent morning in a classroom named for Emory University, teacher Caroline Hiskey used a puppet named “Phonics Lion” to lead the kids through a series of animated jingles about different letters of the alphabet.

“Get your pans out,” she said, as the children followed her mime of shaking a frying pan. “Ready … Say, ‘S, s, sizzling sausages’. Say, ‘Ssssssss.’ Take a bite.”

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”