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.

Weighing in

As advocates seek to influence New York City’s chancellor search, Angélica Infante-Green gets another nod

The petition calling for Infante-Green to become New York City's next schools chief.

Massachusetts education leaders and New York City parents are waging a tug-of-war over a New York state education official.

Angélica Infante-Green, currently a deputy commissioner in New York’s state education department, is having a big week. On Monday, she presented a proposal to increase culturally responsive education to New York policy makers. On Thursday, she’ll be in Boston to interview to become Massachusetts’ state education chief. And at the same time, New York City advocates are mounting an online campaign to make her their city schools chief.

A petition launched over the weekend calling on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to consider Infante-Green as he seeks to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

“Ms. Infante-Green is a visionary in the field of education and has proven to be a leader capable of generating change and results for the most vulnerable population,” says the petition, which is bilingual in English and Spanish and so far has more than 200 signatures, out of a goal of 500.

Whether Infante-Green is actually getting a close look from the de Blasio administration is unclear. City Hall has been tight-lipped about the process, other than vowing to limit the search to educators — which would rule Infante-Green in.

But Politico reported last week that insiders – people who have spent substantial time working within the local education bureaucracy — are not the administration’s top priority. “That means … no Angelica Infante-Green,” Politico’s Eliza Shapiro reported.

What is clear is that local advocates are seeking to seeking to gain influence in an opaque hiring process.

Matt Gonzales of New York Appleseed, a group that is pushing New York City to diversify its schools, told Chalkbeat in December that advocates want to have a voice in the chancellor search. On Tuesday, groups representing school PTAs and elected parent leaders will hold a press conference outside education department headquarters calling for parent input in the search.

For now, supporters of Infante-Green are busily making their case. Here’s one comment from the petition:

“Best candidate for the job. Personal Knowledge of entire NYC Public School Student population, which includes Special Education students and English Language Learners,” someone identified as Wladimir Pierre wrote about Infante-Green. “Angelica is a Devoted Public Servant of NYC Public School Students and their families. Let us not lose her to Massachusetts.”

A new floor

Colorado’s new minimum wage means raises for child care workers and tuition increases for parents

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center was one of the first two centers in the state to get a Level 5 rating in the Colorado Shines rating system.

Child care teachers and assistants absolutely deserve the raises that come from Colorado’s new minimum wage of $10.20 an hour, their bosses say, but the pay increases also mean that many providers will pass on the new expenses to tuition-paying parents already stretched thin by child care costs.

“I don’t know how much more parents can pay,” said Diane Price, who heads a nonprofit network of seven centers in Colorado Springs.

In some parts of the state, early childhood advocates also worry that the raises mandated by the minimum wage hike will cause some workers to lose public benefits by pushing their income just above the eligibility threshold — making it harder, not easier to make ends meet.

In a field working to professionalize its ranks, pay its workers more, and raise awareness about the educational and economic value of quality child care, many observers say the minimum wage increase is a step in the right direction.

“It’s an important move,” said Christi Chadwick, director of the “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce” project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado. “The thing I struggle with is we’re still not getting people out of poverty and paying them on par with the public school system.”

Price, the president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers, said, “Shame on us that we even have to have this discussion that early educators are in a category that pays minimum wage.”

The latest minimum wage increase, which took effect Jan. 1, is the second of four annual increases mandated by a ballot measure approved by Colorado voters in 2016. The last step of the phase-in process will boost the minimum wage to $12 in 2020.

Colorado is among 29 states — most in the northeast and west — that have set a minimum wage higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Child care providers here say advance planning and clear communication with parents have helped them incorporate raises into their budgets.

Price, who raised tuition slightly at her centers last August, said she anticipates a budget hit of about $600,000 over the four-year phase-in period.

But that’s not just because her lowest paid staff members are getting raises to comply with the minimum wage law. Like many other child care directors, she’s giving raises across the board out of fairness to veteran employees.

Price said she didn’t want entry-level employees to catch up with those who already hav a Child Development Associate credential or an associate’s degree.

Heather Griffith, who leads the for-profit Young Peoples Learning Center in Fort Collins, is taking the same approach. Her whole staff, except two brand new employees, have received raises.

She’s already sent out a letter notifying parents that tuition will go up 6.5 percent on February 1 – that’s an additional $16 a week for a full-time preschool slot. It’s the second of three tuition hikes Griffith will institute during the minimum wage phase-in period.

While the higher costs are hard on parents, “it’s a lot tougher for these teachers to survive on non-livable wages,” Griffith said. “I’m 100 percent in support of this minimum wage hike.”

Griffith hasn’t gotten much pushback over the impending tuition increase. The thriving economy helps. Also, she said, parents like the care her centers provide and wouldn’t be able to find it for much less unless they switched to unlicensed care, which is mostly unregulated.

Anne Lance, who heads the non-profit Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in northern Colorado, said she began planning — and frontloading — wage increases for all staff shortly after the 2016 ballot measure passed.
Currently, her entry-level teaching assistants start at $10.50 an hour even though she’s only required to pay $10.20.

“I had to get way ahead of the game … so in a couple years when it gets closer to that $12, it’s not going to kill me,” said Lance, who operates one center in Loveland and one in Fort Collins.

While the center’s two sites serve many low-income children who qualify for state child care subsidies or state-funded preschool slots, there are some tuition-paying families in the mix, too.

It’s those parents who may feel the sting of the minimum wage increases over the next couple years. Lance said she’ll keep her tuition increases to a modest 3 percent this year, but may have to jump up to 5 percent in 2019 and 2020.

On average, lead teachers with several years of experience at Teaching Tree make about $13.50 an hour. While that’s above the minimum wage, it’s not much to live on for employees on their own or those who are single parents, Lance said.

In Colorado, about one-third of child care teachers qualify for some kind of public assistance to cover housing, food, health insurance, or child care costs, according to a 2017 survey of child care workers in the state.

Chadwick, of Early Milestones, said during visits last fall to the San Luis Valley and southeastern Colorado, early childhood leaders explained that some child care workers were quitting their jobs due to fears they would lose government benefits when minimum wage-related raises took effect.

To alleviate such concerns and make child care a profession that pays a living wage, more substantial raises are needed. But Chadwick and other leaders don’t expect further funding to come from a state-level effort.

Instead, they say it will be locally-funded initiatives — already underway in some Colorado communities — that pick up the slack.

“We have to pass things like mill levies and taxes that support early childhood,” said Griffith, of Young Peoples Learning Center. “We have to do it. We have to say yes to these things if what we want is a community that has educated kids ready to go into kindergarten.”