(Very) early education

Bank Street heads to East New York to help child care providers play to their strengths

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sherease Alston sings along with children at her child care center, Little Minds at Work.

One little girl would simply repeat anything that was said to her, rather than answer basic questions like, “How are you?” Another toddler seemed more active than the other children — maybe too active. But Sherease Alston, who has run a child care center from her living room for the past six years, was often met with skepticism when she would share her observations with parents.

The hard part isn’t noticing when a child may have a developmental issue, she explained. It’s getting the child’s parents to recognize it, too.

“It’s hard for parents to see sometimes because they’re in denial,” she said.

A cold call from a leading education school helped change that. With the help of the new Guttman Center for Early Care and Education at the Bank Street College of Education, Alston came up with a strategy to help parents see what she sees. Now, she asks them to log their children’s behavior at home, so those logs can be compared against ones kept by the daycare, Little Minds at Work.

“It was easy to see once it was all documented,” Alston said. “It was an easy tool to use to open that door for our parents.”

New York City is in the midst of a massive push to expand access to early childhood education — and to make sure quality keeps up. Site evaluations and teacher training have been a centerpiece of the city’s free pre-K program, which now serves 70,000 4-year-olds and is expanding to enroll 3-year-olds, too.

The city is slated to bring its pre-K model to children as young as six weeks old, with plans to transfer responsibility for publicly funded childcare programs from the Administration for Children’s Services to the education department. Making that shift will require the city to turn its attention to a vast network of providers like Alston — those who are already working with infants and toddlers in their communities.

That’s where the Guttman Center is focusing its attention. Working with providers on the ground in low-income neighborhoods, the Center wants to help them solve problems and improve their care.

“We really wanted … to have the input of the community, acknowledge the exceptional range of abilities that already exists, and partner with them,” said Director Robin Hancock. “The beauty of having all these perspectives in the classroom is people are constantly hearing from other corners in the field.”

Across the country, early childhood advocates have taken a similar approach, working to meet providers where they are — and build on their strengths. In Colorado, for example, community organizations have trained the aunts, neighbors and other caregivers who form an often invisible network of care. The state has also paid special attention to helping Spanish-speaking providers earn early childhood credentials.

In New York City, the scale of the challenge is huge. ACS currently oversees programs that serve about 20,000 children ages 3 or younger. A recent report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that home-based providers especially struggle with a labyrinth of safety and compliance requirements, understanding what is developmentally appropriate for very young children, and enduring long hours for low pay.

Guttman’s work represents one step in helping child care workers navigate those issues. The first cohort of providers was drawn from East New York — one of two neighborhoods (along with the South Bronx) where the city is launching its pilot for free pre-K for 3-year-olds this fall. The Guttman program was created for even younger children, from infants to 2-year-olds.

Providers meet on Saturdays every other week for a semester, and coursework centers on topics like building partnerships with families and caring relationships with students. Group discussions are paired with on-site coaching.

“The goal really is for them to be able to look at their own practice and to understand what’s working and what is not,” said Margie Brickley, a program director for the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, who helped develop the Guttman curriculum.

Ultimately, the program hopes to create a community of support for providers who often find themselves working in isolation. Already, some have opened up their sites to visits from other providers to observe good practices in action and share ideas.

“The first 36 months of life are critical for cognitive development and we’re building the foundation for learning,” said Johannah Chase, then an associate dean at Bank Street. “It’s part of the reason why we’re putting so much of our energy into child caregivers.”

Kiara Dash, an assistant at Little Minds at Work, reads to Thravis Ealey. (Photo: Christina Veiga)

On a recent morning at Little Minds at Work, five squirmy toddlers and an infant gathered on a rug made of giant foam puzzle pieces. Sunlight streamed in through two windows facing a quiet residential street. The group sang about their feelings and assistant Vanesha Mayers playfully wiggled one boy’s fingers and toes as they counted to 20.

Before joining the Guttman program, Alston said she took a more academic approach to working with the very young children in her care — which often led to frustration for both her and the kids. Guttman helped her refocus her curriculum around play and building relationships.

“That was an eye-opener,” she said. “They helped me understand their needs.”

Brickley said Alston’s struggle is common. Often, providers simply “water down” programs meant for older children even though infants and toddlers have very different needs.

On the other hand, Alston said she is adept at juggling the business and regulatory aspects of her business — something she can help other providers learn.

Hancock, the center’s director, said the program was built to recognize providers’ different abilities and fill gaps as needed. That tailored approach respects the knowledge providers already bring to the table, she said, and helps create a culture of trust.

“We really want to make sure to help providers build confidence that they are experts,” she said. “They know their environments and they know their children best.”

Correction: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Johannah Chase’s name. 

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.”

Measuring success

New York City wants to know: How effective is its training for pre-K teachers?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students in P.S. 277 in the Bronx were among New York City's first 3-K for All cohort. The program is an expansion of the city's free pre-K for 4-year-olds.

In New York City’s breakneck effort to offer free preschool to all 4-year olds, officials have banked on teacher training as a key way to ensure that quality keeps up with access.

About three years into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education policy achievement, the education department and New York University are partnering to study whether that teacher training is doing the trick. One of the first studies of its kind of New York City’s high-profile program, the results could be used to fine-tune the city’s training programs to increase their impact on student achievement.

“The question for us is, ‘How do we make pre-K better, as fast as we can?’” said Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor for the education department and a principal investigator for the study. “This study will point us in the right direction, we believe.”

Pre-K for All now enrolls about 70,000 students — providing free public preschool to any family who wants it, according to the city. When launching its program, the city homed in on research from pre-K initiatives in Boston and Tulsa that showed teacher training and coaching had an outsize impact on student performance.

“The mayor and chancellor believe that the evidence is in: We know that high-quality pre-K leads to improved student outcomes,” Wallack said. “So our research agenda really focuses on the methods we use to help programs improve quality, and one of the ways we do that is through teacher training.”

The NYU study will use measures of student behavior such as self-regulation, third-grade test scores, and how often students are held back to track the impact of the city’s different teacher training programs. The city assigns its pre-K providers to four training tracks, each with a different focus.

Those tracks are: Pre-K Explore, which focuses on math; Pre-K Thrive, which emphasizes child behavior and working with families; and Pre-K Create, which is arts-driven. A fourth track, Pre-K Inspire, gives schools more flexibility to choose what type of training they receive from the city.

The study will compare outcomes of students who attended schools in the Explore, Thrive and Create tracks to those who attended schools that choose the Inspire track. About half of all pre-K sites participate in the Inspire track, according to figures provided by the education department.

“Our expectation is that some of the models may support teacher development and kids’ learning more effectively than other models,” said Pamela Morris, a principal investigator for the grant, and vice dean for research and faculty affairs at NYU Steinhardt. “Understanding that process will be important.”

One common pitfall of teacher training is that educators often struggle to put it into practice in their classrooms. The NYU study will also measure how well pre-K teachers use the skills they learn.

Funded by a $5 million grant from Institute of Education Sciences — the research and data arm of the U.S. Education Department — the five-year study is designed to be a partnership between the city and NYU. School district-university partnerships are common, with the goal being to produce research that helps districts improve their practices.

“It really infuses the system with a huge amount of research to build this quality infrastructure,” Morris said.

Russ Whitehurst, former director of the Institute, said there is often another reason why such partnerships are necessary: to gain access to data that can otherwise be difficult to get. The need for data can create pressure on researchers to work collaboratively with districts, he said.

“It’s the nature of how these things work,” said Whitehurst, who is now a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “You sort of have to play nice to get someone to want to partner with you.”

Wallack said the city has experts who can help crunch data for the study, but the bulk of that job will be in the hands of NYU researchers, who Wallack said would retain their independence.

“It’s just important to emphasize that, in the end, NYU will really be running the analysis here — and the analysis will be based on objective measures,” he said.

NYU and the education department have partnered in the past, and Morris said the city has proven itself to be committed to transparency. She said a “very strong” advisory board would help “ensure the research integrity.”

“I would not be engaging in the partnership if I didn’t think the city would be open,” she said. “They’ve been really terrific about seeing where the data leads them.”