Students at the Stagg Street Center for Children

On a recent morning at Stagg Street Center for Children, in Williamsburg, a class of 4-year-olds put up an abstract, angular structure in the first-floor art gallery. The were inspired by Louise Nevelson’s “Sky Cathedral,” which they had seen on a recent trip to MOMA. Later, that same class sculpted in clay with a visiting artist, while a portable kiln warmed up behind them.

For more than four decades, Larry Provette, Stagg Street’s director, has provided rich, arts-focused experiences for low-income children in his neighborhood. But he fears that Stagg Street might not be around much longer.

That’s because a city initiative to boost early childhood education is requiring every publicly funded daycare center, from mom-and-pop operations working out of apartments to larger centers housed in city facilities, to prove that they are worthy of city funding. Directors welcomed the news late last week that their deadline to do so has been pushed back a month, to Sept. 12.

That deadline is for the first step in an ambitious overhaul, called EarlyLearn, of the city’s public daycare system. Under EarlyLearn, the city’s 647 daycare programs and family care networks, which together served 51,766 children in 2010-2011, will have to meet higher academic and developmental standards starting in 2013. By September, all programs must reapply for approval from the Administration for Children’s Services, which funds and oversees them. The proposals must describe each center’s existing programs and outline how they will be updated to meet the new standards. ACS and the Department of Education, which will help review applications, plan to announce which centers will receive new contracts in March 2012.

The new standards are steep: Programs must show how they provide support to parents, create a challenging curriculum that prepares students for kindergarten and instruct children in health and safety. They need to find more time for staff development, guarantee service for children with special needs and be assessed annually according to a new grading program. Children will need to be screened for health, social and hygienic needs and assessed for academic gains. Some programs will have to expand their hours of operation. And for the first time, centers will need to pay for a portion of this themselves.

The change is coming at a time when national focus is shifting to early childhood education. In May, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that $500 million in Race to the Top funds would be set aside for states that promise to boost their child care systems. EarlyLearn predates Duncan’s announcement but could help New York State’s bid, which Sherry Cleary, co-chair of the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisory Council, characterized as a “strong contender.”

Many center directors and early childhood experts applaud the spirit behind EarlyLearn. But they also say ACS isn’t giving centers enough time or money to overhaul themselves, and that the initiative could end up hurting some centers more than it helps the system.

The New Deal

The changes are meant to unify a sprawling system of daycare centers that have long ranged in quality and character.

“There is definitely a disparity [in quality],” said Letitia James, the Brooklyn City Councilwoman. “I’ve spoken to schools in my district about daycare centers, asking them if they come to school prepared. They can identify the children that come from certain daycare centers, because they are developmentally delayed.”

The impetus behind EarlyLearn is a desire to improve strong programs while pushing weaker ones to catch up — or be closed. 

“While the existing system has many high quality programs, the standards and services available vary based on funding stream,” Melanie Hartzog, the deputy commissioner for child care and head start at ACS, wrote in an email. “It is our goal to move to a system where services are seamless for families and all programs regardless of setting are resourced to provide successful learning environments for young children.”

In short, that means becoming more like a Head Start program. Head Start, a half-century-old federal initiative  that aims to help poor children start kindergarten on par with their middle-class peers, sets out over 1,700 standards for its programs, more than 250 of which are operating in the city. Head Start programs are considered rigorous and comprehensive, and studies show that Head Start graduates are more likely to complete high school and less likely to be charged with a crime.

“If you’re not ready, if you don’t want to be a Head Start, you’re still going to want to look at that program, and look in that direction,” Wendy Raver, an education consultant, told 15 childcare center directors at a recent workshop on how to craft their EarlyLearn proposals.

With what money?

But replicating the rigor of a Head Start comes with a hefty price tag, one that some center directors say they will not be able to afford. Since 2006, the city has spent more on daycare even as the number of children served has declined, according to a 2010 report from the city’s Independent Budget Office. And while City Council largesse has meant that only 10 programs have shut their doors in the past two years, budget cuts have gutted ACS’s central administration. 

“There have been across-the-board staff reductions since 2008,” said Elysia Murphy Carnevale, an ACS spokeswoman. “Agency-wide, we have gone through several rounds of budget cuts in response to the fiscal crisis. On top of that, the city has been facing a significant deficit in the childcare system.”

“This is an incredibly critical moment for the system,” said Betty Holcomb, Policy Director for the Center for Children’s Initiatives, a nonprofit that is currently analyzing EarlyLearn to determine whether the requirements can be met within ACS’s proposed budget.

Many center directors have already concluded that EarlyLearn is an impossible task for them right now. “It’s going to put us all out of business,” said Provette. “All programs are at risk, very much so.”

Wendy Raver’s workshop was sponsored by the Daycare Council, a membership organization that provides assistance to child care centers, to help directors write their proposals. At the workshop, she acknowledged daycare providers’ concerns about being able to meet the new requirements.

“There’s going to be a lot of centers at the table that don’t have this now,” Raver said. “You’re going to have to show in your proposals what steps you’re going to take to get there.”

One director, who wished to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize her proposal, complained that she lacked the personnel to implement the changes.

“Some of our employees only have a high school degree,” she said. “Now I have to train them to design a curriculum, and at the same time you’re cutting my budget?” (The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which sets the licensing requirements, said that daycare classroom teachers have always been required to hold a Bachelor’s degree.)

Andrea Anthony, the executive director of the Daycare Council, said there could be ways to meet some of the EarlyLearn standards without spending more money.

“Our official position is that it’s not enough money to provide the services that they are asking for,” Anthony said. “But there are options. … On some of this stuff we can get some help.”

She suggested, for example, that programs could meet a requirement that they teach about health by recruiting volunteers from local hospitals.

But even if centers can find ways to meet the new standards, they will still have to wrestle with two other financial pressures. Under EarlyLearn, ACS is now asking centers to pay for 6.7 percent of their operating costs, and, possibly, to shoulder their employees’ health care costs. Some leaders of nonprofit groups that support daycare centers say that these new stipulations cannot be met within the current budget.

“The funding formula will not meet the needs,” Liz Accles, of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, which provides services and assistance to public daycare centers, said. “The healthcare expenses that are said to be contained within the [budgeted rate] just don’t pan out when programs do their own analysis.”

She said she had concluded that EarlyLearn could not work while programs are already straining to provide services. “EarlyLearn is an interesting model in a time of ample funding,” she said, “not a time of protracted budgetary restrictions.”

Whether the time is ripe or not, directors are preparing for the change. At Stagg Street, Provette is figuring out ways to sell his program’s most valuable features, like his arts-focused curriculum, in its EarlyLearn application. But he worries that he still might not make the cut. “That would be devastating for this community,” he said.

 


EarlyLearn Comparison Chart