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NYC’s pre-K workers, programs say they’re in limbo after reorganization

One young child sits at a table, while another stands nearby with classroom artwork hanging on the wall behind them.

Children play in a preschool program. A department reorganization plan in New York City has sowed confusion and chaos among early childhood employees and some programs they were supporting.

Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat

After a summer of scrambling to replace two teachers and getting her preschool classrooms ready for the fall, Joanne Derwin opened her email last week to find some news: 

The extra support that programs like hers received from the education department was “being reimagined.” 

That’s probably why, Derwin realized, she hadn’t heard from the instructional coordinator or social worker whose help over the years had been “transformational.” An instructional coordinator helps teachers plan lessons and teach, while social workers help families navigate various issues, such as food insecurity.

“We were given no warning, no heads up,” said Derwin, executive director of One World Project, an early childhood program in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn. “Like, nothing.”

Two weeks ago, on the Friday before the first week of school, the education department announced that it was moving 1,000 central and borough office workers to district offices to be overseen by the city’s superintendents. Officials said the move would bring “staff closer to the communities, schools, students, and teachers.” Nearly 400 early childhood education staffers — most of whom already spent their days working inside preschool classrooms — were included in the move.

The lack of communication about the new plan from the education department, as well as the abrupt announcement, has sowed confusion and concern among staff and preschool providers, according to interviews with instructional coordinators, social workers, and people who run preschool programs. The workers have since held a virtual town hall airing their concerns, and a rally on the steps of the education department headquarters.

Department officials have said no one is losing work as part of the reorganization, and that instead, people will be reassigned or encouraged to apply for new jobs. The department plans to have about 200 employees continue working under the early childhood division – but with program leaders, such as Derwin, instead of with teachers, officials said. Social workers would work on creating resources for families and hosting workshops, though it’s unclear how closely they’ll work with families. 

Another 200 would go to district offices and from there would be sent to schools to provide extra instructional and social-emotional help where it’s needed, from early childhood programs up to fifth grade.

One preschool provider, whose community-based organization is contracted by the city to provide universal preschool seats, is worried she’ll be stretched too thin without the extra support.

“It was just something that somebody else was helping us out with, instead of me going to five classrooms and jumping from one place to another,” said Marina Yeruslanov, educational director at Cheer-N-Grow Learning Academy in the Bronx, which contracts with the city to serve 3- and 4-year-olds. “It’s going to be hard for educational directors to maintain all of this, especially if it’s a large facility.” 

Confusion and chaos

As part of the reorganization plans, 360 instructional coordinators and social workers learned two days before the start of the school year that they would be “excessed” — meaning they’d lost their position, but would continue being paid as they reapplied for other jobs in the system. Officials in the early childhood education office encouraged those employees to apply for the new roles once they were posted. The jobs were described as similar to the work they do now, according to excessed employees. 

But now, a week into the school year, the new jobs have not yet been posted. 

Despite being excessed, employees said they also haven’t been able to access the portal where they’re supposed to apply for new jobs within the education department. Officials plan to post the jobs in the next few days, department spokesperson Art Nevins said.

The union had initially praised the reorganization announcement, but on Thursday raised fresh concerns. 

“While the UFT supports the concept of moving services as close as possible to the students who need them, the Department of Education has announced this change without any real planning for how to implement it,” Alison Gendar, a spokesperson for the union, said in a statement. “We will be working with our members — all of whom are still employed —  to ensure their rights are protected as the DOE’s administrative issues are worked out.”

Instructional coordinators and social workers typically help preschool programs as needed in the week before school starts, including running professional development sessions, four excessed staffers told Chalkbeat. But in late August, they were told that they would not host those sessions, scheduled for Sept. 6 and 7, according to an email shared with Chalkbeat. 

Once they were excessed on Sept. 6, supervisors informed instructional coordinators and social workers that they couldn’t go to preschool programs to help, even if program directors called, according to staffers. Meanwhile, program directors were calling and asking for help with training new teachers or setting up their classrooms. 

“The thing that is the most bothersome for all of us right now, as we sit here, is telling sites that we are so sorry, we can’t come support you right now,” an instructional coordinator, who requested anonymity in fear of retaliation, told Chalkbeat last week. 

Then, the message changed this week, staffers said. Some employees said they’re being pulled aside by supervisors and being asked to respond to programs, but many staffers are refusing because they don’t believe they should be doing their old jobs if those roles no longer exist.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, First Deputy Chancellor Dan Weisberg said that instructional coaches and social workers “are to be doing their normal duties.” Asked why staffers were told not to go out to programs, Weisberg said he couldn’t say, but “certainly, if anybody’s confused about that, they can escalate that up the chain. I will guarantee you what they’ll hear is they should continue the normal job duties.”

What comes next?

Meanwhile, some program leaders are apprehensive about what the change means for their teachers and students. 

In the bulletin that went out to programs, Deputy Chancellor Kara Ahmed wrote that education department staffers would reach out to help support them as the reorganization took effect. But Yeruslanov, with the Bronx program, said she still hasn’t been contacted by anyone in the department.

On her own, Yersulanov compiled education-related information and resources from previous years to get teachers prepared for the start of school, she said. She recently heard from her old social worker, who said she’s going to come in next week to help out as long as she can.

Before the reorganization, instructional coordinators and social workers worked directly with teachers and families.

For example, a typical day for one social worker involved meeting families at drop off at one of the several schools she supported. She might help teachers navigate behavioral problems with students – sometimes assisting teachers in conversations with families if the issue was persistent. She would also guide families through a constellation of social service resources, or even things like kindergarten applications.  

Instructional coordinators observed teachers and helped them plan lessons or activities, ensuring they were following the best practices for educating 3- and 4-year-olds. Some days, if there was a particular issue with a child, they might shift their attention to focus on helping that teacher with that student. 

Derwin, who also has not been contacted by the education department, said her program has a tight budget, so the extra support was a game-changer.

“I really can’t emphasize enough how hard things are right now on the ground,” Derwin said. “You have teachers who are struggling, we’ve had years of a global pandemic and trying to support our children in masks, trying to figure out how we do language acquisition, how we support social-emotional needs, how we support families through impossibly complicated and difficult situations — and now this one thing that was actually really helpful is being taken away.” 

Weisberg, the first deputy chancellor, said he’s confident the change will help programs and disputed the idea that it would result in less support. Part of the shift is meant to give program leaders the tools to coach their own teachers, instead of having a coach or social worker “intermittently” working with a few teachers in the school whose priorities or style may be “totally inconsistent” with what the leader wants. 

He noted that many community-based programs, which contract with the education department to provide universal preschool seats, have other personnel who can fill in where programs are feeling a gap. 

“We’re optimistic that this is going to feel like more support, because this is going to be working directly with leaders and is going to be consistent with them,” Weisberg said, who added that they made this change in part based on feedback from preschool programs. 

Yeruslanov said they’ve been managing without their instructional coordinator and social worker, but she noted that it’s only the second week of the school year. She relies heavily on the social worker because her center serves many single mothers as well as foster parents, who are navigating many responsibilities. Last year, she recalls at least ten one-on-one meetings that her social worker had with families she serves. 

It’s “challenging” for Derwin to imagine taking on coaching on top of her other responsibilities, even with staffers who oversee education and operations. 

“I’m not sure who they consulted with, but I know from our example, our school specifically, we feel the loss of not having our instructional coordinator and not having a social worker, especially now during these really trying times,” Derwin said. 

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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