in the lobby

Eyeing Cuomo's grants, charter sector sees a pre-K opportunity

Charter schools want to piggyback on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to expand pre-kindergarten across the state. But in order to benefit from Cuomo’s $25 million in pre-K grants, the schools first must win the right to offer pre-K classes.

Pushing for that right is at the top of charter school supporters’ agenda today as they convene in Albany as part of the charter sector’s annual advocacy day. The parents will meet in the Albany Convention Center with more than a dozen legislators, then spend the rest of the day visiting their district representatives.

They’re not the only ones lobbying lawmakers over pre-K this week. On Monday, police chiefs, principals, and education groups from around the state declared their support for Cuomo’s pre-K grants, which represent a fraction of the $385 million that the state spends annually on pre-kindergarten.

The charter sector’s lobbying efforts are not so straightforward, because the state’s 1998 law authorizing the schools grants them the right to serve students in kindergarten to 12th grade only. Legislators would have to change to the law — last revised in 2010 amid heavy controversy — to allow pre-kindergarten in charter schools.

“It’s our job to talk to lawmakers and say to them, ‘Hey, does it really makes sense to a have a program where some really good schools don’t have the ability to do full-day pre-K?'” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center.

Merriman said the sector also wants legislators to revive a bill that would allow charter schools to share resources in order to serve special education students and English language learners. In past years, charter school parents and advocates have lobbied for a variety of legislative initiatives: more schoolsmore funding, and, last year, more of a voice on the city’s local parent councils.

Sources say that advocates should dig in for a tough battle with the Assembly, which includes many Democratic lawmakers who have aligned closely with state and city teachers union on charter schools, which rarely employ unionized staff.

“The union would kill it,” said the source, who said broad legislative support for charter school pre-kindergarten would be unlikely during the session this year.

Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said the state union has not decided if it would support allowing charter schools to operate pre-K programs.

But United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said he didn’t think charter schools were ready to serve earlier grades.

“The charter school sector needs to deal with some of its more immediate concerns like high student attrition and their low number of special education and ELL children,” Mulgrew said.

It’s not the first time charter schools have sought to wade into early education. Harlem Children’s Zone, which operates two charter schools, had to set up a community-based organization with a separate board of trustees to receive state funds to operate its full-day pre-K programs. And Success Academy Charter Schools dabbled in a “developmental kindergarten” program that admitted 4-year-olds before they graduated to kindergarten. Spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis said that program ended after a year.

This year’s charter sector agenda is largely fueled by the recommendationS made by Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission earlier this year. In its “consensus” report, the commission avoided many of the state’s thorniest issues, and instead focused on less controversial initiatives.

All members of the commission embraced the pre-K recommendations. In its report, the commission highlighted research that shows that the earlier students enter a quality early education program, the better they will do in and out of school later on in life.

Some members wanted the report to more explicitly recommend Cuomo to seek legislation to allow charter schools to have a crack at his grants. Sara Mead, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, said she thinks the state needs more high-quality providers in order for expanded pre-K to succeed. Charter schools, she said, should be at least an option.

“The issue is not that charter schools should be entitled,” Mead said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to preclUde the charters from offering pre-K when some of them want to do it and have a good history of serving kindergartners.”

Even if charter schools win the right to operate pre-K programs, they still might not be eligible for Cuomo’s funding. That’s because districts without approved teacher evaluation plans aren’t eligible for Cuomo’s grants. New York City remains without an evaluation plan and, even if it eventually adopts one, it would not apply to charter schools.

In New York City, 58,000 students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs in 2012, according to the City Council. Most of them attended school for just a half-day, but a growing number, 15,590, attended full-day. About 7,500 pre-kindergarten-aged students weren’t enrolled in any program at all.

Several states already have laws that allow charter schools to operate pre-K programs, according to the report. California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., allow charter schools to operate pre-kindergarten programs. Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Education, said New Jersey also allows charters to operate pre-K programs.

In New York, Merriman said, there is still considerable opposition to charter schools in the legislature, and he conceded that the sector’s lobbying had only a slim chance of success.

“I think, unfortunately, there are still lawmakers who just think that nothing positive should be done for the charter sector,” he said.

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”