inside city hall

De Blasio recruits parent bloggers in pre-K push

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is cultivating a new group of pre-kindergarten advocates: parent bloggers.

He invited 20 of them to City Hall today to ask him questions about his plan to expand pre-K and middle-grades after-school programs using a tax on the city’s highest earners. The unusual event was intended to get the parents to rally their substantial audiences to press for a swift expansion at a time when de Blasio’s funding plan has gotten little traction in Albany.

“People respect your voices and I think they need to hear your urgency,” de Blasio told the bloggers. “Our friends in Albany … need to hear parents say, ‘Great, have your differences, but we need this in September.” And I think if your voices are heard, I think the decisive moment will be realized and it will be a transcendent moment for our schools.”

The parents came from four boroughs; have children in public, private, and charter schools; and largely have not made education policy issues a focus of their sites. They were less interested in the politics around the pre-K push than the formidable logistical challenges involved in opening new programs and on the experience that the programs would provide for families.

Serena Norr, the mother of a student at Cobble Hill Success Academy charter school and an editor of the site Momtrends, asked how de Blasio would find enough space for pre-K programs when crowding has caused some elementary schools to close their own.

Liz Gumbiner, who runs the site CoolMomPicks and whose children attend P.S. 8 in Brooklyn, asked about how de Blasio would ensure quality without testing pre-K students.

“What are the plans to measure outcomes for these programs so they keep their funding without what I think is kind of an immoral amount of pressure put on very young children?” Gumbiner asked.

And Matt Schneider, a former teacher who runs the site NYC Dads, asked whether the city would change enrollment policy to guarantee kindergarten spots for children who attend pre-K at that school.

While officials from City Hall and the Department of Education had answers about testing and space concerns, Joshua Wallack, who recently joined the Department of Education to steer pre-K implementation, said he would have to learn more about the city’s enrollment systems before responding to Schneider. (Chancellor Carmen Fariña was not at the meeting.)

“As far as the enrollment processes, I am on day five of the job,” Wallack said, adding, “It would obviously be better if it was a seamless system.”

De Blasio’s preferred strategy to fund the pre-K expansion, a tax on the city’s highest earners, does not not have support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has proposed increasing pre-K funding statewide. Polls suggest that New Yorkers side with Cuomo, but just weeks before this year’s state budget must be set, de Blasio is continuing to argue that only a tax will allow for the quick expansion of programs that he says parents want.

Yet the very first question suggested that not all parents are as eager to sign up for the new programs as de Blasio has promised.

“Are these programs going to be optional or mandatory?” asked Kimberly Coleman, who writes the blog Mom in the City. “Because there are many people who want these programs but also people who have strong feelings about that time they have with their kids and want more family time.”

De Blasio assured Coleman that both programs would be optional. “We know that many people have different approaches they want to take,” he said.

By the numbers

As city gears up for year three of its pre-K expansion, applications hold steady

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

More than 68,000 New York City children applied for full-day pre-K this year, jumpstarting the third year of the city’s expansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday.

The total number of applications is in line with last year’s total, but the Bronx and Manhattan both saw drops in the number of families that applied. The Bronx had a 5 percent decrease, from 14,280 applications last year to 13,529.

Brooklyn, the borough with the greatest number of families who applied for pre-kindergarten, saw an increase, with 22,046 families applying — up from 21,500 families last year. Staten Island and Queens saw marginal increases.

The number of applications is just shy of de Blasio’s original goal of enrolling 70,000 four-year-olds in pre-K. The city pointed out that the number of applications represents three times the number of children enrolled in full-day pre-K before the expansion started in 2014.

De Blasio’s push for universal pre-K has largely been seen as a success, with seats generally meeting or surpassing quality standards. A recent, limited survey found that families said that pre-K saved them money and helped their children learn.

This year, the city has made a few changes to the application process. The application period opened earlier to give families more time to decide where to apply. Families will also receive offers in early May, a month earlier than last year.

Families who have not yet applied will be able to apply to programs with available seats from May 2 to May 20.

pre-k report card

City touts record 68,500 students in pre-K, releases data on program quality

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

The city released new data Friday about the quality of its rapidly expanded pre-kindergarten program, which officials touted as evidence that the program has maintained high standards even as it enrolled nearly 50,000 additional students over the past two years.

With free full-day preschool as the centerpiece of his education agenda, Mayor Bill de Blasio has more than tripled enrollment since he took office — leaving some observers to wonder whether the city was trading quantity of seats for quality. The new data, compiled from reviews of a portion of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites that were conducted from 2012 to the present, shows that the quality of New York’s pre-K program is on par with other cities.

The inspected sites on average met or surpassed the national average on a measure of teacher-student interactions, according to review of 555 cites. On a different measure, 77 percent of reviewed sites earned a 3.4 or above on a 7-point scale, which city officials said is the benchmark that programs must reach to have a positive impact on students.

However, Steven Barnett, a professor at Rutgers who is an expert on preschool programs, said that programs should strive to score a five or higher on that scale. The results are promising, he added, but should be seen as a baseline that the city should improve upon.

“They’re OK, but they’re not nearly as good as they should be five years from now,” he said. “It’s not an overnight process.”

Officials also announced that pre-K enrollment reached over 68,500 — just shy of de Blasio’s goal of 70,000 — and said that a recent crop of new students came primarily from low-income backgrounds. Of the 3,000 students who have enrolled since September, 90 percent live in zip codes with incomes below the city’s median.

The pre-K expansion has been one of de Blasio’s only initiatives to garner positive reviews from most observers.

“We’re proud Pre-K for All is performing on a level with some of the most highly-regarded programs in the nation,” de Blasio said in a statement.

The education department used two observation-based measures for the report.

The first, known as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, focused on how teachers interact with students. It uses smiling and laughter to gauge school climate and judges the quality of questioning in a class. The second, called the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale, used room set-up and student hygiene, as well as the quality of instruction.

More than 1,000 pre-K programs were evaluated using the second measure in the past three years. On average, they scored 3.9 on the 7-point scale. City officials said a 3.4 is correlated with “improved student outcomes,” including better reading, math, thinking, and social skills.

Barnett, who has studied New Jersey’s celebrated pre-K expansion, said it’s encouraging that categories like “language” and “interaction” were scored higher than “space and furnishings” or “personal care routines.” That implies physical space and classroom routines weighed down the ratings, not teacher instruction, he said.

New York’s scores align with pre-K programs in other cities. New Jersey’s Abbott program scored a 4.0 on the ECERS-R scale in 2002-03, just 0.1 points higher than New York’s rating.

Not all of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites were evaluated, but soon the city plans to assess all programs. Every three years, each pre-K program should receive both ratings, city officials said.

City officials said they will direct more resources to pre-K programs with low scores on these measures, including extra social workers or more professional development.

They did not offer any specific plans to close struggling pre-K programs based on these observations, though they said that is a possibility in the future. The officials also said they would consider a site’s scores when considering whether to renew providers’ contracts.

For K-12 schools, the city publishes data in annual progress reports for parents. City officials did not say they plan to present pre-K information in a similar way, though all of the data is available on their website.