Starting young

Can ‘3-K for All’ and child care centers work and play well together? Here’s what we know

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

In late April, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced two new plans that could determine the future of the country’s largest child care system for poor and low-income families. First, the mayor wants to expand his well-regarded “Pre-K for All” program for 4-year-olds to provide free preschool to 3-year-olds as well. The projected multi-year expansion is called “3-K for All.”

Also huge — EarlyLearnNYC, the city’s massive subsidized early education system, will move from its current home at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to the city’s Department of Education (DOE), adding children as young as six weeks old to the department’s portfolio.

Both moves will depend heavily on the private sector, which already provides more than half the seats for Pre-K for All. But some private child care providers say Pre-K for All caused unintended consequences, including teachers leaving for higher paying Department of Education jobs and major drops in enrollment. And 3-K for All could exacerbate those problems.

If 3-K for All succeeds — meaning that it is funded and brought to scale — child care centers will be an essential part of its capacity. To avoid the same problems that centers faced when enrolling 4-year-olds, directors say that DOE will need to do things differently.

“I’m thrilled the attention is now on the younger years,” says Laura Ensler, founder of the FirstStepNYC early childhood center and early education leadership institute in Brownsville, Brooklyn. But, Ensler adds, “in order to be successful, there must be a plan that does not further destabilize the current system.”

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There are many facets of the city’s subsidized child care system that will be new to the DOE when it takes on younger children. For instance, it will have to train hundreds of women who look after infants and toddlers in their homes across the city as part of EarlyLearn. But in theory, at least, the DOE seems a natural home for a diverse range of programs that share the common goal of preparing young children for school.

Moving EarlyLearn from ACS to the DOE would have the added benefit of allowing ACS to have greater clarity of mission and focus on the already gargantuan task of keeping kids safe while helping stabilize families in crisis.

But, as the Center for New York City Affairs predicted before the UPK expansion occurred, there are drawbacks, too. Many preschool and EarlyLearn teachers have left private centers for city schools and pre-K centers, where pay is higher.

The UPK expansion has also hit enrollment at the privately run centers. Data provided by ACS show that since the city’s expansion of UPK programs in September 2014, enrollment in EarlyLearn programs of children eligible for UPK (4-year-olds or those about to turn 4) has decreased by nearly 20 percent — from 12,269 in January 2014 to 10,073 in January 2017. This has left some EarlyLearn pre-K programs severely under-enrolled or in constant flux, with the centers struggling to adjust their budgets.

That’s because when Pre-K for All was launched, families eligible for EarlyLearn services suddenly had far more choices for where to enroll their 4-year-olds, including child care centers, public schools or the DOE’s standalone pre-K centers. In this competition, the programs housed in schools and DOE-run pre-K centers have some key advantages over EarlyLearn programs in recruiting families. For one thing, there’s a perception that because their teachers are paid better and because they are school-based and don’t have to spend resources on rent, the programs are stronger.

Also significant for parents, the DOE’s eligibility requirement for pre-K programs is simple — it asks only that children be born during a specified year. EarlyLearn and Head Start programs, on the other hand, have stringent income eligibility rules, reducing the pool of families they can recruit from. Moreover, EarlyLearn programs require enrolling families to complete much more paperwork to register — a complicated and sometimes lengthy process.

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Hudson Guild is a community agency that runs several early childhood programs in Manhattan, including Head Start, UPK and EarlyLearn classes. Before the expansion of UPK, Hudson Guild relied on about 90 percent of their 3-year-olds moving on to their classrooms for 4-year-olds; now that retention rate is only about 60 percent. LeAnn Scaduto, deputy executive director at Hudson Guild, points out that she and her colleagues now must spend far more time and energy recruiting and retaining kids for these classes, which plays havoc with classroom planning.

Even if their classrooms are filled, early education centers may encounter yet another obstacle to stability: part-time students. Most early education centers are built on a business model that assumes children will be enrolled 12 months a year for eight-10 hours per day, but DOE pre-K runs 10 months per year for a little over six hours per day. But DOE policy prevents center directors from picking and choosing only those children who need a full day or full-year care. This means for each UPK child who does not need summer or extended-afternoon care, they lose money.

“If my budget is predicated on having children all day, and they aren’t there all day, it will put me out of business,” says Maria Contreras-Collier, executive director of the Cypress Hills Child Care Corporation, which provides UPK in its EarlyLearn program.

Three years into Pre-K for All, many EarlyLearn centers are still struggling to adjust to these changes. Some have decided that even if it is against DOE policy, they will do everything possible to take only those kids from their waitlists who need a full day and full year of care. Others have moved into survival mode and moved resources away from the classrooms and into teacher and student recruitment.

Deciding it is simply too difficult to enroll as many 4-year-olds as before UPK, others have turned their attention to enrolling children ages 3 and younger.

But while there is a great demand for more infant and toddler care in centers, converting a preschool classroom to one suited for babies is difficult and expensive; it requires a different permit and, along with that, different space and staffing requirements, including a lower child-to-teacher ratio.

In the best-case scenario, directors say, with the DOE as EarlyLearn’s new home, the department will embrace these challenges as their own and become an advocate for subsidized child care, taking on the thorny issue of salary disparity among teachers and setting up equitable and sustainable systems for recruiting and retaining students.

In the worst-case scenario, the youngest children from the poorest families will inhabit the lowest rung of a child care hierarchy, one where their teachers are paid the least and where their centers struggle to stay open.

“Ultimately all these plans are well-intended and investing in young children leverages amazing benefits,” says Contreras-Collier. “You just have to do it right.”

This article is adapted from a policy brief by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

Back to school

Emanuel touts pre-kindergarten, but will his envisioned $175 million initiative survive him?

PHOTO: Photo: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Brownell Elementary teacher Jane Godina addresses her pre-K class Wednesday, Sept.5, 2018, after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited it on the second day of school.

The morning after making a surprise announcement that he won’t seek reelection, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel scheduled a public appearance at a pre-kindergarten at Brownell Elementary, a predominantly black school located just east of Englewood on the South Side.

Wednesday’s visit served as a show of support for one of his signature initiatives—universal pre-K, which is only in its first year of rollout and could be vulnerable if the city’s next mayor does not share Emanuel’s enthusiasm.

Speaking briefly, Emanuel said he believes that the program will proceed fully without him, pointing to leadership from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and also Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, whose namesake foundation helped underwrite an innovative social impact bond program in 2014 that funded an initial wave of pre-K seats in low-income schools.  

Emanuel’s plan offers 3,700 more free pre-kindergarten slots to low-income families this year at a cost of $20 million, then ramps up the number of available seats across the next three years. Ultimately, the district aims to offer free, full-day pre-K to every 4-year-old in the city for the 2021-22 school year at an all-in cost of $175 million.

The district did not respond to requests for the number of pre-K seats it has filled. Some schools have reported that their programs are full, with families on waitlists, while other schools have reported vacant seats. Parents complained at board meetings this summer that they found the application process confusing and chaotic.

At Brownell, the full-day offering is a hit, according to pre-K teacher Jane Godina, speaking after Emanuel had come and gone.

“We were always struggling with enrollment with our half-day program, and this year we were just slammed,” said Godina, whose class consists of 20 students. “Full-day is really what this neighborhood needs.”

Parent Lovlis Jordan agrees. She has two kids enrolled in the class, and walks seven blocks from home to drop them off before heading downtown, where she works as an office-tower security guard. Full-day pre-kindergarten means she can avoid complicated childcare arrangements, and she likes the feel of Godina’s class.

“It’s hands on, and it’s small—not too chaotic,” Jordan said.  

The importance of full-day, pre-K classes doesn’t just reflect parental needs or Emanuel’s political will: A powerful contingent of civic and philanthropic leaders support the idea here, too. “Early childhood education enjoys widespread support for many leaders at the state and local level,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy at the Ounce of Prevention. “We’re confident that this will be an important issue for a new mayor.”

Now advocates are armed with some telling data. Three out of four Illinois kids are unprepared when they begin kindergarten, according to first-of-its-kind data released last month by the Illinois State Board of Education. Godina said pre-K classes help kids acclimate to routines and pick up social-emotional skills, not to mention some ABCs.

“It gets them to work on all those things so that when they’re in kindergarten, they’re far more prepared than their peers,” she said.

As for pulling the plug on the universal pre-K initiative, Brownell’s principal, Richard Morgan, said that would be a big mistake.

“Any person in their right mind, if they know what the research says and they understand what’s good for children, would never pull the mat out from under them,” said Morgan, who has led Brownell for 14 years. “Once you become full-day, people begin to knock the doors down because that’s what everybody wants.”

Last year, when only a half-day pre-K was offered, some parents skipped Brownell, which had 216 students on the 20th day of the 2017-18 school year and is considered “underutilized” by the district. This year, Morgan said of his pre-K, “everyone is trying to get in.”

 

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.”