threading the needle

De Blasio leaves the door open for charter pre-K's

Confronting an issue that brings two of his signature education policies into tension, Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled today that he is at least open to seeing charter schools receive state funding for pre-kindergarten.

At a press conference in Queens this afternoon, de Blasio said he would take a closer look at a pre-K proposal highlighted in a new report from Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission. The proposal, which came as a surprise to even its advocates, suggests allowing the state’s 233 charter schools to get state funds to operate pre-K programs, which Cuomo has pledged to expand dramatically. Currently, state law prohibits the publicly funded but privately managed schools from getting the state funds.

“I haven’t seen the report that came out from the commission, but we’re going to look at that and see how that might fit with our plan,” de Blasio said today when asked about the pre-K proposal.

It was far from a glowing endorsement. But the comment marked a change from how de Blasio talked about the issue on the campaign trail. In August, he told Chalkbeat that he did not support allowing charter schools to operate state-funded pre-K programs.

De Blasio ran for mayor on a campaign pledge to charge rent to charter schools that use public buildings, which charter advocates say would threaten the schools’ ability to operate. And the mayor has not warmed to charter schools during his first two weeks in office, either.

But advocates said his comments today were promising.

“I’m glad the mayor is reviewing the issue and we hope to engage him in a conversation on this, which we believe will better ensure that his vision of a high-quality pre-K seat, especially for students most in need, is realized in full,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

In New York City, where there are 183 charter schools, de Blasio’s plan involves creating 50,000 full-day prekindergarten seats. But there are several impediments to such an expansion, the commission’s report says. It notes an “inadequate supply of certified teachers and effective providers” as two challenges in particular. The report said giving charter schools access to state funds, which totaled $385 million last year, $220 million of which went to New York City, would provide “untapped potential” to any expansion plans.

The report’s proposal suggests that Cuomo change the law so that charters are authorized to offer prekindergarten programs on their own. Such a move would mean that pre-K students whose families opt to stay in the school for kindergarten would not have to reapply — potentially making the process different from in district schools, where pre-K attendance currently does not guarantee kindergarten admission.

De Blasio has named a working group of early education experts who will submit their own set of recommendations on how to implement pre-K expansion over the next several years.

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.