family ties

When high schoolers are parents, parent-teacher conferences are a three-generation affair

PHOTO: Courtesy of NYC Department of Education
Jainellah and Avery at a LYFE center in the Bronx.

When Jainellah Henry found out she was pregnant at 14 years old, she felt like any other teenager might — distraught and scared about her future.

“When I found out, I was crying,” said the sophomore at Bronx Collaborative High School. “I wanted to finish school and I wanted to make my parents proud.”

Recalling that time now, more than a year later, the emotions are still raw. As Jainellah shared her story, she started to cry a little, and reached over to hug the woman sitting next to her – her one-year-old daughter’s teacher at an early childhood center inside the DeWitt Clinton High School building, which also houses Jainellah’s school.

Janiellah sat at a small table — covered with childcare books and surrounded by photographs of toddlers painting — with her child’s teacher, her own father and her social worker. The whole group was assembled for an unconventional parent-teacher conference at one of the city’s more than 30 LYFE centers, which provide early education for infants and toddlers inside the schools their parents attend.

At a time when some schools in New York City are rethinking parent engagement and the chancellor has made it clear she thinks family involvement is central to improving schools, this program addresses a puzzling question: What does parent engagement look like when high school students are already parents themselves? The answer for the LYFE program is that it becomes a whole family affair.

During Jainellah’s parent-teacher conference, the sophomore sat at one end of the table, discussing her own child’s development with a LYFE center teacher. They talked about how Avery, Jainellah’s one-year-old, looked like she wanted to join the toddlers even when she was still an infant. They passed around pictures of Avery receiving a perfect attendance award, a proud moment for Jainellah as a mom.

Jainellah’s father, George Henry, sat at the other end of the table with Jainellah’s social worker, Susan Farrell-Laplante. She filled him in on Jainellah’s progress, much like a teacher would in a typical parent-teacher conference. They discussed Jainellah’s good grades, but also George’s worry that his daughter uses her phone too much and often shows up late to school.

At one point, Avery, wearing pants covered in multicolored flowers and a gray shirt, ran over to her mother and grandfather, making it a true three-generation meeting. The only clue that the group was inside a high school was that every so often the loudspeaker announced there was only “one minute to get to class” and students could be heard shuffling around the hallways.

The idea of supporting the entire family is embedded in every aspect of the LYFE program. Those who work at LYFE do not think of themselves simply as daycare providers; they see an opportunity to take a family in need and put all three generations on a better path.

“We meet families at very different points in their lives,” said Kara Ahmed, the citywide principal of LYFE since 2008. “It’s our job to work through the process and the journey with them.”

Jainellah was born on the island of Jamaica, where she lived with her mother. When her father, who lives in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, found out she was pregnant, he said he was “so mad” that he “didn’t know what to do.” Eventually, the family decided it was best for Jainellah to live with her father in New York.

She moved in with the 62-year-old, who is now on disability, and enrolled in school while George took care of Avery, either by himself or with the help of an older daughter. But he started to worry that he would have to hire a babysitter. Meanwhile, Jainellah, who had just moved to a new country and was a new mother, was attending a high school without a LYFE center — and it wasn’t going very well, her father said.

“At that tender age, having a baby and school, it was rough,” George said.

It wasn’t until they managed to switch Jainellah to Bronx Collaborative High School, enroll Avery in the LYFE program in the same building, and give George a break from babysitting, that everything started clicking for the family, her father said.

Now Jainellah is on a path to finish school, Farrell-Laplante says. She has gone to college fairs, the social worker said, and wants to become a nurse. The LYFE program will watch Avery for a little longer each day so Jainellah can get extra help in math and be fully prepared for college-level courses, she said.

During the school day, Jainellah said, she wanders the hallways and goes to class just like her classmates. The only difference is that sometimes, during lunch, she sneaks down to the LYFE center to peek at her daughter.

Life is “better now,” she said. “It’s OK.”

Growing pains

Even after a court victory, few charter schools are expected to join New York City’s pre-K push

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Pre-K students play during center time at The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens. The school is one of the few charters that participates in the city's pre-K program.

When visitors come to The Renaissance Charter School in Queens, Principal Stacey Gauthier often insists they stop by the pre-K classroom.

Gauthier raves about the nurturing teacher. She marvels at the progress that students make in recognizing letters and numbers, and swears by the ease with which they transition to kindergarten.

Her program stands out for another reason: It’s in a charter school.

“This is really, truly a labor of love and a strong philosophical belief that pre-K is a wonderful thing,” Gauthier said.

Few charter schools have joined New York City’s efforts to make pre-K available to all of the city’s 4-year-olds. A recent legal victory for Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, seemed poised to change that. In November, the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools should have more freedom to run their pre-K programs without the city dictating curriculum or other requirements — a significant ideological win for the charter sector.

But the decision is unlikely to open the floodgates for New York City charter schools looking to start pre-K programs. Advocates say the lawsuit didn’t resolve more significant barriers that hold charter schools back, including a crunch for funding and space and, this year at least, a tight turnaround for getting programs running.

“Until we settle these larger financial issues, you’ll continue to see limited participation from charter schools,” said James Merriman, chief of the New York City Charter School Center. “It’s going to be very, very hard for them.”

Success took the city to court over a 241-page contract that the city requires to receive funding for pre-K. The document regulates everything from curriculum to field trips, and Success argued that was an overreach of the city’s authority.

The disagreement struck at one of the core philosophies of charter schools: that they should be free from the bureaucracies of school districts. In a press release touting the court decision, Success said their victory meant the city education department “cannot micromanage charter school pre-K programs.”

Soon, the city is expected to release a new request for proposals for charter schools interested in starting or expanding pre-K programs. Operators will have the chance to bid for those contracts — the first test of whether Success’s legal victory will help change the landscape of pre-K providers.

Observers don’t expect a sea change, however, citing familiar issues in the charter world that are left unresolved by the court battle: per-student funding, and finding space for classrooms.

“Unfortunately, the decision a lot of schools make is it’s too onerous to try to make happen,” said Ian Rowe, the chief executive officer of Public Prep, one of the dozen or so charters that offers pre-K.

While the city is required to provide charter schools with space in public buildings or help pay their rent, that rule doesn’t apply for pre-K. When Public Prep charter decided to launch its pre-K, Rowe said the school had to carve out space in their existing buildings. Public Prep serves about 80 pre-K students at its Bronx campuses, and hopes to start serving students at its Lower East Side location next year.

As it stands now, Rowe said he relies on private dollars to supplement Public Prep’s early childhood efforts, which he called “not sustainable.”

In kindergarten, charter operators can rely on receiving about $15,000 per student — but in pre-K, the figure falls closer to $10,000, according to the New York City Charter School Center.  Meanwhile, class size and staffing requirements for pre-K means more money needs to be spent on salaries. 

“For an age when one could argue you have the greatest opportunity for influencing student behavior and attitudes, you get the least amount of money,” Rowe said.

Another factor contributing to the budget squeeze: Under state law, pre-K is not considered a grade like kindergarten is, so schools don’t receive the same type of supports for children who come from poor families, have special needs, or may be learning English as a new language, said Gauthier, the Renaissance principal.

Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said funding for pre-K is determined “based on a detailed analysis around specific needs and operational expenses of each program.”

The education department “works with all our pre-K providers to ensure they have appropriate funding,” Cohen wrote in an email.

This year timing is also a factor. Though Success fought its pre-K battle for years, the network won’t be starting a program soon, saying there simply isn’t enough of a runway to get a program up and running for 2019-2020.

“Hundreds of New York City children missed out on pre-K education at Success Academy over the past three years because of this legal battle,” the network said in a press release. “However, it’s a victory for younger children and their families.”

Families are already researching their pre-K options, and applications are due in March. Yet the city hasn’t released its request for proposals for charter schools interested in pre-K, and it’s unclear when operators would get word that their program has been approved — creating a time crunch when it comes to recruiting families and hiring teachers.

Rowe said he is still determined to expand Public Prep’s pre-K classes, and hopes to apply as soon as the opportunity is available, unlike many other operators.

“I think most charters have given up,” this year, he said.

Cohen, the education department spokesman, said the city is “currently in the process” of drafting a new contract for funding for pre-Ks in charter schools and that officials are “continuing to analyze” the impact of the court decision. As for charters already operating pre-Ks, the city will “issue more guidance in the coming weeks” about what the court decision means for them, Cohen wrote.

With charter operators facing headwinds in the the state legislature, concerns about pre-K might get pushed to a back burner. Recent midterm elections ushered a new Democratic majority into office, and with it, a bleak future for the expansion of charter schools in New York. Advocates are likely to focus their efforts pushing for an increase in the cap on how many charter schools can operate in New York — just seven charters are left.

“People are worrying about those things,” Gauthier said. “I’m not sure if people are going to be jumping on the pre-K wagon.”

Early education

One answer to Illinois’ dire preschool teacher shortage: men

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Child Care Society
Lee Tate is a master's level teacher who is popular among students at a Chicago Child Care Society in Hyde Park.

Giving a brief tour of her Hyde Park childcare center on a cold recent morning, Chicago Child Care Society CEO Dara Munson stops by a classroom where a dozen or so small children are lined up in parkas, mittens, and winter hats. Like a line of colorful padded ducks, they eagerly trail one of the lead teachers — a tall man named Lee Tate — out toward the playground.

“They love him,” Munson whispered.

Across town a few weeks later, Dexter Smith, the director of the Truman College Child Development Lab School, describes with similar enthusiasm the way children at his center embraced a part-time male staffer. When that employee left the three-classroom center to pursue a full-time job at a private preschool, his staff was again all-female, with one notable exception: himself.

“Men interact differently with children, they can be more playful, more interactive, more willing to tumble them upside down,” he said. “Women don’t typically do that.”

Turnover, shortages, low pay: Advocates, daycare owners, and educators have sounded alarm bells lately over the dire preschool teacher shortage in Illinois — an issue that’s growing ever more critical in the wake of outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push for universal pre-K. The challenges of low wages, burnout, and churn have become persistent impediments to full staffing.

Related: One business owner’s view from the child care trenches in Illinois

Perhaps one overlooked solution: men — particularly men of color. In Illinois, women predominantly make up the early education workforce, with men counting for fewer than 2 percent of licensed teachers in certified childcare centers and only 20 percent of teaching assistants, according to a 2017 report from the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

That percentage drops even more dramatically when you consider men of color in classrooms, said Shawn Jackson, a former science teacher and elementary school principal in Chicago Public Schools who now runs Harry S. Truman, one of the city’s seven community colleges.  “When I started thinking about how we can find ways to encourage more men of color to get into classrooms, I thought about the lack of tangible role models who are there every day.”

These observations, coupled with forecasts of how many teachers will be needed in the future to power schools in the Chicago area and beyond, have helped fuel a “Men of Color” teacher training program.

Besides aiding classrooms, the program also addresses a dire need for training and jobs. A startling 47 percent of black men ages 20 to 24 in Chicago were out of school and out of work in 2014, according to a report from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute that has had widespread policy repercussions.

A group of educators led by Jackson created the “Men of Color” program, which combines coursework toward a certificate or two-year-degree, mentoring, and paid internships. Jackson helped recruit 15 male Chicago principals and teachers to serve as mentors — a key tenet of the program.

“If you’ve ever seen a man of color walk into an early childhood classroom, he’s a superstar,” said Jackson, who is building three paths for potential teachers. For high schoolers, a dual-credit program offers simultaneous credit toward graduation and a two-year degree. For city college students and community members, the city offers a scholarship for prospective early educators, drawn from a mayor’s office fund expected to double to $4 million this year.

The Men of Color program isn’t solely focused on early childhood education — there are tracks, too, for elementary and high school. But in the first Men of Color pilot of 33 students, 23 have signed up for the early education program.

That’s encouraging news for Kate Connor, Truman College’s recently appointed vice president.

“We’re training a huge part of the early childhood workforce,” said Connor, who described a strong system of “on- and off-ramps” that help nudge students toward completion. (Like community colleges across the country, Chicago City Colleges has struggled with low completion rates; the system reported 22 percent completion in 2018.)

“Rarely does someone come in without some experience in the field — they’ve cared for kids in their home or cared for family members,” she said. If Connor, who has taught in the early education division, and her team can get them to take one class, and help address “confidence challenges,” she said, “we can start getting them invested.”

Getting them invested means more than coursework: The Truman team plan to ease students along with paid internships, support with basics such as English and math for those whose skills are weak, financial assistance, and, for students like Billy Hubbert who want to “go all the way” — that is, gain entrance into a four-year-degree program, which can be a roadblock to many students seeking full credentialing in Illinois — ACT prep.

The Hirsch High School graduate, 43, had been driving Lyft and working in a private child care center as a substitute. He said he’s not deterred by the potential of low pay that tends to be a constant in early education — nor that his early education courses have been predominantly female.

“I can count on one hand the number of male teachers I had growing up — mainly gym teachers and coaches  — and there are a lot of women in the courses I’m taking now,” he said. “The program helps me feel like I’m not in a silo. I’m not all by myself.”