unchartered territory

Eleven charter schools vie to help de Blasio launch pre-K, with some anxiety

PHOTO: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking at a pre-K center in Brooklyn.

Updated on 5:28 p.m. After a short delay, some deadline extensions, and considerable anxiety, the first batch of charter schools have applied to help get Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature pre-kindergarten program off the ground.

Eleven charter schools are vying to open pre-K programs that would serve 324 students in the fall, city officials said this week, and another six wrote letters of intent to apply next year. The applicants represent less than 10 percent of all charter schools, and none of the city’s best-known charter management organizations applied.

The relatively low level of response was expected, since charter schools faced tight deadlines to submit applications and don’t have complete answers to a number of important logistical questions. Charter school leaders who did apply said they were taking a leap of faith, since they still aren’t sure whether they need extra approval from their authorizers and whether their schools will receive facilities funding.

Gina Sardi, head of the New York City Montessori Charter School, said her school’s model of mixing age groups would make it easier to integrate four-year-olds into the school. But she still wasn’t sure how much she will be reimbursed for renting the additional floor the school will need to accommodate the pre-K program in its privately-owned Bronx building.

“I won’t sign anything until they commit to giving some facilities funds,” said Sardi, who applied to provide 52 pre-K seats.

This is the first time most charter schools are facing these questions because they have historically been prohibited from accessing state funds to operate pre-K. As a result, separate boards had to be set up to start a pre-K program, and students weren’t guaranteed spots in the schools’ kindergarten classes—barriers that many school leaders said kept them from serving younger students.

This year, state lawmakers eliminated some of those roadblocks, and charter schools have access to some of the $300 million that’s been allotted to New York City as part of de Blasio’s ambitious push to provide 53,000 full-day pre-K seats seats by September. All but one of this year’s applicants, New York Foundling, which operates Mott Haven Academy, are taking advantage of a new law that allows charter schools to directly tap into state funds. (The Department of Education is recommending that Foundling’s program be approved by the Panel for Educational Policy)

Charter advocates have emphasized early education in the their lobbying efforts in Albany in recent years and advisors to Gov. Andrew Cuomo have said the schools offer “untapped potential” in pre-K expansion efforts.

De Blasio was initially hesitant to embrace charter schools as part of his pre-K plans. In January, he cited models like Harlem Children’s Zone, which provide pre-K through community-based organizations, as examples of why state law didn’t need to be changed.

The de Blasio administration soon warmed to the idea of making it easier for charters to operate pre-K programs, a spokesman said, lobbying lawmakers to change state law to allows them direct access to state funds.

Making that happen months after other public schools submitted applications proved complicated. At a meeting with charter leaders last month, city officials revealed that schools would have about two weeks to apply for the program, although that timeline was pushed back twice after the application’s release was delayed.

The city is reviewing schools now and plans to pick which ones will be recommended to operate pre-K programs in early June. The city’s application will then need to be approved by the State Education Department. 

For now, it’s unclear whether charter schools need to revise their charters, an additional process that could prevent schools from applying in the future. City officials have also told applicants to include facilities costs in their proposed budgets, but final spending plans will need to be negotiated between both sides.

Most of the charter schools that have applied to open pre-K programs in the fall operate in private space, since schools co-located in public space generally aren’t given any extra space. An exception is Renaissance Charter school in Queens, one of the city’s oldest charter schools, which operates in a public building. Principal Stacey Gauthier said she was able to free up a classroom for pre-K by reconfiguring class schedules in Renaissance’s high school grades.

Another thing that many of the charters have in common is that they are part of a coalition that has distanced itself from the larger charter operators and met regularly with the de Blasio administration. Among the schools that submitted letters of intent to apply next year was Teaching Firms of America, where one of the coalition’s spokesmen, Rafiq Kalad Id-Din, is a founder and teacher leader.

Despite the remaining uncertainty, some leaders said they were just eager to start serving students at a younger age. Hellenic Charter School Principal Christina Tettonis, who applied for 18 seats, said she was confident that that benefits to students would outweigh any implementation challenges.

“We’re hoping for the best,” Tettonis said.

And New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman said that the number of applications for programs to open this fall didn’t tell the whole story.

The charter pre-K program “has had a great start given the tight timeline and the facility challenges that schools face,” Merriman said in statement, “and I am certain that number of participants will grow rapidly next year.”

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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.