Real (Estate) Talk

Pre-K push is up against citywide space crunch, deputy mayor says

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, pictured during a school visit in 2014, said Tuesday that “there isn’t a quick fix" to the limited space for new pre-K seats.

As the city works to create thousands of additional pre-kindergarten seats this year, officials are searching far and wide for places to put them, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said Tuesday.

As the city scours public school buildings for classroom space and sends real estate brokers to find private options, officials were disappointed that few charter schools signed up to add pre-K seats, Buery said during a panel discussion that also touched on mayoral control and teacher evaluations. Meanwhile, the city expects some existing pre-K providers to pull out of the program next year because they have struggled to meet the city’s standards, another official said.

“Real estate is always at a premium in New York City and certainly, this expansion, a lot of it comes down to real estate,” said Buery, who is overseeing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s marquee initiative to create over 70,000 full-day pre-K seats by next year. The city has already grown the program to include more than 53,000 slots.

Buery said that student safety is the city’s primary concern when approving new pre-K sites, which operate both in public schools and privately run community-based sites. To that end, the buildings, health, fire, and education departments conducted thousands of site inspections last year in an “unprecedented” show of inter-agency coordination, he added during a talk hosted by the political news organization, City and State.

Still, he said there remains a “wide disparity” in the quality of the various pre-K sites. In September, the city blocked nine new sites from opening and delayed the launch of 36 others because they did not meet health and safety standards. The city will review the sites again at the end of the school year, when it is likely that some will withdraw from the pre-K program because they cannot meet the city’s standards, Department of Education Chief Strategy Officer Josh Wallack said during the talk.

To make room for the next wave of new pre-K seats, the city is looking inside school buildings and “literally having real estate brokers out in the streets of New York City working with local elected officials to see where are there spaces,” Buery said. It is also helping interested community-based sites get up to code, he added.

Nonetheless, “there isn’t a quick fix to this,” he said. “This is New York City, families lives where they live, and real estate is what it is.”

Despite the city’s search for space and qualified providers, only six charter schools are participating in the city’s pre-K program. Even though many charter schools are eager to serve younger students, some are reluctant to give up a portion of their autonomy to meet the city’s requirements, while others may be turned off by the payment and contract issues some charter pre-K providers have faced, as reported by Capital New York.

“I was hoping more would apply,” Buery told NY1’s Lindsey Christ, who moderated the panel. He attributed the dearth of applications to the fact that many charter schools are busy trying to open new schools or make curriculum changes, but said he expects “large, broad participation by the charter sector” in the pre-K program eventually.

De Blasio’s ability to pull off a major initiative like the pre-K expansion depends partly on his control of the city school system, which the state first granted to Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002. That law, which was renewed in 2009, will expire this year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he wants to extend it again, and Buery said Tuesday that he expects the state legislature to go along with that plan.

“Of course we want mayoral control to be renewed, with every expectation we have that it will be renewed,” he said, calling the law “critical” for city policymaking. Chancellor Carmen Fariña made similar remarks to lawmakers in Albany earlier this month.

But Buery said there are “a number of substantive disagreements” between City Hall and the governor’s office over the question of how to evaluate teachers. In her testimony in Albany, Fariña said she “absolutely believes” that Cuomo’s plan to increase the weight of test scores and bring in outside evaluators to rate teachers “is not a good idea.”

Buery echoed that sentiment on Tuesday, saying the evaluation system should be “authentic and meaningful” and should not “overstate or understate the importance of tests.”

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.