germ theory

As pre-K ranks grow again, city puts new focus on those who are absent

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

The de Blasio administration is close to its goal of offering a pre-kindergarten seat to every four-year-old in New York City. Making sure that most of those seats are full every day is another challenge.

On that front, families did well last school year: Nine in 10 students showed up on an average day across the city’s nearly 1,700 schools and community organizations offering pre-K, department officials said last week, though that number is lower than the city’s overall school attendance rate. With the pre-K population about to swell for the second year, it’s a number city officials say they are keeping an eye on.

“We really need to make sure that parents understand that you don’t take off because he has the sniffles or because it’s Monday and he didn’t go to bed early,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said last week on “Inside City Hall.”

Fariña’s comments reflect a common concern among early education advocates in New York City and nationwide. Students, especially those living in poverty, are more likely to be chronically absent in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten than at other points in elementary and middle school, a phenomenon that experts say can stem from parents’ instincts about their children’s health and transportation challenges.

Hedy Chang, director of the nonprofit Attendance Works and the author of a recent policy paper on early education absences, said another hurdle is the perception that absences matter less for younger students than it does for older students.

City officials expect more than 60,000 children to enroll in a full-day pre-K program this year — triple the number in those programs two years ago. But for students to reap the academic benefits of pre-K, attendance is key, Chang said, and research has linked absences at early ages to higher dropout rates and lower test scores in later grades.

“There’s that perception that school doesn’t really matter that much in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten,” Chang said.

A classroom full of four-year-olds can be a hotbed for contagions, but parents keeping children with mild illnesses away from school is unlikely to reduce the spread of germs, according to Terry Marx, a pediatrician and the assistant medical director at Children’s Aid Society. More effective, she said, is teaching children good health habits, like washing their hands.

Marx repeated that message to a group of about 40 pre-K educators during a training session at Children’s Aid’s Harlem offices last week.

“There are a lot of programs and a lot of old-school ways of thinking, where the kid sniffled or sneezed and they were out the door,” said Marx, a pediatrician. “We don’t operate that way.”

“That’s not the goal of school,” Marx said. “We want to keep them in school.”

What’s the magic number for reasonable absences? Moria Cappio, vice president of early childhood programs at Children’s Aid, said that her 14 pre-K centers are audited annually by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which requires that the centers have an average monthly attendance rate of at least 85 percent. Cappio said she was looking beyond her average daily attendance number, though.

“It’s not really telling the true story,” said Cappio. “You could have four kids that miss three days a week, every week, and your center’s average will be above 85 percent. But it’s those group of kids you should be really worried about because something’s going on in their little life that’s making them chronically absent.”

Children’s Aid began closely monitoring such chronic absenteeism last year, and discovered that more than half of its enrollees were absent at least two days a month. Those students showed weaker language, math, social and motor skills than students with strong attendance — data points that Cappio shows to parents to stress the importance of coming to school.

City officials said the overall chronic absenteeism rate in city schools last year was 19 percent, although they did not provide that number for individual grades. Sophia Pappas, who oversees the early learning operation at the education department, said the chronic absenteeism rate for pre-K was similar to the rate for kindergarten, which in 2013 was 27 percent.

Pappas said her office has hired more social workers to work with pre-K sites, and that the department is also now sponsoring training for program administrators focused on working with families.

“There may be programs here and there that need help from us, but that’s why we have a lot of people on our team to develop strategies to support them,” Pappas said.

If families get in the habit of ensuring their children’s daily attendance at a pre-K program, Fariña said, it will only benefit students.

“Getting to school every day as you move up the grades is more and more important,” Fariña said.

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.