Little learners

The difference a year makes: As New York City expands pre-K for 3-year-olds, schools adapt

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Pre-K students at P.S. 277 in the Bronx play with paint during center time.

With a classroom full of squirming 3-year-olds, Kristal Torres at P.S. 277 in the Bronx keeps morning routines short. On a recent fall day, her class started out seated on a rug and singing a welcome tune that called children by name. But within five minutes, they were up and jumping to an upbeat version of the ABCs.

Upstairs, the students in Margie Cruz’s pre-K class of mostly 4-year-olds were sitting patiently around their teacher. They waited as long as 15 minutes for their turn to pick a play center, describing their choice to Cruz before heading off to dig in sand, stack blocks, or cook a pretend meal in a pint-sized kitchen.

New York City has been lauded for its rapid of expansion of free pre-K for 4-year-olds, and now Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing to expand his signature education effort for even younger students through the city’s 3-K for All program. But as schools welcome 3-year-olds, experts say that serving these children well isn’t as simple as duplicating what’s already in place for older students.

Schools must adapt to reflect the difference a year can make in the lives of 3 and 4 year olds — in attention spans, behaviors, and expectations for the city’s youngest students. Experts warn that failing to recognize those differences could get in the way of deeper learning, or even create behavior challenges if teachers don’t recognize what’s developmentally appropriate as children grow.  

“We really want to make sure that we’re focusing on the 3-year-olds being allowed to be 3,” said Nikki Darling-Kuria, who trains early education providers with the non-profit Zero to Three. “We really have to make sure we get it right.”

The city is moving much more slowly to make 3-K available to all families, partially due to the more than $1 billion price tag attached to the effort and the challenge of finding appropriate space for all those children. This year, about 5,000 students enrolled in the six districts that offer 3-K, and the city aims to expand to a dozen districts by fall 2021. By comparison, about 70,000 4-year-olds are enrolled in the city’s pre-K.

P.S. 277 is among the schools that have expanded its pre-K to include four classes of 3-year-olds this year — double from when the program first started in the 2017-2018 school year. Principal Natasha Bracey’s first task was hiring teachers who would provide the nurturing environment that’s critical for very young learners. The next was taking a look at instruction, including curriculum, to make sure each year of early education prepares students for the next.

“In 3-K, they’re just exploring,” Bracey said. “When they leave pre-K, the expectation is that they’re ready now for the learning that will occur in kindergarten.”

The education department is also focused on adapting instruction for 3-K students, with lessons that encourage children to learn through play and an emphasis on catering to students’ abilities, no matter their age, said Stepha Krynytzky, a senior director in the city’s early childhood education division.

The city allows early education classrooms to use any “research based, developmentally appropriate” curriculum. The city’s own materials cover the same topics and skills from one year to the next, using federal Head Start guidelines as a framework for 3-K instruction, and the state’s own pre-K Common Core standards for 4-year-olds. Instructional coordinators visit classrooms to help teachers tailor their practice to each age group by modeling lessons, providing resources, or leading training sessions.   

“We talk about curriculum in any two grades as being a spiral, where you’re going deeper or higher,” Krynytzky said. “The 3s curriculum in more open ended and exploratory, and the 4s is pushing them deeper.”

A large part of the curriculum for both age groups is, of course, play. But what that looks like can vary widely from one age to the next.

Three-year-olds, for example, aren’t expected to share as they are still learning to become more independent and name their own feelings. Instead, younger students are more likely to engage in “parallel play,” using the same kinds of toys side-by-side with their peers.

In the classroom, that can mean stocking duplicates of materials like the books that Torres laid out that morning. Students picked their own books to flip through while the teacher hovered, pointing out animals they might not yet recognize and asking questions about what they saw.

The older students in Cruz’s classroom, by contrast, waited to take turns using a bottle of pink paint. One girl smiled as another made blots across her paper. At a nearby bin full of soft, white sand, two students worked together to dig a hole. In a classroom of 4-year-olds like this one, you’re likely to see more cooperation with peers, as students take on family roles, say, playing together in a pretend kitchen.

In a classroom of 3-year-olds, a teacher may be more likely to stay in one place — a practice called “grounding” that allows little ones to quickly find a caring adult. Teachers with older students, Krynytzky said, may engage more actively in playtime, assigning each child a different role or even taking on one themselves. Conversations between children and adults might sound different, with more open-ended questions and more elaboration, rather than repetition, of what the student has said.

One of the most obvious distinctions between children who are so small doesn’t have much to do with what many would consider instruction. Rather, 3-year-olds simply need more support taking care of themselves, from washing their hands to buttoning their coats. Three-year-olds are also much more likely to need help with potty training — especially because children can be as young as 2 when they enroll in the city’s program.

None of these differences between age groups are hard and fast, leading some educators to wonder whether separating children into classes by age is even best.

“The idea that all children need the exact same thing at the exact same time is just wrong,” said Ellen Frede, senior co-director at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. 

Frede helped oversee early childhood efforts in New Jersey as the state expanded its lauded pre-K program in the early 2000s. At the time, mixing students of different ages, much like Montessori programs do, was often considered the best approach.

Older students can serve as role models and may require less individual attention than a roomful of the youngest children, she said. The approach has some high-profile backing: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who recently announced his company would be opening a new office in Long Island City, has pledged $2 billion to advance Montessori early childhood initiatives.

There are often structural reasons, however, for separating classrooms by age, including how programs are funded or evaluated for effectiveness. In New York City, classrooms are divided partly because the city’s health department requires different staffing ratios by age.

Mixed age or not, the impact of pre-K often comes down to quality curriculum, and teachers who can use the materials well while meeting the different needs of students.

“It’s important that you’re teaching individual children — not a group,” Frede said.

In the push to prepare students for kindergarten, it can be tempting to focus on teaching discrete content, such as recognizing letters, Frede said, to the detriment of developing skills such as language, reasoning, and self-regulation.

“It’s the difference between content, and understanding content more deeply,” she said.

Plus, pushing academic or even social skills before children are ready can pose challenges when children aren’t taught to manage their emotions, or are expected to do things like share before they’re ready. When teachers aren’t trained to recognize what’s appropriate behavior and how to respond, students are often expelled, said Darling-Kuria, of Zero to Three. Expulsion rates in pre-K are three times higher across the country than rates in K-12. (New York City bans suspensions and expulsions in public pre-K programs, according to the education department.)

To avoid those types of challenges, she said the city should take care to treat the city’s youngest learners not like rising kindergartners, but like “2-year-olds with training.”

If we’re making anybody do something that they’re not developmentally able to do, it can create problems,” she said. “You can’t practice being 5 when you’re 3.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”