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.”

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. Here’s the word from Denver Public Schools spokesperson Will Jones: “This was one of the items negotiated (Wednesday) night and early into the morning (Thursday). The result of that discussion was that teachers will not receive back pay.”

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”