Pre-K diversity

Many of New York City’s pre-K classrooms are highly segregated, according to new report

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

As a growing number of parents, educators and policy-makers debate the best way to integrate the city’s schools, one word rarely gets mentioned: pre-K.

A report released Tuesday by the Century Foundation, a think tank focused on inequality, hopes to change the conversation.

New York City’s pre-K classrooms are more segregated on average than its kindergarten classrooms, the report found. One in six pre-K classrooms were highly homogeneous, with 90 percent or more of students coming from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms.

The report is based on data from the first year of the city’s universal pre-K program, which has earned praise for both its rapid growth and attention to quality. Launched under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has more than tripled the number of 4-year-olds attending free preschool since 2014.

Halley Potter, a fellow at the foundation who authored the report, said the city’s program creates an opportunity to bring young children from different backgrounds together in the classroom.

“But unless that opportunity is really cultivated, and unless we have data to support what diversity looks like, then it can be missed,” she said.

Ensuring diversity in pre-K classrooms could create a foundation for integration in later grades — but doing so will require better data collection and specific policy changes, Potter said.

Research shows that children develop an awareness of social and racial differences as early as kindergarten, and preschool students in integrated classrooms are less likely to show bias toward minorities. They also learn better: Students from all socioeconomic groups show learning gains in mixed classrooms.

“We think about it and talk about it all the time,” said Ken Jockers, executive director of Hudson Guild, a community-based preschool provider in Chelsea. “We want kids to have the most substantive experience possible, and the most substantive experience possible, from our perspective, includes broad diversity.”

But there are inherent difficulties in integrating preschools in New York City.

In order to ramp up universal pre-K quickly, the Department of Education relied on both city schools and community-based organizations. The majority of pre-K seats — 60 percent in 2014 — are provided in community-based “early education centers.”

The city announced in May that public schools could propose plans to consider student diversity in their enrollment, as early as pre-K, under the Diversity in Admissions program. But early education centers cannot participate. At the same time, the community-based centers are more likely to be racially and ethnically segregated, Potter found.

Even among early education centers, there are disparities. Black and Hispanic children are concentrated in certain programs that receive funding specifically for low-income students, according to the study.

There are other reasons the centers tend to be less diverse. They often cater to specific religious and ethnic groups, or have strong ties to the immediate community. And parents who can afford to enroll a 3-year-old in paid preschool get preference for a free universal pre-K slot at the same center the following year.

“That means when those centers are enrolling for universal pre-K, they’re getting mostly affluent families for those seats,” Potter said. Rather than eliminate that preference, Potter said the city should add additional seats for four-year-olds. “It’s a challenging problem because continuity is important for kids.”

The extent of socioeconomic diversity in pre-K classrooms is hard to know. Since all Pre-K for All students have the option of free lunch, families who enroll do not fill out eligibility forms for those meals — a common way public schools track student poverty. Pre-K is also excluded from annual school diversity reports, a new mandate passed by the City Council.

“It’s a big gap,” Potter said. “If we want to make sure that universal pre-K provides an opportunity for families of different socioeconomic backgrounds to have kids in a classroom together, we need to find a way to look at whether that’s happening.”

But the community-based model also provides unique opportunities, Potter said. Unlike district schools, early education centers aren’t tied to specific geographical boundaries. And parents may be willing to travel for quality, or so their child can attend a specific program, such a dual-language class, offered in a center. The city should work to help early education centers market those programs, Potter said.

She also called on the city to allow pre-K centers to pilot diversity programs, add more pre-K classrooms in public schools and ensure that preschool students are considered in rezoning and school integration decisions.

“We want to make sure that, in particular, some of our most vulnerable students have a chance to attend high-quality classrooms,” Potter said. “One of the best ways to do that is to make sure there are a lot of diverse classrooms.”

Updated with response from Department of Education Deputy Chancellor of Strategy and Policy Josh Wallack:

“In two years, New York City built a universal Pre-K for All program that serves every four-year-old with free, full-day, high quality programs, and more than 70,400 four year olds have registered for the 2016-17 school year. We’re serving families in every neighborhood, and with a centralized enrollment system and targeted outreach workers, we’ve made it easier for families to enroll and for programs to recruit students. Diversity in classrooms remains an important priority for the Department of Education, because we believe children in diverse classrooms learn from each other and learn better, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve on that through Pre-K for All and across the school system.”

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

pushing integration

New York City must move faster to combat school segregation, lawmakers say

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students called for school integration at a rally at City Hall in May 2017.

Ahead of a city council hearing Thursday where lawmakers are set to grill the de Blasio administration on its plan to boost school diversity, a trio of council members is calling for more aggressive efforts to tackle the city’s stark school segregation.

In the essay below, the councilmen — Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, Brad Lander of Brooklyn, and Daniel Dromm of Queens — note some progress the city has made in the three years since the council’s last major hearing on the issue, but call the city’s approach “still-hesitant.” Read the full essay below.

Integrating NYC’s Public Schools, Step by Insistent Step

Four years ago, the UCLA Civil Rights Project issued a chilling report, showing that New York had the most segregated schools in the country. Anyone willing to look already knew our schools were deeply segregated, of course. But we had somehow stopped paying attention. We treated segregation like it was a problem of the South, or of the distant past.

After the report — and prodded also by grassroots organizing, powerful journalism, and the symbolism of the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education — we decided to hold a City Council hearing. That hearing stretched on for ten hours. Our conclusion: Separate, still, is not equal. And also: segregated schools cannot teach inclusive, multiracial democracy.

Coming out of that hearing, the Council passed NYC’s School Diversity Accountability Act in the spring of 2015. The Act called on the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to develop a plan to integrate our schools, and required the DOE to start submitting annual reports on school segregation (the third annual report came out earlier this fall).

Over the past four years, the City has taken some first steps. Forty-two schools (out of 1700) have joined the “Diversity in Admissions” program. A few middle-school districts shifted to “blind rankings,” so the schools could not so simply pick their students based on who they were. In two high profile cases, in Brooklyn Heights/DUMBO, and on the Upper West Side, the DOE changed elementary school district boundaries with an eye to enhancing diversity.    

Even these first steps the city would not have emerged without insistent activism from students, parents, educators, and advocates across the city. And those groups have kept pushing, because there is a deep mismatch between the moral clarity of the issue — our school system rations opportunity based on race, class, and neighborhood — and the slow approach to do something about it.

This past spring (two years after the School Diversity Accountability Act), the DOE released their plan, “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools. The title gives away the still-hesitant approach. The report does not even use the words “segregation” or “integration,” preferring the anodyne “diversity.” But at least, for the first time, it set concrete numeric targets for reducing the number of students in segregated schools (and increasing the number of integrated ones).

Finally, this fall, we got something a little bigger, when the DOE released their plan for District 1’s elementary schools, a “controlled choice” model that aims to achieve integration across a district. And a conversation is underway about District 15’s middle-schools. These are still small parts of the system — but at least we are beginning to see systemic approaches.

There’s a lot more we must do. At the high-school level, we could make real progress quickly, since students all across the city are assigned in one process. With political will, the city’s specialized and screened schools could be pushed to integrate. For elementary schools, we need new models, since neighborhood-based school zoning in a residentially segregated city guarantees segregated schools. One model is a “school-pairing” approach that has been successful around the country. Another option is to be much deliberate in the neighborhood-wide housing rezonings about education.  

We must also make sure that schools aren’t just integrated by admissions algorithm — but actually do the hard work of culturally-competent education (with diverse teaching staffs), of surfacing implicit bias, of confronting disparities in school discipline. It is no easy task to make sure our schools are genuinely welcoming and affirming places for kids not only of every race, but also gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, immigration status, and national origin — but it remains an essential one.  

We’ve made some policy changes over the past four years, but perhaps the best thing that has changed is the emergence of advocacy movement. We’ve been deeply inspired by the growth of IntegrateNYC, the student wing of the school integration movement. Educators, activists, students, and parents from around the city meet together on a regular basis through the NYC Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation. These groups are doing the hard work of building integrated schools. And they are pointing out the gaping chasm between our values of equality and inclusion — and our practice of segregation.

So tomorrow, the City Council is holding another hearing, to listen again to those insistent voices. We’ll hear from the DOE about their plan, and push for far more comprehensive change. We’ll hear from students, parents, and teachers about the stark segregation they face in their schools. We’ll hear about some of the bright spots, too, since the power of genuinely integrated schools is truly transformative, and prepares kids for the city and the world they will inherit.

Most important, we will be called, again, to the “fierce urgency of now,” Dr. King’s demand that we look squarely at the injustice and segregation that characterizes our systems — and take real responsibility for changing them.   

Daniel Dromm chairs the New York City Council’s Education Committee. Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres are co-sponsors of the Council’s 2015 School Diversity Accountability Act.