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Pre-K for All
A bright central hallway at Little Scholars features child-height peepholes Credit: Sarah Gonser

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Little Sunshine Preschool looks orderly: Its hallway is lined with cheery murals in primary colors, and construction-paper snowflakes adorn classroom doors. In a nod to the cultural heritage of its surrounding neighborhood, two displays feature Chinese-themed art, including pretty sprays of cherry blossoms and red and gold lanterns.

Yet not a single teacher in this private preschool in Bensonhurst has a master’s degree and nearly half do not return each year. Owner Bryan Wong says attracting qualified new teachers is quickly becoming one of his biggest headaches.

Three years into New York City’s high-profile push to expand free and high-quality preschool, 70,430 4-year-olds are now enrolled citywide, up from 19,287 in 2013, according to the Department of Education. Private providers are one of the program’s fundamental building blocks, but many of them say that surviving within the framework of city-mandated expectations, guidelines and funding is tough, even though the city has put in place numerous incentives and supports. However, if free universal preschool is going to work in New York and provide a sustainable working model for programs around the country, private schools need to remain involved and, indeed, flourish.

“The idea of using both public and private preschool providers is a challenge for the field in general, and in no way unique to New York,” said Jeanne L. Reid, a research scientist at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College). “It’s an artifact of the early childhood system; it’s grown up that way. So if you use both public and private providers, the question becomes: How do you nurture and sustain quality across all those different settings when their resources, missions and histories can be so different?”

This school year, New York City’s Department of Education says it has Pre-K for All contracts with 1,129 private programs — also known as community-based organizations — ranging from established religious organizations to community centers, nursery schools, large private preschools with multiple locations and small schools like Bryan Wong’s Little Sunshine Preschool. Though most of these providers operate their Pre-K for All units as nonprofits, many — including Wong’s school — contain for-profit elements such as day care centers or classrooms for two- and three-year-olds. These private providers are spread across the city’s five boroughs: 366 in Brooklyn, 326 in Queens, 221 in the Bronx, 148 in Manhattan and 68 in Staten Island.

“These children are in constant trauma, so it’s really hard to get through to them. But when they come in here, it’s like a different planet for them, and their eyes just light up.”

Each private provider hires and pays its own teachers and maintains its own operation while meeting environmental, curricular and quality standards set and monitored by the Department of Education. The city employs 100 instructional coordinators and 120 social workers who visit private providers on a regular basis, sometimes weekly, to support and advise.**

“Our instructional coordinator focuses on our curriculum and our facility,” said Keisha Flores, educational director at Little Sunshine. She noted that this support is both helpful and appreciated, since private providers can tend to feel “on their own,” especially when they compare their experiences to the support networks available to public schools.

In addition to the coordinators and social workers, a program assessment team visits schools two out of every three years to monitor program quality, and teachers and preschool leaders receive six days of professional learning throughout the school year.

If a private program does not meet quality standards, “our first move is to offer additional support, go into the program with our instructional coordinators and social workers and try to figure out how we can help that program improve,” said Josh Wallack, deputy chancellor for strategy and policy for the city’s Department of Education. “But if we believe a program is really not performing well, and children would be better served elsewhere, we make that decision. This has only happened a handful of times. But we won’t shy away from these tough decisions. For now, we’ve been incredibly pleased with the [private] partners we work with.”

Related: Quality of pre-K varies in New York, data shows

Pre-K for All
Students wait for pre-lunch story time at Little Scholars Credit: Sarah Gonser

Jasmin Corniel, a preschool teacher and the founding director of the Little Scholars Early Development Center in the South Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania (the school has two locations, Little Scholars I and II), is also a Pre-K for All provider. Her school, a rented, self-renovated ground floor tucked beneath a large residential building, is bright and inviting with soothing pastel walls, child-level hallway peephole windows so students can peek into classrooms, fanciful open spaces with swirling, low dividing walls and lots of natural wood furniture.

Little Scholars’ students are mostly African-American or Hispanic, said Corniel, and many live in shelters. “Because of their home situations, and because many are dealing with domestic abuse, these children are in constant trauma, so it’s really hard to get through to them,” she said. “But when they come in here, it’s like a different planet for them, and their eyes just light up.”

Corniel founded the first Little Scholars school in 2011 when, as a first-time mother seeking a strong local preschool for her daughter, she came up short. “So, with a baby on my hip, I wrote a business plan, went to the small business administration and to the banks and we got started,” she said.

To fund each child at her first location, Little Scholars I, Corniel negotiated a yearly payment of $7,000 per child from the Department of Education. “That’s literally peanuts,” said Corniel. “But I was new so I think they thought: ‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ ”

Three years into New York City’s high-profile push to expand free and high-quality preschool, 70,430 4-year-olds are now enrolled citywide, up from 19,287 children in 2013.

Corniel said everything changed in 2014, with the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio on a platform that included expanding public preschool. “All the Pre-K for All advertising was coming out, and an important part of what they were offering was money for facilities,” she recalled.

Little Scholars I had reached capacity, so when a neighborhood spot became available, Corniel jumped on the city’s financial incentive to lure new providers. “The build-out [of Little Scholars II] cost $1 million and we proposed $500,000 [to the city],” she said. “But they only gave us $130,000. We argued that more of the [renovation cost] should be covered, but that’s what we got.”

Toughened by her first negotiations, Corniel carefully budgeted for Little Scholars II and the city now gives her a yearly rate of $10,600 per child. Although it’s an improvement over her first negotiated rate, she has very little wiggle room. For example, Corniel pays $9,000 per month to rent the Little Scholars II space. “I have a big issue with the fact that public schools don’t pay rent out of their per-child rate,” she said. “But we get less per child, and we pay rent. It’s really hard to make our programs stay afloat.”

A Department of Education spokeswoman said in an email that “site contracts are determined by a number of factors including occupancy costs (rent or mortgage) as well as programmatic costs (all other non-real estate related costs of operating a pre-K program) which differ by site, even for the same provider — not based on skill or experience negotiating of the parties involved.”*

Related: The state of American preschool, in six parts

Pre-K for All
Checking in on the classroom rat family at Little Sunshine Preschool in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn Credit: Sarah Gonser

Bryan Wong, at Little Sunshine, describes his financial negotiations with the city as “very confusing to us.”

The city gives Wong $9,000 a year per child, and he pays $13,000 in rent each month. “At the beginning, there were so many unknowns about what is required for Pre-K for All, we really didn’t expect all the expenses,” said Wong, who worked as an IT technician before opening Little Sunshine; his co-director ran operations at several day care centers. “Suddenly we realized that to be a Pre-K for All provider the city required that we get a certain amount of blocks, specific shelves and other furniture, a laptop and iPad for each classroom. It was a big shock, and we only realized all this after we’d submitted our budget and negotiated our per-child rate.”

On top of the unexpected supply costs, Wong said another major financial hurdle occurred when he miscalculated his insurance rate based on his first-year headcount, rather than on his current, combined enrollment numbers with three at-capacity Pre-K for All classrooms. “We realized that with 20 or 30 more students, it made a difference of many thousands of dollars,” he said.

Still, Wong noted that these financial missteps aren’t his greatest worry. “Budgeting was confusing — and we’re getting better at that — but that’s not the toughest part. My biggest worry now is attracting and retaining quality teachers; and it’s so hard because, compared to what public schools can offer them, there’s absolutely nothing we can do.”

 “At this point, what you don’t want in this mixed-delivery system is that the private providers become the farm league for the public school classrooms.”

Since so few applicants respond when he posts on the Department of Education job board, Wong now hunts for teachers on Indeed and Craigslist. “We are just a first stop for teachers on their way to careers at more established public schools,” said Little Sunshine educational director Flores. “So even if we find someone who is really qualified, you just can’t feel secure that they’ll stay beyond a year. Their main focus is getting to a public school with all the benefits and supports.”

Related: What do preschool teachers need to do a better job?

While ongoing assessments show that the city’s efforts to monitor and improve preschool quality are showing positive gains, private provider teacher salaries remain an area of weakness. “I believe in salary parity, end of story. Equal pay for equal work,” said Ellen Frede, former co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “At this point, what you don’t want in this mixed-delivery system is that the private providers become the farm league for the public school classrooms. You don’t want [private provider] teachers getting mentored and reaching quality and then getting stolen by the school district classrooms. Something needs to be set up so there’s equilibrium, because all children matter, wherever they’re educated.”

The city acknowledges that teacher pay is still an issue, said deputy chancellor Wallack. “We’ve been paying attention to this issue from the beginning and, in year one, we made a $16 million investment to try to move those salaries closer together. Since then, we’ve instituted hiring and retention bonuses to help [private providers] attract the best talent and retain it over time.”

Pre-K for All
Head, shoulders, knees and toes, with percussion instruments, at Little Sunshine Credit: Sarah Gonser

Indeed, at Corniel’s Little Scholars II in the Bronx, where all lead teachers are certified and have a master’s degree in early education, new lead teacher hires receive bonuses of $2,500. Returning certified teachers with master’s degrees receive a yearly $3,500 bonus. “That’s really helping,” said Corniel. “The DoE has upped the game across the board with Pre-K for All. It’s a huge undertaking and I think New York is doing an amazing job. That said, pay is still a really big issue and it’s still not enough.”

Little Scholars II opened in 2015 and, so far, all of Corniel’s lead teachers have stayed put. Corniel attributes this positive retention rate to the school’s focus on strong teacher supports and training and the fact that “we’re really, deeply invested in what we do.”

“[Pre-K for All is] a huge undertaking and I think New York is doing an amazing job. That said, pay is still a really big issue and it’s still not enough.”

Since none of Bryan Wong’s teachers at Little Sunshine have master’s degrees, however, they do not benefit from the city’s bonus program. “We have two teachers working toward their master’s degrees, one certified, one uncertified,” he said, noting that he pays his teachers between $40,000 and $44,000. “This year, I find that if I say ‘I’ll pay you this DoE-mandated salary,’ it just doesn’t feel attractive to teachers anymore. It’s getting really tough.”

After the Department of Education earmarked $16 million to boost recommended salaries for private Pre-K for All providers in 2014, a lead teacher in a private program who has a bachelor’s degree and initial certification may now earn $44,000, according to the department’s press secretary, Devora Kaye. A lead teacher with a master’s degree and initial certification may earn $50,000. Public school teachers have a unionized pay scale, through which salaries increase with tenure and experience. The starting salary for a district school teacher with a bachelor’s degree and initial certification is now $51,650; the starting salary for a district school teacher with a master’s degree and initial certification is $58,061. The majority of lead teachers working in private Pre-K for All classrooms, said Kaye, have at least a bachelor’s degree and are either certified or working toward certification.

Pre-K for All
A sensory sand station at Little Scholars Early Development Center in the South Bronx Credit: Sarah Gonser

“There’s no question in my mind that the city is very interested in creating high quality spots; they’re not just trying to expand at any cost,” said National Center for Children and Families research scientist Jeanne Reid, who is overseeing a study about how New York City’s universal preschool settings impact quality. “But it can be very complicated for private preschool directors, and there’s a wide variation in the capacity among some of those sites to manage [Department of Education] obligations. It would not surprise us at all to find that [their] administrative burden is much greater than what public schools face. This can be a significant disadvantage, and takes away from devoting time to nurturing teachers, education quality, parental engagement and curriculum and professional development — all those things we know go into supporting good outcomes for children and families.”

Wong and Corniel each plan to build another preschool in their respective neighborhoods in the near future; Corniel is also contemplating starting a charter elementary and middle school. “There’s a real need here for quality early education,” said Corniel, adding that she is partnering this year with a neighborhood mental health agency to help her most traumatized and fearful students. “Feeling safe is the premise to any kind of real learning; we’re still trying to break through to the safe part.”

Inside one of Little Scholars’ classrooms, 18 preschoolers help clean up the room before settling onto orange benches for a quick, pre-lunch story time. Today’s book is “Count on the Subway,” and the children are captivated, hands shooting up, faces pleading to be called on. “I’ve been to Grand Central Station with my mom,” said one child. “It was a-m-a-z-i-n-g!” Friends giggle loudly; his teacher agrees with him. One by one, the children line up for a squirt of hand sanitizer before sitting down to a lunch of mac and cheese, carrots and honeydew melon.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education.

*Clarification: This story has been updated to include a comment from the Department of Education.

**Correction: Due to an error by Department of Education officials, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of instructional coordinators and social workers employed to help private providers.

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  1. As someone who has worked with NYCDOE in this capacity I can certainly attest to the fact that they are difficult to work with in certain aspects, and do not communicate policies, requirements, deadlines, etc. in a timely or efficient manner. They also try to distribute the lowest possible cost per child and and do not consider certain expenses necessary (i.e. maintenance costs cannot exceed $2,500 per year–a single plumber’s visit can easily cost around $600 which is almost 25% of the total yearly allowance for repairs and maintenance). I think it would be worth it to poll contracted UPK providers to determine what their level of satisfaction with this program is and where the most challenges exist when working with NYCDOE. Many providers may not want to talk about their challenges for fear of losing their contract (NYCDOE has the right to cancel a contract at any moment for any reason they see fit).

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