K-12

New Jersey tightening rules on free pre-K

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Misael Rivas is a skinny four-year-old with big eyes and a big personality that sometimes gets him in trouble at his preschool, the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Center in Union City, N.J. His favorite things are fire trucks, table saws, and, despite the occasional call home from his teacher about misbehavior, going to school.

So on the last day of pre-kindergarten this summer, his mother, Kilcenia Rondon, said he was heartbroken. “He’s a little troublemaker, but he kept saying ‘I miss my school, I’m lonely,’ ” said Rondon, a 23-year-old single mother who has a job in retail and is enrolled at a community college, working on her bachelor’s degree. When school is out, Misael stays with a neighbor or family member while she’s at work.

Fortunately for Misael, his summer vacation lasted only eight days before he was back again to attend the Hostos Center’s summer preschool program. The 90 children enrolled in the program, all ages 3-5, are not those who fell behind during the past school year but rather the children who are most likely to fall behind in the future. They are the poorest of the Hostos Center’s mostly poor student population – the students most likely to start first grade behind their peers.

Free summer preschool in New Jersey’s poorest districts started in 1998, after a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in the Abbott v. Burke case. In the ruling, the court mandated free preschool for the state’s poorest districts in an effort to equalize educational opportunities and close achievement gaps. But the state went further, adding a set of “wraparound” services – including 10-hour school days, health screenings, and six weeks of preschool in the summer – that was offered free to any family living in one of the 31 Abbott districts.

This fall, the state is cutting back the program. Only the poorest families will be able to apply for wraparound services starting this September, and for the first time parents will have to prove they either have a job or are in school, according to Beverly Wellons, assistant director for childcare operations at the Department of Human Services, which oversees the wraparound services.

Amanda Blagman, a senior policy analyst at the Association for Children of New Jersey, said families have told her they won’t participate if they have to pay. Instead, many will go into “unregulated family child care, where not only are there no regulations, there is potentially no learning agenda,” she said.

Students at the Hostos Center for Early Childhood Education in Union City, New Jersey

A significant body of research suggests that achievement gaps between poor and affluent students widen over the summer. David Burkheim, a researcher at the University of Michigan who conducted a national study of summer learning among kindergartners, says that during the summer, more affluent children tend to learn more math and reading, building on their gains over the school year, while poorer children lose ground.

“These children are sponges,” he said. “They’ll absorb anything in their environment that they can, but the reality is that many children are in environments with very little to absorb, particularly during these early years.”

Nevertheless, across the country, summer offerings for pre-kindergarten- and kindergarten-aged children are a hodgepodge, experts say, and those like New Jersey’s summer pre- and post-kindergarten wraparound services for poor children are rare.

New Mexico started a program to help needy children get ready for school in the summer before kindergarten in 2005 that has expanded to upper grades, while Oklahoma is piloting a summer program for three-year-olds. Florida offers a summer program for pre-kindergartners, but they are not allowed to attend a public program during the rest of the year if they sign up for a summer slot. Programs in California that offered summer school for young children have been cut because of budget shortfalls. And while many Head Start programs are year-round, studies have found that quality is uneven.

Robert Pianta, an early childhood research at the University of Virginia, says Head Start can often “look more like child care than an academic program.”

A brightly painted cinder block structure, the Hostos Center stands out in a neighborhood of shabby apartment buildings, store-front churches and hole-in-the-wall Cuban and Central American restaurants. On a recent muggy morning in July, the mothers leading their children into school wore sundresses and nurses’ scrubs, although one flew through in a pencil skirt and heels with her daughter in tow, telling the principal frantically that she was late for a new job. Many of the dads appeared dressed for gas-station and construction work.

In the summer, classes are less structured than during the school year, but the weeks are organized around themes like insects or the ocean. Learning is infused into most classroom activities, which include building with blocks, playing computer games, putting on puppet shows and writing stories. At recess, children get exercise and develop their motor skills by playing basketball, walking on mini-stilts and climbing the jungle gym.

Students in one class began the day with a song: “I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee, won’t my mama be so proud of me,” they bellowed enthusiastically, miming the actions with their hands as the teacher helped them follow along with the words written on the board. Afterward, they read a story about an ant who begs a little boy not to step on him, occasionally stopping to discuss what it felt like to be the ant and what the little boy should do. Then they colored and glued together their own bumblebees, using strips of construction paper and cardboard bowls.

free preschool New JerseyNew Jersey’s summer school program and other preschool wraparound services are not mandated by law and, starting in 2006, under the Corzine administration, the state began gradually restricting which families were eligible. Before 2007, any family living in an Abbott school district could sign up. Then, eligibility was restricted to families with incomes at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The upper limit was reduced again last year, to 250 percent.

Starting September 1st, parents who earn more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($29,140 for a family of two) are ineligible. Families who are already enrolled will be grandfathered in under the old eligibility requirements. As of May 2010, 30,625 children were enrolled in wraparound services, a drop of 5 percent from the previous May. DHS officials say the numbers tend to fluctuate throughout the year, however, and usually peak in the summer.

The new eligibility requirements are expected to save the state $7 million this year, but state officials say the changes aren’t being made to save money. Wellons, of DHS, says the changes will make the system more equitable.

The program will now match the income and work requirements of New Jersey Cares for Kids, a federally subsidized program that provides childcare vouchers for low-income families living outside Abbott districts, ensuring that children in Abbott districts aren’t receiving more services than children elsewhere.

“It prioritizes lower-income families,” Wellons said. “It’s fair. When we talk about parity, that’s what we’re looking for – a more equitable program.”

She added that New Jersey is one of the most generous states when it comes to funding child care. “Most states only serve families that are at 100 percent of poverty,” she said.

Early childhood advocates are skeptical of the state’s motivations, however. Barbara Reisman, director of the Schumann Fund for New Jersey, which supports early childhood programs, said “the state is doing it because it’s facing a $10 billion deficit.”

“The whole point of the program is to address equity concerns,” she added. “Equity doesn’t mean that everybody gets treated the same.”

Maureen Lawrence, a program director at the Children’s Home Society, also believes the cuts are a fiscal decision. Her organization manages the New Jersey Cares for Kids subsidies in Ocean County, where there are no Abbott districts, and she says that the parents in her district, where the ceiling for both summer and year-round childcare services is already 200 percent of the federal poverty level, struggle to afford the co-payments charged by the program.

“It’s still a very difficult situation for these people to buy food and feed their children and pay their rent, and their car insurance, and keep their child care,” she said. “The federal poverty index is sure not a get-rich-quick scheme – it’s very, very low.”

At the Hostos Center, several parents said they wouldn’t know what to do without subsidized summer school. Eric Isola, who works the front desk at a hotel and sends his daughter Analyse, 5, to Hostos during the summer, said he’s been amazed by her academic progress during the extended year.

“It feels like she’s a grade older,” he said. “It’s invaluable. She’s not just sitting around the house watching T.V.”

A version of this story appeared here in The (Newark) Star-Ledger on August 3, 2010. This story has been modified from an earlier version published on August 3, 2010.

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