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NYC pre-K
Four-year-olds pretend they are growing tall, like plants, in a science lesson that involves a rich vocabulary, hands-on learning and student engagement. Credit: Kathleen Lucadamo

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — At the Audrey Johnson Day Care one sunny April morning, preschoolers were discussing how seeds grow into plants when the teacher asked them, “Is the sun natural light or artificial light?” A few of the 4-year-olds answered, “Natural light.” “Good job. Kiss yourself,” the teacher instructed the class. They all kissed their hands.

Student engagement and positive reinforcement like this, experts say, is a sign of a quality prekindergarten program. Indeed, the Brooklyn school, which added two public prekindergarten classes last year under New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expansion of pre-K, earns high marks on reviews from independent evaluators — but it’s not alone. Audrey Johnson is one of hundreds of preschools across New York City to receive high marks, according to recent results of the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS).

But what makes this center unique is that it is serves Bushwick, a high-poverty community in which public elementary schools don’t do well on state and city tests.

“We are closing the gap,” said Alexandra Rick, an Audrey Johnson teacher. She has taught in private schools on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, two of New York City’s most affluent areas. Students there, she said, enter with rich vocabularies, have lots of books at home, and are routinely enrolled in swim, soccer and music classes.

Most of her Bushwick students come from homes in which little English is spoken and income levels are low, she said. She tries to build their vocabulary through conversation and by encouraging their parents to take them to the library and museums. “The pre-K age is crucial to their development,” she said. “They are sponges now.”

Long road to results

De Blasio agrees. He argues that getting all children into school before kindergarten is key to improving education. As a result of his beliefs, he expanded New York City’s early childhood program: As of December 2015, 68,547 children were enrolled in a public prekindergarten class, up from about 50,000 the previous year. The city plans to provide as many as 73,000 seats.

Still, it will be a long time before benefits show up, experts say.

“Children in low-income houses start anywhere from a year to 18 months behind in language and mathematics and social and emotional development,” said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Half the achievement gap we talk about in the third grade and beyond starts before they even get in the door of kindergarten.”

Getting all those youngsters in a prekindergarten program is a critical first step, said Barnett, but improving the quality of those classes, including better training for teachers, will take time.

NYC pre-K
Teacher Nicole Miller helps her students. She’s a graduate of the preschool program and lives in the community. Credit: Kathleen Lucadamo

“You can’t just say, ‘We’ll hire good teachers.’ They are rarely good their first year,” said Barnett, who estimates it will be closer to 10 years before there is a noticeable improvement in the system as a result of the expansion. “You have to transform the adults in the classroom and that doesn’t happen by magic.”

Evaluating the program is important, said Barnett, so that schools can see where they need to improve and education officials can see if there are systemic problems. “They are really powerful tools for improving practice. I call them the GPS for improving practice,” he said. “It’s not for blame, as in who got us lost, but how do we find our way and achieve the goals we want to achieve.”

In New York City, educators rely on ECERS data, which examines three main areas: health and safety, opportunities for children to develop social-emotional skills, and educational opportunities (like teachers working on vocabulary development). In 2014-15, a team of evaluators inspected 650 city public prekindergarten programs, up from 200 programs typically evaluated during an academic year, said Debby Cryer, one of the designers of the ECERS scale, which is used nationally.

“What we are looking for is what is needed for their success,” Cryer said. “It doesn’t help to spend time teaching them to read the words if they don’t understand the words. Schools think they should be getting them to read and that’s foolish, but we see a lot of it today.”

Signs of improvement

In her last few years evaluating New York preschools, Cryer said she has noticed a dramatic improvement in programs, which she attributes to more professional development for teachers. “They weren’t meeting the needs of the children particularly well, but they are getting better and better,” she said. An ideal score is 5 (out of a possible 7), she said. A score of 5 indicates children “are well-protected, learning what they need to learn and have a strong sense of themselves,” she said.

For the most part, the ECERS results echo achievement patterns in New York — low-performing districts have low-quality programs and high-performing districts have high-quality programs. The district with the highest average score (4.59) is District 26, an upper middle class area in Queens that includes Little Neck and Jamaica Estates, while the lowest average ECERS scores (3.38) belong to District 7 in the South Bronx, among the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

There are exceptions to this pattern — like Audrey Johnson. When it was last evaluated in 2014, the program averaged a score of 4.5 out of 7 in three areas: health/safety, opportunities for kids to develop social-emotional skills, and educational opportunities. The ratings were better than those in 868 public preschools in New York, the data shows. The assessments were performed on nearly 1220 programs from 2013-15.

NYC pre-K
A 4-year-old boy paints, one of many activities preschoolers can choose from at Audrey Johnson Day Care. Credit: Kathleen Lucadamo

Audrey Johnson Day Care is hardly a newcomer to early education. The facility has been offering free or low-cost child care to the community since 1971, getting funding from the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. The de Blasio prekindergarten expansion allowed the center to offer another two classes, each with less than 18 students and two teachers, for 4-year-olds.

Audrey Johnson has partnered with Columbia University on a math program that sends coaches into the classroom and with New York University for a literacy initiative that allowed the school to create a lending library for families. The center recently received a grant from the Citizens Committee for New York City to put planters in each room, according to Julie Dent, the executive director of Audrey Johnson.

Each classroom has puppets, instruments, a block area, water table, instruments, a library, computer and new crayons — all the equipment commonly found in pricey private preschools. If children are feeling blue or just need a break, they are encouraged to sit in the cozy area (a beanbag). Students are chatty and eager to ask questions.

Related: Why Oklahoma’s public preschools are some of the best in the country

“Our students are well prepared,” said Dent. “Some go to gifted programs. They can compete with anyone.”

The children feed into Public School/Intermediate School 384 (P.S./I.S. 384), located across the street, which enrolls students up to 8th grade. All the students qualify for free lunch, a benchmark of poverty. Less than 20 percent of the school’s students met state math or reading standards last year, according to test results for grades 3 to 8, listed on the state education department’s website.

P.S./I.S. 384 principal Phyllis Raulli says that students from Audrey Johnson are better prepared for school than those who come directly from home, but so are children from an in-house prekindergarten (it earned 4.3 on the ECERS ratings). In the last two years, she has noticed that the academic readiness of students who attended public preschools has increased — a sign, she said, that the quality of these programs is improving.

“They do have the vocabulary in subject areas, especially with numbers and shapes,” said Raulli. “They know what perpendicular means. They know what geometry means. It’s amazing. It’s not a textbook, it’s all hands on.”

Related: Notable research on pre-kindergarten education

NYC pre-K
Children search for their names on cards, which they use to mark the area they want to play in so they don’t all crowd one space, like the block area. Credit: Kathleen Lucadamo

Whether this preschool success will help these students perform better on New York state tests remains unknown. It’s impossible to determine if children who score poorly — or well — on state exams attended preschool without tracking individual students, who often move from one district to another, said education officials. Many students who attend preschool may move out of Bushwick. Because of continuing gentrification, the neighborhood has experienced high turnover in the last few years, said Assistant Principal Marilyn Cruz.

One thing that is clear, said both Raulli and Cruz, is that preschool improves kindergarten performance.Our students that come with pre-K education definitely do better in kindergarten than those that come from home,” Cruz said. “It’s very visible in how they hold themselves.”

Changing expectations

Bushwick elementary schools have long struggled. Districtwide, only 21 percent of elementary and middle school students were proficient in math and 19 percent were proficient in reading, state test results for 2015 show. Yet the preschools do quite well. According to ECERS data, prekindergartens in the district have average score of 4.2, making them among the top programs in New York City.

The disconnect between pre-K and elementary/middle school performance is not uncommon, experts say, noting that in the past, the standards for vocabulary and social-emotional development in even good quality pre-K programs weren’t high enough.

“Our expectation isn’t you are doing fine for this neighborhood,” said early childhood expert Barnett. “The expectation is how you look against all the kids in New York state. That doesn’t mean pressuring kids, but there is a difference between talking about yellow flowers and forsythia.”

Pre-K provides other advantages, like parent involvement and small class sizes, that dissolve as children progress through elementary school.

NYC pre-K
Children stack Magna-Tiles together to create a castle. Collaborations like these are crucial to learning in the early years, experts say. Credit: Kathleen Lucadamo

Dent said parent involvement has been key to the Audrey Johnson Day Care’s success. Parents visit the classrooms at least once a month, she said, noting that the school also has an open-door policy that allows parents to enter the classroom unannounced at any time. Parents are encouraged to voice their opinions; the school provides a suggestion box for this purpose. And Audrey Johnson goes beyond day care by offering programs for parents. The school holds English classes for adults some evenings, and once a week parents and children are invited to join a 5 p.m. exercise class in the lobby.

“The parents play a vital role in decision-making here,” said Dent. “We do a lot. You have to.”

There is no marked distinction between the quality of preschool in private centers versus the ones in public elementary schools in New York, according to the data. Nationally there is also no pattern, said experts.

“You can have incredibly great early childhood programs in low-income areas and incredibly poor ones in high income areas,” said Cryer.

There is one distinction between the programs in public schools and private centers: the pay. A certified teacher with a master’s degree and 20 years’ experience can earn up to $91,000 in an elementary school pre-K while those with the same credentials earn closer to $50,000 in private programs, according to the United Neighborhood Houses, which is fighting for equal pay in pre-K.

Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said better paid teachers leave less frequently, but there are few differences in terms of child outcomes. “There is still the segregation in the teaching force where the stronger teachers will float out to the better neighborhood. That’s true in pre-K as well in K-12.”

Dent recruits teachers from the community, even employing graduates of Audrey Johnson, like teacher Nicole Miller. “I feel like I’m helping my community succeed,” said Miller, who was a preschooler at Audrey Johnson about 20 years ago, as she took a break from instructing her class on plants and natural sunlight.

After the 4-year-olds kissed themselves, she asked them questions like, “Can I bake a plant?” The children giggled and said, “No, you need seeds.” They stretched up high, pretending to be plants, then sorted seeds before selecting individual activities, like painting or building with blocks. Giving students choices like these and asking questions helps build reasoning skills, said experts.

Barnett suspects more city prekindergarten programs, including Audrey Johnson, will earn higher grades as New York’s universal pre-K program improves, which will help close the gap in education.

“We are hoping we can ratchet up the quality of pre-K to more effectively supplement what is happening in the home,” said Fuller, of Berkeley. “Even with stellar levels of quality, it’s not going to overcome the disparities in the home and disparities across classes, but it’s a start.”

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

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