New York City’s free kindergarten program is a national model adopted by parents and praised for its high quality. But in the first year of a new mayoral run, the influential enterprise faces challenges that could threaten its position and undermine its future.
The problems are so serious that the program, which has garnered praise from experts and visited other cities’ leaders in hopes of copying it, could lose more than $70 million in Head Start funding and fall in standards, according to talks with multiple organizations. Two dozen current and former employees of the Department of Education’s Early Childhood Education Division.
The turmoil in pre-kindergarten and 3-K, which together serve 90,000 3- and 4-year-old city children, first spread to the public after preschool providers complained that the Department of Education was late in paying them this fall.
Now, several providers say the payments still haven’t arrived despite the municipality’s promises. Workers said the department also plans to do significantly fewer quality checks this academic year.
“I’m concerned about the future of early childhood education in New York City, period,” said Emmy Liss, the department’s former COO, adding that she fears the department no longer has enough expertise to support hundreds of sites and the public. schools. “I think we’re going to see a reduction in the academic and social-emotional benefits that kids get.”
Free pre-education for all was the signature achievement of Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty and instantly became popular with parents across race and class lines. Now, his successor, Eric Adams, is stepping back from expanding the program to provide universal kindergarten for 3-year-olds, as Mr. de Blasio had planned.
Major shifts in policy priorities are typical of any new mayoral administration, and the school’s chancellor, David C. Banks, said officials had inherited an early childhood system that was “a mess of epic proportions”. He and other Education Department officials said the complaints reflected resistance to the new administration’s efforts to make changes.
New York’s early childhood initiatives have resonated with families in a city where private kindergartens can cost more than $15,000 a year. While the city’s public school system has lost its students, kindergarten and 3-K have also been a bright spot: Programs that have made system-wide enrollment declines less dramatic.
The city’s programs gained a good reputation by winning a gold medal from a national organization and attracting visits from national politicians, but a recent study found that classrooms serving mostly white and Asian students tended to be higher in the initiative’s first six years. Better quality than those in the Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Workers in the department agreed that there were problems with the program during de Blasio’s administration: some complained about the slow progress in equality efforts, special education issues, and the leaders’ visions for early childhood education.
But many workers said the current level of internal turmoil is unique. Many spoke on condition of anonymity as they did not want to risk their jobs.
Many of these employees partly blamed the leadership of Kara Ahmed, the former director of the city’s LYFE Program, an early childhood program for young parents, who was appointed after Mr.
The city’s teachers’ union received a rare vote of no confidence in the leadership last month, arguing that the department is suffering from disorder and “managerial incompetence.” The union accused Ms Ahmed of mismanaging the funds and said authorities used “retaliation to silence opposition” by targeting or reassigning outspoken staff.
In a recent interview, education officials attributed the complaints to the pangs of major overhauls. The schools rector has often said this year that the city’s free kindergarten initiative for 3-year-olds is flawed as it highlights rapid expansion; He pointed to 40,000 unused 3-K seats. The mayor also focused less on universal pre-kindergarten and 3-K childcare, and more on expanding access to childcare programs for families with children younger than 3 and childcare programs for low-income parents.
Ms Ahmed said the agency is trying to create an open work environment as it shifts gears. “I realize that change is difficult,” she said. “We will continue to be honest about what needs to be changed. And not everyone will agree with that.”
First vice chancellor Daniel Weisberg said staff assignments and other revisions are needed to address duplication with other departments.
“It’s not surprising that the people who designed this structure – or worked on it – didn’t agree with some of these decisions,” Weisberg said.
More than 150 workers have left since it started this year, and many remain unchanged, including some who oversee staff who measure the quality of programs. According to a recent report from the city inspectorate, this fall, the early childhood division was underserved at nearly 45 percent, with about 460 of the nearly 830 full-time positions filled—the sixth-highest vacancy rate in more than 130 departments in city agencies.
Ms Ahmed said she did not agree with the report’s findings. “I definitely don’t think we have understaffed,” she said.
Employees said staff departures consumed significant expertise. For example, in the division’s data team, an internal tool that employees often use to flag problems on kindergarten sites crashed in May when no one knew how to maintain the system, according to two employees on the team.
“You’re starting to feel the gaps left by your colleagues,” said Humberto Cruz-Chavarria, the department’s former director of multilingual education. “They took with them non-reproducible corporate information, as well as the logins and access to systems we all need to do our jobs.”
The school rector and others defended Ms. Ahmed’s leadership. “People didn’t give it a chance,” said Sherry Cleary, former president of the New York Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development.
“He comes to this job with great dedication, without ego, and with extraordinary grace,” said Ms. Cleary, a longtime mentor to Ahmed who recommended him for the job.
Each year, Ministry of Education staff visited the programs to measure quality and provide feedback, using assessment tools that monitor key factors such as the warmth of interaction between teachers and students.
However, according to three people who know the plans of the department, there will be a decrease of at least 50 percent in the number of programs evaluated with these tools this academic year compared to previous periods.
Ms Ahmed said the previous approach to assessments “did not lead us to a high quality system”. This year, officials plan to evaluate more providers through a statewide system they say will offer stronger and more timely feedback.
One employee, who declined to be named for fear of professional retaliation, said evaluators raised concerns with department leaders after a kindergarten site scored one of the lowest scores they could remember in a program evaluation report in the spring. The employee said the group had been warned and later learned that the head of a particular program had a close relationship with Ms. Ahmed.
An Education Department spokesperson, Nathaniel Styer, did not comment on the specific incident. However, he said that a purely punitive approach to evaluation “has no place in our business” and appreciates the sites’ cultural shift.
In previous years, evaluators found that children were not eating or playing on the floor, and more rarely, they uncovered serious violations, including teachers scolding students and using corporal punishment. Underperforming sites may have been visited more frequently by early childhood department staff to help them improve.
Samantha Lopez, who joined the department in 2014 and resigned from the program evaluation team about eight weeks ago, said, among other issues, that the department no longer keeps adequate records of new providers.
“The systems were completely messed up,” said Ms. Lopez. “Early childhood in New York City is consistently cited as the ultimate example of ‘We got it right’ in this country. We did.’ But we won’t have a chance to talk about quality going forward.”
Several workers said New York’s federal Head Start fund may now be at risk as well.
After hundreds of social workers and education coordinators were sacked over the summer, employees said it was unclear how to meet Head Start’s mandated mental health services and education coaching. The department’s policy support team, which helps lead health and safety reviews for Head Start programs, was disbanded months ago.
Courtney Klamar, lead author of the division’s Head Start application and resigning in the spring after more than four years with the division, said, “It’s like, ‘How do we meet these requirements?’ begs the question,” he said.
Dr. Ahmed said the administration has inherited several challenges from the previous administration and that officials have been “very transparent” with the federal Head Start office in resolving them. He said “we have no knowledge or understanding” that the funding is at any risk.
Despite the criticism, the authorities made some changes that workers and early childhood advocates found positive.
Mr Adams said this month that the municipality will begin offering childcare benefits to low-income undocumented immigrant families who tend to be ineligible due to their immigration status. Mr. Adams and Mr. Banks also recently announced several changes in pre-primary special education, including extending the school day and increasing teachers’ salaries to match rates in general education at many providers. They also followed a plan initiated by Mr de Blasio’s administration to create 800 new seats for students with disabilities by the spring.
Beyond the current challenges, a long-term source of funding must be found for the 3-K program, as it was primarily supported by limited-term federal coronavirus assistance.
This fall, families with young children received an email encouraging them to sign up when 3-K applications open. However, the email added a warning: “Please note that due to limited seat availability, an offer will not be guaranteed to all 3-K applicants.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.