UPK in NYC: How Universal Is Universal? – Next100
Report   Education & Early Years

UPK in NYC: How Universal Is Universal?

In order to achieve successful implementation of universal pre-K, the model relies heavily on sites other than schools to implement UPK. In order to help this program to continue to succeed, there are a few changes that have to happen.

Executive Summary

  • While New York City’s Universal Preschool Program (UPK) was revolutionary in its size and scope of investment, there are still opportunities to improve program implementation and expand educational equity for the youngest New Yorkers.
  • By revising and refining UPK regulations, standards, and policies to more equitably partner with community-based organizations and charter schools, NYCDOE can improve program implementation and student outcomes across all five boroughs.
  • In the midst of COVID-19 and a city-wide budget crisis, it is all the more important that all UPK programs, regardless of setting, are able to offer the best opportunities to the students and families that they serve, and focus their resources on that end.

Introduction

In a study titled “Pre-K Matters”, the Urban Institute articulates the case for pre-K:

Brain development in the years prior to school entry builds the foundation for success in school, at work, and throughout life. When children arrive at kindergarten without a solid foundation of skills, they are likely to fall behind their classmates, and with each year it will become harder to catch up.

Equitable economic opportunity—across race and class—begins with an investment in and commitment to improving access to high quality early education. Research has consistently demonstrated that high-quality preschool programming can have a lasting impact on students’ social, educational, and economic outcomes and parents’ economic opportunity—yet access to high-quality early childhood education is still not universal and still fails to receive adequate public investment from local, state, and federal governments. And yet private preschool programs, nationally and especially in New York City (NYC), can be exorbitantly expensive. The high cost drastically limits access for low-income and middle-class families alike, disproportionately impacting communities of color.

Equitable economic opportunity—across race and class—begins with an investment in and commitment to improving access to high quality early education.

New York City, led by Mayor Bill de Blasio, recently undertook a massive initiative to address this inequality and invested $300 million to expand the limited existing public pre-kindergarten programs in New York City into full day, Universal Preschool (UPK), available for all four-year-olds in NYC. Implemented through the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), the UPK program was initially designed to provide a seat to every four-year-old NYC resident. UPK has since been expanded to include “3K,” serving many 3-year-olds, with an initial focus on low-income communities. In order to provide seats for all eligible children, NYCDOE relies on partnerships with traditional public schools, community-based organizations (CBOs), New York City Early Education Centers (NYCEECs), and public charter schools throughout the city. CBOs that run UPK programs include large entities, like Children’s Aid, which runs eleven early childhood programs; and smaller programs which serve just a dozen students. Public charter schools are free public schools that are managed by nonprofits, rather than the NYCDOE; receive public funds; and are held accountable by public entities called charter school authorizers in return for more flexibility and autonomy in classroom structure, pedagogical approach, budget, staffing, and time.

Before 2014, the city had only a limited number of seats for low-income families in pre-kindergarten. In what has come to be seen as a hallmark progressive policy, NYC’s UPK program has already changed the game for thousands of students. In more than tripling the number of seats for 4-year-olds to serve 68,000 children a year, NYC has created a truly universal program which has already been demonstrated to expand academic success and increase school readiness in children who participate.

But in spite of its establishment and massive expansion throughout the city, there are important inconsistencies in how UPK is implemented at traditional public schools compared to implementation in CBOs and charters. These inconsistencies tend to disadvantage CBOs and charters that participate in the program—and impact the teachers and students they serve. While UPK sites are under the leadership of NYCDOE, public charter schools and CBOs are overseen by different authorities, with different rules; and are subject to different funding streams that lead to different levels of funding and support despite being held responsible for implementing the same city-wide universal program as UPK sites at traditional public schools. This report takes a look at some systemic challenges in effective program implementation and lays out some recommendations to ensure that charter schools and CBOs—and the students and families they serve—are able to access educational equity and opportunity.

Non-traditional preschool sites, including public charter schools and CBOs implementing UPK, face a gap in funding, as well as significant additional bureaucratic and administrative barriers that UPK sites in traditional public schools do not. Public charter schools and CBOs implementing UPK need the same additional ongoing and instructional support in terms of the curricular and program flexibility that is afforded to traditional public schools. These inequities impede effective, high-quality UPK implementation across the city.

In this report, we will expand upon the challenges faced by non-traditional school sites offering UPK in NYC, including the policies contributing to those challenges. We’ll provide some insight into public charter schools that are successfully serving students and families of color and low-income students, by sharing the stories of a few key charter school programs around the city based on site visits. And we’ll provide recommendations for ways that the NYCDOE can address these challenges in order to provide equitable opportunities to all children participating in UPK.

A key aspect of this report is the site visits conducted by the authors to some of the public charter schools which are implementing UPK already. Unfortunately due to COVID, the authors were not able to also conduct site visits for CBOs in NYC that are implementing UPK.

The programs shared certain similarities, but varied in terms of their curriculum, program, and the ways in which they reflected their students’ backgrounds and cultures. In order to figure out the possible complications of starting and maintaining a UPK program in charters in New York City, we visited schools in Harlem, The Bronx, and Queens. Over the course of our site visits, we affirmed that the policy level challenges faced by students in UPK are systemic in nature, and span across different UPK sites.

Inequities in Program Implementation

In order to provide preschool seats to every four-year-old New York City resident, the UPK program relies on its ability to be implemented in diverse settings. NYCDOE partners with four distinct types of locations in order to provide enough seats for the city’s 4-year-olds:

  1. Traditional public schools
  2. Community based organizations (CBOs)
  3. Public charter schools
  4. New York City Early Education Centers (NYCEEC)

Having UPK classrooms in diverse settings not only helps achieve the massive undertaking of serving all New York’s 4-year-olds, but also allows families some flexibility to enroll in a program that is close to them, or one for which they prefer the academic or pedagogical model. CBOs make up the majority of UPK sites, with the bulk of remaining sites in traditional public schools. Public charter schools serve only a fraction of the children currently placed in UPK sites (compared to 8.9 percent of students in grades K–5, 6.6 percent in grades 6–8, and 3.3 percent in grades 9–12). NYCDOE is responsible for providing oversight and support to the nearly two thousand classrooms spread across the city in such varied sites, with NYCDOH bearing the responsibility of certain safety measures and precautions.

In order to uphold quality across such disparate locations, NYCDOE articulates the standards for UPK sites through its “pre-K For All Program Quality Standards.” As laid out in its standards for the program, NYCDOE relies on two assessment tools to evaluate programs: the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) and the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECER-S). These are fairly standard tools for evaluation of early education programs in order to track quality and continuous improvement, used by programs, states, and districts across the country. These standards and evaluation tools serve as a unifying guide for UPK programs and include guidelines on strong family-community ties, supportive classroom environments, rigorous instruction, collaborative teaching, and effective school leadership.

But while these standards exist for all UPK classrooms regardless of site type, actual program quality across sites differs quite substantially. A 2019 study found substantial differences across UPK sites in NYC. The study, which analyzed results from CLASS, found that UPK programs in traditional schools scored significantly higher on the evaluation domains of instructional support and classroom organization compared to CBOs. There are factors which play a role in the disparity in program quality between types of UPK sites: Until recently, early childhood educators at CBOs made tens of thousands of dollars less than early childhood educators at public schools and had less access to health insurance and retirement plans. UPK sites in NYCDOE facilities have also had more rapid access to NYCDOE services such as facility services, like repairing a broken boiler or fixing cracked floors.

The choice system that drives UPK in NYC drives inequities in the system as well. Instead of students being assigned to a zoned preschool program based on family residence, NYC’s UPK is a choice-based system, which means that, while residence is taken into account for some programs, rather than being assigned by school zone families can choose to request enrollment in UPK sites across the city—be they closer to a workplace or family, or because of a program that appeals to the family’s values or goals for their child. It was designed in this way for several reasons, including to combat segregation across school zones (as NYC’s school system remains incredibly segregated); and to provide families with more options that might align with their needs.

But it doesn’t always work out that way—the process for enrolling in the right preschool classroom is far from straightforward, and tends to result in classrooms that are segregated by race and socioeconomic status. As with other choice-based systems, parents and caregivers who have workplace flexibility can take their time to find the right program for their families’ needs. Some UPK sites offer tours and site visits of their facilities for potential families and students (not always available outside of peak work hours) and some do not. When and if families find a program they prefer, they then have to navigate an online system and rank choices on a public platform. As with K–12 schools, families who have the ability to take time off of work and invest the effort in understanding the application process, and those with existing connections to high-quality sites benefit from these components of the process while others may be left behind. These facets of the application and distribution processes, along with site and staff differences, enable parents and caregivers with resources to get access to the highest-quality programs.

The Situation

New York City’s universal preschool program provides an opportunity to all 4-year-old New Yorkers to attend preschool regardless of family income or geographic location. In order to provide space for the thousands of students it now has a commitment to serve, as noted above, NYCDOE partners with CBOs, charters, and traditional public schools. The model truly relies on NYCDOE’s partnership with communities and other organizations in order to deliver UPK across boroughs. And yet vast discrepancies in terms of access to resources at these sites, oversight, accountability, expectations, and administrative burdens impede upon successful program implementation.

In addition to the issues burdening community partnerships, there are significant policy-level barriers to successful implementation of UPK. For students in CBOs that offer UPK, bureaucratic structures prevent equitable funding and opportunity for students. And for the students in public charter schools with UPK—and more broadly, as charter schools mostly serve students from low-income communities and communities of color—these barriers reflect systematic lack of support from NYCDOE, and result in inequitable educational opportunities.

Non-traditional school sites (CBOs, charters) implementing UPK receive inequitable programmatic funding and face a massive per-pupil funding gap.

Non-traditional school sites (CBOs, charters) implementing UPK receive inequitable programmatic funding and face a massive per-pupil funding gap, often manifested through administrative and bureaucratic restrictions that are greater than those placed on traditional public schools:

  • Licenses, certifications, and permits for buildings and classrooms must often be paid out by the charter schools or CBOs upfront then be reimbursed by NYCDOE; whereas traditional public schools receive NYCDOE budgeted funds to meet these ends upfront without reimbursements. This means that administrators of UPK classrooms in public charter schools are responsible for coming up with these funds in their own budget.
  • Charters and CBOs are required to pull from their own school-level budgets to purchase necessary supplies, such as restroom supplies, as well as those needed to meet mandates—rather than being able to access set-aside NYCDOE funds designed to provide these resources to traditional public schools.
  • Per-pupil funding is determined for charters and CBOs on a school-by-school basis, and can range from ~$9,000 to ~$12,000. Traditional public schools receive a more standard stream of funding.
  • The funding disparity leads to lower salaries for teachers, which is not only inequitable, but can also lead to a potential gap in quality. Recent action on behalf of the city promises to raise wages for CBO instructors, but does not provide adequate funding for teachers at charter schools.
  • Whereas traditional public schools are held accountable to NYCDOE safety standards, public charter schools and CBOs are held accountable to Article 43 safety restrictions by the Department of Health (DOH), which are NYC’s health and safety department regulations for programs which are not located in schools. Aside from ignoring the fact that most UPK programs in public charter schools are in fact located in schools, those safety restrictions are inconsistently implemented for charters, which leads to confusion regarding responsibility and jurisdiction.

“Our inspector just wouldn’t speak to us. He came in and wouldn’t talk to the security guard, the administrative staff, anyone. He conducted his inspection and left without saying a word. It didn’t help us meet any standards that way.”—Charter school leader

  • In public charter schools that are co-locating, or sharing, NYCDOE facilities but do not have jurisdiction over the facility, it can be impossible for those schools to meet facility requirements imposed by DOH and NYCDOE.

“We were docked on our review because the boiler was leaking. Well, the boiler is in our partner school’s facility; we’re in these portable classrooms, over a hundred feet away. There’s no reason that we should be docked for that.”—Charter school leader

  • Restrictions on classroom furniture and materials (for example, the presence of particular pieces of furniture such as a sandbox, or the particular height of a child’s toilet) interfere with a school’s autonomy to design and manage the classroom in a way that works best for their children and their community.

One school reported receiving a reduced score on NYCDOE’s quality rating because: “…the giant in the book ate a sheep. It didn’t align with what they have in the rulebook, so we got docked. What do you tell a kid when they want to read a storybook that you’ve had to take off the shelf …?”—Charter school teacher

Public charter schools and CBOs implementing UPK need additional ongoing and instructional support, alongside the curricular flexibility afforded to traditional public schools and K–12 charter schools:

  • Public charter schools have difficulty establishing each school’s unique pedagogical model to span the grades served throughout their school because of strict program requirements on curriculum and assessments from NYCDOE. A core tenet of public charter schools is additional flexibility for increased accountability, yet public charters that implement UPK programs are required to sacrifice that flexibility in their early learning classrooms (while still being subject to increased, and complex, means of accountability—more on that below). If a charter school’s pedagogical model features an emphasis on social emotional development, with a full curriculum that tracks through all of the grades offered by the school, that cannot easily extend into the preschool curriculum due to the programmatic requirements the school must cover.
  • Charters that offer UPK are held responsible for implementation and outcomes to both charter school authorizers (entities which hold charter schools directly accountable for their performance on a regular basis) and NYCDOE. This dual oversight is muddled and can lead to confusing chains of authority in implementation. A recent lawsuit between Success Charter Schools and NYCDOE removed that authority structure nominally, but in practice there still remains a great deal of confusion in authority.

“It’s like we have a whole other authorizer. We’re accountable to the authorizer for our K–12 program, and NYCDOE for our preschool program. And sometimes there’s bleedover- our authorizer will ask to see our early education program, or something like that.”—Charter school leader

  • The application process for charters interested in offering UPK is unnecessarily onerous and difficult to navigate, and requires charters to apply each year—even though preschool classrooms in traditional public schools are not required to do the same, and submit no yearly request for proposal (RFP). RFPs are changed regularly without clear communication.

Recommendations

Based on the above findings, we recommend the following:

New York State should equitably fund non-traditional school sites offering UPK. Per-pupil funding should be the same across UPK program sites. Public charter schools and CBOs should receive funds for UPK program implementation at the same level, and in the same manner that traditional public schools do. Funding equity will allow public charter schools and CBOs to:

  • Improve the quality of program for students, allowing students regardless of site or location to receive equitable opportunities to high-quality instruction
  • Increase salaries and reach pay parity for teachers, allowing them to receive an equal salary to a kindergarten teacher in a traditional public school, and
  • Allow budgets and funding streams to be designated school by school, rather than site by site, which would allow more equitable access to high-quality classrooms.

NYCDOE should provide increased instructional and programmatic flexibility in UPK across sites, while maintaining quality standards. The instructional and programmatic flexibility granted to charters to design their model—along with accountability to their authorizer and NYCDOE—is key to their ability to apply a coherent, aligned high-quality education. And for CBOs, increased flexibility will allow for classrooms to become more reflective of their neighborhoods and communities around them, and better respond to community preferences around programming. By removing curricular restrictions and providing UPK sites across NYC with increased flexibility in their instruction and pedagogical models, schools will allow for:

  • The autonomy early childhood educators and instructors need to run a high quality classroom, and
  • Distinct curriculum, program, and models of instruction that are attuned to community needs or family preferences.

NYCDOE should revise administrative and bureaucratic processes to support non-traditional school sites offering UPK the same way they do for traditional public schools offering UPK. Charter schools should be supported by NYCDOE with instructional and policy support while maintaining accountability to their authorizer. And CBOs should receive the same level of instructional and policy support from the same support staff. This will allow for:

  • Reduced confusion on authority between NYCDOE and a charter school’s authorizer, and
  • Clearer and more distinct administrative processes to improve programmatic efficiency.

Views from the Classroom: Site Visit Report

As many preschool programs are implemented by entities outside of traditional public schools, yet operate in a system geared toward the latter, the above sections of this report lay out some of the barriers to creating additional programs, and/or prohibiting programs from serving children as well as possible. This section details the site visits we took to charter schools offering UPK, where we heard from educators about what these barriers look like on a day to day basis.

Across the five boroughs of New York City, preschool students walk into a limited number of preschool classrooms every weekday morning. New York City is currently leading the nation in making early childhood education accessible for all, offering nearly 68,000 seats. But there are many entities still struggling to start their programs.

Starting and maintaining a pre-K program requires navigating a seemingly endless list of regulations; as laid out above, all the more so if the entity trying to start a program is a charter school or CBO. In order to better understand the complexities of starting a pre-K program in New York City, we visited schools in Harlem, The Bronx and Queens. Each program had some similarities, but was unique in its curriculum, structure, and innovative practices. What we saw in each, though, was an inspiring group of educators working to do the best for their students given their current constraints. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our visits were cut short and we were not able to visit CBOs in the capacity we would have liked.

Renaissance Charter School

Renaissance Charter School was the first school we visited, in the diverse neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. Stepping into the school, the racial diversity was notable. With 57 percent Latinx, 10 percent Black, 18 percent Asian, and 10 percent white students, Renaissance was the most diverse school we visited. Renaissance focuses heavily on creating community leaders from a young age—people who understand the importance of community building and leadership. We could see this from the warmth in the school security guard’s greeting to the students’ bright smiles at 7:00 AM.

Renaissance’s mission, “Developing Leaders for the Renaissance of New York,” mirrored the commitment of their educators’ leadership. Stacey Gauthier began as a community representative for Renaissance Charter School and worked her way up to be the principal in 2007. As soon as NYCDOE announced UPK as an option for charter schools, Gauthier and school leadership created the pre-K program, and has continued to build since. While many charter programs lean into their identity as a charter school, Gauthier highlighted Renaissance’s commitment to be a part of the community, and not an outside force. In conversations with community leaders, Gauthier mentions that she has heard comments such as, “We dislike charters but we like you.” She wants to use the school’s positive impact on the broader community to show that commitment and dedication to kids and families should be the priority when evaluating a school community. Inside the classroom we saw joy, on the faces of both parents and caregivers as well as students. Every stakeholder in the Renaissance community seemed comfortable as though they were walking in their own home, consistent with the community model.

Renaissance often opens its doors to the Jackson Heights community, and Gauther says the school has a reputation as an exception to “other charter schools” for many people in the community who are otherwise skeptical of charters. With a strong parent association and an even stronger bond with the community, it’s no surprise that Renaissance uses its position in the community to continue to advocate for itself, resulting in more funding, more resources, and more attention. With family members on their board of trustees and kids leading open houses, Renaissance proves that the flexibility it has to enhance its program is being used to build strong, community-centered experiences.

Bronx School for Better Learning (BBL)

The main office staff at the Bronx School for Better Learning was prepared for our arrival and directed us to the pre-K program coordinator Daniel Tamulonis. In our initial conversation with Tamulonis, we learned that in his six years of being a part of the program, he had no idea that there were a limited number of charters offering pre-K in New York City until earlier this year; he had previously assumed many charters were offering pre-K.

The first thing we noticed when walking into a BBL classroom was the intention put into ensuring students saw themselves in their curriculum. Our visit overlapped with their Black History Month holiday, and given the school’s predominantly Black population, Black history was incorporated in each classroom, class, and corner of the school. From books centered on Black identity, Carribean and African foods in the curriculum, and a Black history fact of the day, BBL prioritizes the identity of its students. While the timing of our visit overlapped with the celebrations, Tamulonis stated “Equity is a core principle of our school,” and despite rigid guidelines from NYCDOE, they have always used the flexibility they have to prioritize the cultural competence of the predominantly Carribean-American population.

The most notable characteristic about BBL is its impact on the surrounding community in the Bronx. BBL offers a monthly parent involvement day, and the incredibly successful PTA has strengthened the tie between the community and leadership. The school’s principal, Mr. Shubert Jacobs, is a known leader in the community: on weekends, he serves as a minister at a nearby church. Jacobs’ role as a leader in his Bronx community helps the school’s ability to be a place of refuge for both students as well as parents and caregivers.

DREAM Pre-K

Co-location with a district public school can be a challenge for many charters, but the DREAM Pre-K, co-located with Central Park East II and NYC Autism Charter School in East Harlem, seemed to have it under control. DREAM shared one location with three other schools: DREAM’s Elementary program, Harlem Prep Middle School and a district school, PS 38- Roberto Clemente.

When we first stepped through the doors at DREAM, we noticed the focus on literature. From the extensive library to each book being painted on the wall, we could see the joy and focus on reading. Another major theme of DREAM was advocating for self and for others. DREAM is 65 percent Latinx and 31 percent Black. The school’s mission of advocacy for self is rooted in the history of each student’s identity. In addition, while many charters are criticized for not serving enough students with disabilities, DREAM’s special education population is 40 percent; to support these students and all students, DREAM focuses on developing each child’s confidence to “soar” despite any external factors.

We sat down with Christine Wicks, pre-K director at DREAM. In our conversation with Wicks, we learned that the pre-K program has a dramatic impact on students entering kindergarten. Students who attended the pre-K program are better prepared both academically and socially. DREAM opted into the UPK program the second year it was introduced as a possibility for charter schools—and according to Ms. Wicks, DREAM educators “never thought about stopping because the benefits were substantial.”

[A charter school educator] mentioned that the school will continue to implement pre-K despite the challenges because according to internal data, the academic results of the first cohort—which is now entering fourth grade—has positive academic outcomes.

Despite being a successful program, DREAM struggles with (1) needing additional financial support, (2) space issues that can interfere with the school’s ability to run the UPK program, given the co-location and (3) accessing non-financial resources for charters trying to run successful programs, such as curricular flexibility, student recruitment efforts, and quality teacher professional development. Wicks mentioned that the school will continue to implement pre-K despite the challenges because according to internal data, the academic results of the first cohort—which is now entering fourth grade—has positive academic outcomes.

KIPP STAR Harlem

We visited KIPP STAR in Harlem to better answer why successful charters in the city were choosing not to run UPK programs. KIPP is the largest nonprofit charter school network in the country, and runs sixteen schools in NYC alone. Sitting on the West Side of Harlem, KIPP STAR stands out as a fixture in the community and though it only serves K–4 students, many residents in Harlem are aware of its cultural impact. As we entered the school, we noticed a building full of painted faces, costumes, and smiles. It was Dr. Seuss Day, and the kids were so excited to talk about how reading, an important part of the KIPP curriculum, has impacted their growth as students.

In our conversation with KIPP STAR’s principal, Brandi Vardiman, we learned that while there was interest in the creation of a pre-K program, there was an even bigger problem: developing a new program when there is already a major space issue. KIPP STAR, like DREAM, shared space with another school. Educators had to focus on infrastructure and taking care of the logistical problems that currently exist with housing so many students, teachers, parents, and caregivers.

After our conversations with Principal Vardiman, we were greeted by a second and third grader. They were to be our tour guides, and show us what they viewed as the most important sections of the school. When we walked through the hallways with the students, we began to realize that they didn’t notice how organized the hallways were, or how their very strong assessment results were being displayed throughout the building. They focused on introducing us to every teacher that walked by, showing us the beauty of their morning meeting location and feeling proud of their growth in reading level. The tour led by elementary students showed us that the hard work put in behind the scenes to create successful students will always pay off. The same would be true could the school teach more grades of students—as Principal Vardiman said, “a pre-K program can only make us better.”

What UPK Meant for These Schools and Their Families

As we walked through the hallways, talked with the leaders, and asked questions about creative play and read to the students, we saw some common themes about how these schools support their students, families and community:

Cultural Competence

Each school utilized its flexibility for innovation in unique ways. Most notably, each UPK program is required to have a creative play section that mirrors everyday life. While all programs have to use the same type of foods or medical supplies, it was up to the school to get creative—and that’s just what BBL did. As noted above, BBL comprises a majority of Black students, and in an effort to keep students close with their own cultures and learn new ones, they use the dramatic play center to emphasize the importance of diversity in foods and culture. This theme was prevalent throughout our visit to BBL. The focus on making sure the kids saw themselves in every corner of the curriculum was noticeable and executed very well. One stated advantage of charter schools is their ability to be creative in the way they educate their students, including in ways that align with their students’ specifical cultures and communities. Using pre-K to begin teaching students the importance of both themselves and others is one of the benefits of having a flexibility around curriculum and program, and each of these schools did it well. While the flexibility of K–12 charter schools is helpful in the classroom—that flexibility should also extend to UPK classrooms.

High-Quality, Hard-Working Educators

In all programs, charter, district, or CBO, the hardest working people are the ones spending each moment of the day with students: the educators. In almost every classroom we visited, teachers were laser focused on ensuring that students were picking up small lessons; some did not even notice we were there. At DREAM Pre-K in Harlem, Principal Wicks made it incredibly clear that pre-K teachers have “the same intellectual preparation for other grades when it’s done really well.” DREAM’s teachers are treated like the valuable part of the community they are. Families lean on them for both emotional and physical work which is closely tied to their community model. Because of this closeness, teachers lead students and families into learning about advocacy and standing up for oneself. Despite barriers of pay, support, and resources, each school had dedicated teachers who prioritized making the pre-K program successful.

“The Difference”

Combining the innovative practices of charter schools with the rigid pre-K formula and accountability structures is a tough responsibility. It is the job of the school to ensure they are doing everything they can to make the environment one that is innovative and within boundaries. Renaissance Charter School did this and more. From the time we walked through the doors we saw parents being treated like family and students being treated like family. The focus on community and involvement set Renaissance apart as a trusted part of the community. While pre-K students are too young to appreciate how that’s impacting their learning environment, we were able to pick up how this focus bled into their day-to-day. Each school we visited did that and more despite the need for more resources.

Conclusion

Our visits in the classroom reinforced the importance of investment in NYC’s kids. While the decision to implement UPK across the city was a critical and much appreciated step forward, further progress must be made in order to expand high-quality early opportunity for all New Yorkers. Streamlining and improving the implementation of UPK in non-traditional school sites, will be a critical part of the work to come.

header photo: Children line up for school in New York City.y Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

About the Authors

Levi Bohanan Education & Early Years

Levi is an advocate for progressive child care policy and high-quality early education. Levi previously served in the Obama administration at the U.S. Department of Education, and has worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and with education nonprofits. At Next100, Levi’s work focuses on expanding access to high-quality child care and early childhood development opportunities.

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Roquel Crutcher Education & Early Years

Roquel Crutcher is an advocate and activist for social justice and educational equity. At Next100, Roquel focuses on increasing educational opportunities and postsecondary outcomes for young people in marginalized communities. Roquel has worked at several educational nonprofits as an advocate for educational equity.

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