MANHATTAN — Susan Henderson, a preschool teacher at an East Harlem nonprofit, could have taught 2-year-olds or 3-year-olds — but she got lucky and was assigned to a classroom of 4-year-olds.
That chance assignment means Henderson will get a raise of at least $7,000 starting this fall, thanks to a citywide salary boost for pre-K teachers at community-based organizations (CBOs) as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's push to draw talented educators to the new pre-K seats his administration is creating.
The $17 million in state funding only covers universal pre-K classes — composed of 4-year-olds — which means Henderson's equally qualified colleagues who happened to be assigned to 2- and 3-year-olds won't see any increase in their salaries, which currently start at about $36,500 per year.
"I think this will definitely change and improve the disposition that UPK teachers have," said Henderson, who is in her first year teaching at Leggett Memorial Day Care Center. "We feel overworked and underappreciated."
But, she added, "We're also thinking about the teachers of 2- and 3-year-olds. They're doing the same work."
The salary increase was meant to address the longstanding pay disparity between pre-K teachers at CBOs and pre-K teachers in public schools, who have historically made thousands of dollars more per year.
But many nonprofit program directors worry that in the process of solving one problem, the city has created a new pay disparity — this time between teachers of 4-year-olds, whose salaries will start at $44,000 to $50,000 under the new plan, and teachers of 2- and 3-year-olds, whose salaries will remain at $36,000 to $40,000 on average.
James Matison, executive director of the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, which runs five preschool centers, is concerned that the most talented teachers might leave behind younger children for the more lucrative universal pre-K teaching positions.
"Raising salaries of some state-certified teachers in CBOs is a fabulous first step toward providing high-quality programs," Matison said, "but this long-overdue action raises more questions than it answers.
"Why should a UPK teacher make more than a teacher of 3- or 2-year-olds?" he continued. "What happens when a higher-paid UPK teacher rotates to a younger group of children — a salary cut?"
Complicating matters further, UPK teachers at CBOs will be on a school-day schedule, meaning their classes will run roughly six hours a day for 10 months a year, while other teachers at the same centers teach 10-hour days all year long, without a long summer break.
"UPK teachers will work a shorter school day and two fewer months a year while receiving as much as 25 percent more salary than their non-UPK colleagues," Matison said. "Will this set off a stampede of CBO teachers wanting those few UPK positions? Will teachers of 3- and 2-year-olds leave CBOs to find jobs in public schools to take advantage of the compensation disparities?"
David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement, which runs seven early childhood education centers in East Harlem including Leggett and Union Washington Day Care Center, was also concerned about the salary disparity.
"We would never have a policy of paying fifth-grade teachers in the public schools more than fourth-grade teachers," he said. "There should be 'equal pay for equal work.'"
The Department of Education anticipates the salary boost will affect approximately 1,450 teachers of pre-K classes at CBOs in the coming school year.
DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye declined to comment on whether teachers of younger children would see salary increases.
"We recognize that the early childhood workforce includes different roles for different ages, each of which is important to meeting the needs of children and families," Kaye said.
She called de Blasio's universal pre-K initiative "an important step in ensuring that full-day pre-K programs provide high-quality time spent with young children before kindergarten.”
District Council 1707, the union that represents the staff at the early childhood education centers, is about to start negotiations with the city over preschool teacher salaries, said Luz Santiago, field services director for the union.
She believes teachers of younger children may be in a strong position during the negotiations, since many of their colleagues already have salary increases from the UPK funding.
"We are telling the teachers here we are trying to negotiate parity," Santiago said, noting that members have already been asking questions about how program directors will decide which teachers get the lucrative 4-year-old classrooms.
Jean Roberts, a teacher at Union Washington in Harlem for the past eight years, started off teaching UPK but has been moved from class to class and currently teaches 2-year-olds.
She believes all teachers should get a raise regardless of their students' ages.
"I want it to be across the board," said Roberts, who is not state-certified and therefore only earns about $22,000 a year. "We all work hard. We all should be rewarded."