City Used Inexperienced Workers to Inspect Pre-K Facilities, Sources Say
CIVIC CENTER — In the mad dash to have the city’s expanded universal pre-kindergarten program up and running by Thursday, Education Department officials had workers with no inspection experience perform walk-throughs of pre-K contractors’ facilities to see if they were suitable for 4-year-olds, sources said.
Last month, as the countdown to the start of the school year began, officials conscripted personnel from various DOE divisions, gave them an hour-and-a-half crash course on how to perform pre-K site inspections and handed them a questionnaire to fill out during their once-over of a facility, sources said.
The DOE used the inexperienced workers because it was overwhelmed with the review of the more than 1,700 pre-K facilities, sources said.
Despite their curtailed training, the conscripted workers were tasked with determining the health and safety conditions of pre-K centers, including whether they were up to fire code.
“You had people with non-instructional experience and non-operational experience going through with a checklist, helping determine whether sites were suitable for kids,” a source said. “Essentially, they were asked to sign off on, ‘Do you think this is a safe place to have a pre-K?’”
The Education Department said that roughly 150 DOE personnel were picked to conduct walk-throughs of all pre-K sites to ensure classrooms and staff were ready for the school year.
The DOE also said that the 150 were only conducting “final walk-throughs,” noting trained professionals from the Buildings Department, the Health Department and the FDNY had previously inspected the sites multiple times. The agency likened them to the walk-throughs that are routinely conducted at public schools before the start of each year, but this is the first time the inspections have been done at pre-K programs run by outside providers.
The department said that if one of its personnel raised a concern during their inspections, then members of the DOB, the Health Department or the FDNY would subsequently conduct a full inspection.
But some of the DOE personnel conscripted to do the walk-throughs didn’t think they had the training to make the final call about a facility, sources said.
Workers had to determine whether a site had a fire exit, whether there were any obstructions to an exit and whether the site had enough fire extinguishers. The inspectors also had to note whether the site had an outdoor area, the toilets were the correct height for 4-year-olds and whether any construction was taking place at the facility.
The inspectors also had to rate the overall cleanliness of a site — which posed a challenge since some of the pre-K programs are small mom-and-pop operations inside apartment buildings, sources said.
“This is the problem when you outsource pre-K,” a source said. “There are pre-K sites that vary widely. Giving untrained, ill-equipped people a checklist to evaluate them is not a good plan.”
The inspectors also griped that some of them were assigned the same pre-K sites to look at, a source said.
“You had multiple reps going to the same walk-throughs,” a source said. “It was very disorganized.”
Last week Mayor Bill de Blasio said a record 50,407 kids have enrolled in the city’s pre-K for the 2014-15 school year — more than double the number of students last year. To meet the increased demand, the DOE has contracted with more than 500 private pre-K providers.
On Tuesday city officials said nine pre-K programs would not open this year because of safety concerns. They said another 36 programs would be delayed.
But the program’s rapid expansion has drawn scrutiny, including from city Comptroller Scott Stringer, who last week flagged the DOE for having only delivered 141 of its pre-K contracts to his office for vetting.
In a statement responding to Stringer's concerns, de Blasio emphasized the rigorous, multi-agency inspection process of each pre-K provider.
“We scrutinize every pre-K center the same way a parent would, because we’re parents, too,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio said Wednesday that he wouldn't open a program unless it is as good as the ones his two children attended.
"I hold a simple standard: Would I send my own child to one of these programs? The answer is 'yes,'" he said. "For over 50,000 kids tomorrow, they're going to walk through the door of a pre-K that's going to have the same quality standards as the ones that Dante and Chiara went to. That's the standard I hold. Until a site is ready, we're not going to open it."