BROOKLYN — Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged that this year's free pre-K classes would all be "high quality."
But what does that look like?
DNAinfo New York asked experts — including those who've spent years in classrooms teaching 4-year-olds as well as professional development experts responsible for training pre-K teachers — what parents should consider when choosing or evaluating a pre-K program.
Whether your child is already enrolled or you're looking to get into one of the more than 1,000 remaining seats for this year (registration remains open through Oct. 1), or even if you're already thinking about next September, here are some tips you should keep in mind:
1. Safety first: Check for violations and other potential issues.
Parents can check if a center has a history of violations through the Department of Health's Bureau of Child Care.
Certain critical violations — like blocked fire exits or the inability to document that staffers had appropriate background checks — could result in a center being shut down if the problems aren't remedied quickly, city officials said.
Also, when dropping off your child or visiting a program, observe if there's a working buzzer to allow people into the building or if the playground is padded around climbing equipment, suggested James Matison, executive director of the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, a 123-year-old organization that runs five centers in high-need communities.
Check if a center uses "children friendly" pesticides and if there's any evidence of vermin, he added.
"Are there any obvious physical hazards that could result in injuries to children?" he asked. "Is the kitchen spotless? Are the cooks wearing gloves?"
2. Find out about student/teacher ratios and staff certifications.
Pre-K classes for 4-year-olds require two adults per 18 students.
Parents should check whether there's enough staff to cover the mandated student/teacher ratios, Matison advised.
Parents should ask for a list of teacher credentials, he suggested, to find out how many head teachers are state-certified and the average number of years teachers have in the classroom.
Directors of programs must be state-certified teachers. Head teachers should also be state-certified or at least working toward their certification, according to state guidelines.
Carol Korn-Bursztyn, a psychologist and founder of the Early Childhood Education Center at Brooklyn College, one of several CUNY schools that trained new pre-K teachers this summer to prepare for the city's expanded UPK program, said it's key that at least one of the teachers in the room has a degree in early childhood education.
"The best guarantee for quality is making sure the teachers themselves have the benefit of high-quality early childhood education programs," Korn-Bursztyn said.
3. Are kids — and teachers — happy?
The No. 1 thing to look for is the "emotional tenor" of the classroom, advised Mark Lauterbach, Brooklyn College professor of early childhood education, who has worked in education for two decades, including 10 years as a preschool teacher.
"The kids should be happy. The teacher should be happy," he said. "And if you don’t see that, that’s a big warning sign."
It's important to look at how the adults get along — including teachers with each other and with parents, experts say.
"If parents feel welcomed, liked and reassured, the children will feel that way," Korn-Bursztyn said.
You should watch how children interact with each other, too.
"You want to see children who take pleasure in each other's company and learn from each other," she said. "If you see high levels of competitiveness, those are signals they’re not getting their emotional needs met."
4. Observe how teachers engage children.
It's crucial to have a teacher who gets down on the floor with kids, asks questions that don't have a right answer — and listens, Lauterbach said.
For example, teachers who overly rely on yes/no questions or who seem unlikely to engage kids in an open dialogue could be stifling important education-building conversations, experts said.
"The first thing to look at is the adults in the classroom. Is the teacher a warm, engaging person who is listening and talking with the children, not to the children? If there’s an unhappy child is she going to scold the child or say, 'I see something is bothering you. What can we do about that?’" said Maris Krasnow, professor of early childhood education at New York University, who helped develop evaluation of Head Start programs. "You want someone who asks questions, not ignores the child; someone who is taking an interest and listening. That’s how children learn to speak and engage in conversations. Not by being told to sit down and be quiet."
5. Be wary of circle time and worksheets.
A lot of classes will do "circle time" with kids sitting in a big group or have kids sit quietly doing worksheets, but there should be a limit to that, experts advised.
"No one under 6 should sit for more than 20 minutes," Lauterbach said. "There is a mentality to prepare them to sit a lot for kindergarten or first grade, but I don’t know any research that says making kids sit longer at 4 will help them sit longer at 5. You kind of grow into it."
Some teachers think that 4-year-olds are "little adults" who learn the alphabet by writing the letter "A" dozens of times, "but they may not have the motor skills to do that," Korn-Bursztyn said. "It’s when kids are outside playing that they're developing their gross motor skills and learning how we get from here to there, or what's on the other side of that tunnel."
6. How is the classroom organized?
Rooms should be organized with "learning centers" that are clearly designated for certain functions, many said.
"There should be a block corner, a drama corner, and it's very important that there's literacy everywhere," said NYU Professor Krasnow.
There should also be spaces devoted to art — where paints, markers and clay are available — and other sensory materials, like sand or water, experts said.
7. Learn about the structure of the day.
What activities are kids doing? How many times do they go outside each day? Do they have any enrichment, like music?
"Kids should be singing. Kids learn through singing," Krasnow said. "They make up songs and memorize things."
Blocks of time should be set aside for small groups of kids to engage in "play and exploration," Korn-Bursztyn added. "These blocks of time are teaching kids to make choices within a safe environment. [It gives them] the opportunity to explore, invent and move around."
8. Teachers should communicate with parents.
Parents like to know what's happening. They want to know if a bunny came to visit a class or kids visited their local supermarket.
"Teachers should send home information to parents once a week [saying] what happened," Krasnow said.
9. Ask your child how it's going.
For those who want to figure out if their kid's program is off to a good start, rather than simply asking, "How was your day at school?" Krasnow advised parents to ask, "Did you color today? Can you show me your picture?"
If your child doesn't have much to talk about, that can be a red flag, she said.