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Mayor's Pre-K Push Takes Qualified Teachers From Needy Students: Critics

By Amy Zimmer | September 21, 2015 7:38am
 Laurel Wyatt, a certified pre-school teacher, left after 8 years at Bed-Stuy's Sumner Children's Center for more money, better benefits and a shorter school year at a UPK class in an Upper East Side parochial school.
Laurel Wyatt, a certified pre-school teacher, left after 8 years at Bed-Stuy's Sumner Children's Center for more money, better benefits and a shorter school year at a UPK class in an Upper East Side parochial school.
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Laurel Wyatt

BROOKLYN — The city's quest to add pre-K teachers has caused an exodus of the most experienced educators from hundreds of early childhood centers that serve New York's neediest working families, multiple preschool directors said.

Their departure is leaving the programs reliant on uncertified, lower-paid teachers, the sources said.

The drain has been caused by Mayor Bill de Blasio's Pre-K for All expansion, which has successfully brought free preschool to an estimated 70,000 4-year-olds across the city.

A certified teacher who moves to one of the city's Department of Education-based pre-K programs not only has a better schedule but can also earn up to $15,000 more per year right off the bat.

"There's a bifurcated system and I don't think the mayor realizes that," said Michael Zisser of University Settlement, an early childhood program that has lost a dozen licensed teachers this year — the most in recent decades for the program that started serving Lower East Side children 130 years ago.

"The DOE classrooms are getting licensed teachers and too many not-for-profits are getting teachers who are not licensed. It's an unintended consequence of creating wonderful job opportunities in one system and not creating equal opportunities in the other system."

DOE teachers also get annual salary increases, which Early Learn teachers haven't seen in a decade as their union, DC 1707, awaits a new contract.

Over a 20-year career, an Early Learn teacher — who is paid through contracts with the city — could see a wage gap that costs them approximately $500,000 in accumulated earnings, according to calculations by Union Settlement, which runs several East Harlem preschool programs.

That's meant tough competition for the roughly 400 city-funded Early Learn centers that currently serve nearly 30,000 kids — including more than 12,000 who are part of the city's UPK program. 

As a result, qualified teachers are fleeing in droves, many said, as they are left with less experienced teachers on study plans working toward certification.

"We're going to start the new year with more teachers on the study plan than licensed teachers," said Zisser, noting that hiring has been more problematic this year than he's seen in his 30 years in the field.

"Throughout history we lost people to the DOE — and that's fine — but the dramatic expansion of UPK dramatically changed the system and dramatically drained [early childhood centers] of licensed teachers."

Because many Early Learn programs are seeing their staffs gutted, the administration is "not going to get the outcomes they think they are going to get" in terms of boosting educational gains for low-income New Yorkers, he said.

Laurel Wyatt, a head teacher of a UPK class at the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society's Sumner Children's Center, left last month after eight years at the Early Learn provider based at Bedford-Stuyvesant's Sumner Houses.

For Wyatt, the decision came down to simple economics.

"There have been too many times I've had to book a train on Christmas day to come back to work for three kids in the building," said Wyatt, who left to work at a UPK program based at an Upper East Side parochial school that offered better pay, benefits and a 10-month school-year calendar.

The wage gap is even worse when it comes to those who teach the youngest students.

For Early Learn certified teachers who work with 2- and 3-year-olds, the typical starting salary is $36,542 for those with a BA degree and $39,350 with a Masters, according to the Day Care Council of New York, the umbrella group that represents many of the centers.

For the Early Learn center's UPK teachers who teach 4-year-olds, the de Blasio administration bumped up the starting salary to attract quality teachers. They start at $44,000, or $50,000 with a Masters degree.

That still pales compared to the starting salaries, vacation time, benefits and raises of UPK teachers who work in a DOE program: They start at $48,445 a year with a bachelors or $54,458 with an MA.

"We have made investments in training, given organizations new recruitment tools and continue to provide ongoing resources to attract and retain the best teachers," DOE spokeswoman Kaye Devora said, noting that the city recently announced it is providing early education centers who opt-in with teacher signing bonuses of $2,500 and retention bonuses of $3,500, projecting this will benefit roughly 1,600 UPK teachers of 4-year-olds.

Jim Matison, executive director of the 125-year-old Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, called it "absurd" to pay teachers of 4-year-olds differently from the teachers of the younger preschoolers, pointing out that second-grade teachers aren't paid less than fifth-grade teachers.

He estimated his organization lost 30 percent of its teachers since de Blasio's UPK expansion started last year.

"You train people and they get to be really good. And then someone comes along and offers them more money," he said. "We're not playing on a level playing field. It's an unfair handicap on our program and dozens and dozens of others."

Since Matison wanted his certified teachers of 2- and 3-year-olds to be on par with those of 4-year-olds, his organization has raised funds to bump up their salaries.

"We have to suck it up and raise money, and they're grateful," he said. "We have a nice working environment."

But there's little he can do about competing with a 10-month schedule.

When prospective teachers call inquiring about jobs, they ask whether the program runs on a "DOE 10-month-a-year-schedule."

When Matison tells them no, "They hang up," he said. "They know they can work 10 months a year and get Christmas off and spring break. And from outside why wouldn't they want that? I don't fault them.

"It really hurts."