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Pre-K Classes Are More Segregated Than Kindergarten, Study Finds

By Amy Zimmer | September 20, 2016 2:22pm | Updated on September 21, 2016 9:47am

BROOKLYN — New York City public schools are among the most segregated in the nation, and mayor Bill de Blasio's universal pre-K push is not reversing the trend, according to a report from a public policy think tank released Tuesday.

Pre-K classrooms were more racially segregated overall in the 2014-15 school year than kindergarten classes, according to a report from a public policy think tank released Tuesday.

In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students belonged to the same racial or ethnic group, compared to one in eight kindergarten classrooms, the Century Foundation report found, looking at Department of Education data from the 2014-15 school year, which was the first year of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious pre-K expansion.

“We have this chance in creating universal pre-K to try and bring diversity to early education, which has been so fractured from private programs,” said report author Halley Potter, noting a plethora of research showing that children learning in racially and socio-economically diverse classes offers important cognitive and social benefits.

“To have one doorway that kids walk through,” she continued, “unless we build diversity into the equation, it may be one doorway and then immediately sorting into different doors.”

Some schools defied the trend. In District 13 — which includes Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Prospect Heights and Fort Greene — where there are many public school and charter options, the pre-K classes were actually more diverse than kindergarten classes.

The report mapped out every Pre-K for All site and census tract by race, so parents can conduct their own level of analysis by typing in their neighborhood.

While many programs based in public schools or charters reflected similar levels of diversity found in their kindergartens, the early childhood education centers offering Pre-K for All programs tended to be highly segregated — and these programs make up 60 percent of the city’s free seats.

These options tend to be pricey private nursery schools, religious school or programs contracted through the Administration for Children’s Services that provide care for 10-hour days year round at low-cost to low-income working families who need more than the 6-hour, 20-minute school day, 10 months a year.

The ACS programs tended to see student bodies that were more than 90 percent Hispanic or black, while the other community-based programs had a greater likelihood of being more than 90 percent white or Asian, Potter said.

“The ACS programs, serving eligible low-income families, targets particular families in particular neighborhoods — it’s built into the design,” Potter said.

Other community-based programs that foster segregation tend to be religious or are private schools, where in most cases preference is given to 3-year-olds who are typically able to pay for care at the centers while children are 2 and younger, in order to get first dibs on the free pre-K seats once they turn 4, she said.

Because workers at the ACS programs are paid less than many of their pre-K counterparts, many of these programs are being gutted of their highest quality teachers, programs have said.

Potter suggested the city consider creating a pre-K pilot diversity admissions program for community-based sites interested in diversifying their enrollment. (Though many of the seats in these programs are taken by existing students, they are usually able to add a few more spots as their classes for 4-year-olds are allowed to be slightly bigger, Potter noted.)

Another idea is to potentially subsidize transit for low-income families willing to travel further for pre-K, Potter suggested, noting that information about pre-K offerings was also crucial. The city’s pre-K enrollment specialists, who have been doing a massive community outreach for the program, could be utilized to walk families through the process of finding alternative sites, she advised.

“There are already some real resources and boots on the ground,” she said of the city’s outreach team.

Last year, the DOE streamlined the application process for the early childhood centers and district schools into a single application process, DOE officials pointed out, noting that the streamlined process made it easier for the centers to reach more families, who might live farther away. Prior to that families had to apply directly at individual early childhood education centers.

“We’re serving families in every neighborhood, and with a centralized enrollment system and targeted outreach workers, we've made it easier for families to enroll and for programs to recruit students,” Deputy Chancellor of Strategy and Policy Josh Wallack said.

“Diversity in classrooms remains an important priority for the Department of Education, because we believe children in diverse classrooms learn from each other and learn better, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve on that through Pre-K for All and across the school system,” he added.

Potter agreed that the new single application was a boon for the program in general, since it made it easier for families to apply to pre-K, but she wasn’t convinced that it was a cure-all.

“The streamlined process itself could have a beneficial effect itself,” Potter said. “But with everything we know about market-based factors, I wouldn’t expect to see a huge shift.”