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New Jersey Preschools Struggle To Reach the Kids They’re Meant to Teach

Will cuts to school funding dismantle what is arguably the best pre-K program in the United States?

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Fourteen pairs of little eyes were glued to the book in their teacher’s hands, as Henny Penny experienced an unwelcome surprise.

“‘Ouch!’ cried Henny Penny. ‘What was that?’” teacher Joanne Leibowitz read, during a class at her Camden preschool earlier this month. “She looked around but she didn't see anything! ‘My goodness! The sky must be falling. I must go tell the king.’”

Leibowitz looked up. “Is the sky really falling?” she asked.

“Nooo,” the children answered in chorus.

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“What really happened? Ian, what really happened?” Liebowitz asked.

Ian Dupree-Brooks, a 4-year-old with a curtain of unruly brown bangs, weighed the evidence. “It's not falling.”

“Yeah, what really hit her on the head?” she continued.

"It's the acorn!"

pre-K balance beam
Credit: Stephanie Aaronson
Preschool students walk a balance beam to help develop their gross motor skills at Acelero Learning in Camden.

Ian and his classmates are students at Acelero Learning, a provider in New Jersey’s network of free preschools. Their program could serve as a showcase for early childhood education at its best -- a private but publicly funded preschool in the state’s poorest city, with college-educated teachers and certified assistant teachers, in a well-appointed building that was extensively renovated just four years ago.

The customized room, its walls covered with the children’s paintings, was packed with a toy kitchen, easels, a science corner with materials for studying trees, a lunch area with a low sink and tables, a semi-private toilet area, and many other features designed to aid early learning. Leibowitz’s class is funded by both the federal Head Start program and the state’s Abbott schools initiative.

New Jersey has spent billions of dollars over the past 16 years to build up and support its preschool system in 35 low-income districts. Yet not every publicly funded preschool is as shiny and well-supported as Acelero. Many struggle financially, in Camden and elsewhere, and a number have closed in the past several years.

Pre-K Acelero Movement
Credit: Stephanie Aaronson
Deputy Superintendent of Schools Katrina McCombs (left) talks with Joelle Fyke, the director of Acelero Learning in Camden.

Camden deputy superintendent Katrina McCombs, who was stopping in at the classroom for a short visit, is very familiar with the program’s successes and challenges. She has overseen the district’s preschools for four years. She explained that when it can, Camden sends its private providers “carryover” funds -- unspent money left over in various accounts at the end of the year -- but making sure the schools remain viable is always a concern.

“This building looks really inviting,” she whispered, as Leibowitz continued leading the kids through “Henny Penny.” “But if we want to sustain it, we have to continue to invest in our private provider locations. We want to protect the carryover as much as possible, because we want to make sure this learning environment continues to be a place where children can come and get the head start they really need.”

“Henny Penny” approached its end. The birds were stressed, Leibowitz explained; they wanted to get to the king. Foxy Loxy offered to help, saying, “Listen, my friends.” Leibowitz turned to the kids.

“Are they really friends?”

Four-year-old Alonzo Deal had a doubtful expression.

“They're not friends, Alonzo? Why not?”

“Because he's going to eat them!”

A national leader

New Jersey’s publicly funded preschools are widely considered among the most successful in the nation. Created in 1999 in response to the state Supreme Court’s Abbott rulings, the programs in Camden and 34 other low-income districts have small classes, highly trained staff, strict quality standards, and social support for families.

Their mixed-delivery system, with classes both in public schools and at private centers, gives parents multiple high-quality childcare options while they are at work.

Each preschool employs one of four state-approved curricula that use research-based content and teaching strategies, show evidence of benefits, allow for inclusion of disabled students, and meet other requirements. Many schools use the Creative Curriculum, a system developed by a private company that addresses social-emotional, physical, and cognitive and language development, according to a description in one academic study. It requires the classroom to be divided into 10 interest areas, such as blocks, dramatic play, and music and movement, which are designed to address literacy, math, science, social studies, the arts, and technology. The curriculum’s “fairly unstructured setting” is meant to promote children’s process skills, such as observing, exploring, and problem solving.

The effect of the Abbott standards has been higher student achievement among participating children through at least fifth grade, fewer needing special education, and fewer being held back a grade, according to a study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. Over time those benefits should result in fewer dropouts, brighter futures for at-risk kids, less crime, and long-term savings to the state.

Pre-K Acelero Movement
Credit: Stephanie Aaronson
Joanne "Miss Jo" Leibowitz dances with her students to help them develop and refine their gross motor skills at Acelero Learning in Camden.

For years supporters have been pushing to expand the preschool program substantially. A 2008 school-funding law envisioned free pre-K in an additional 90 districts, but the recession intervened and those plans were shelved. Pre-K Our Way, a coalition of business people and education advocates, recently renewed the call to fund the law, with vocal support from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

“Preschool education: that’s the one thing we know works,” former Gov. Thomas Kean Sr., a prominent advocate for expanding preschool, said at a recent Morristown forum on ways to help the working poor. “There is no argument on this. Every single piece of research that I’ve seen in the last 20 years says that if you give kids preschool education, you change their whole future trajectory.”

But it has not gone unnoticed that, even as advocates call for expansion of free preschool, some of the existing schools are struggling to fully meet the Abbott program’s original promise.

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In particular, the private centers were hit with increasingly sharp state-funding cuts starting eight years ago, when the state changed the way it distributes childcare subsidies for poor children. Schools were forced to trim payroll and services as they scrambled to pay their rent and a number shut down.

As part of the cuts, the state no longer covers before- and after-school care and summer school for every preschooler in the 35 districts, making those offerings unaffordable to many parents and potentially weakening the program’s impact. The main funding stream from the state has also failed to keep up with rising costs, school directors say. Experienced teachers often leave for better-paying jobs, and centers can’t afford needed teaching supplies and equipment.

“We're at a crossroads in New Jersey. We still have the best program in the country, in its design, in its quality, in the children it reaches, and in its outcomes. But there have been a number of factors that have eroded that program over the years,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, at an NJ Spotlight pre-K conference in June.

Other challenges also persist. For a variety of reasons, a number of districts are not meeting the target of enrolling 90 percent of their 3- and 4-year-olds. Some parents skip the first year of preschool, depriving their children of some long-term benefits. And families may still view preschool as babysitting rather than education, which may contribute both to underenrollment and high rates of chronic absenteeism.

Funding slashed

The crisis at the community childcare providers began in 2007, when the state Department of Human Services (DHS) started redirecting money for wraparound services.

Under the mixed-delivery system, 44 percent of classrooms are located in public schools and 56 percent are at private providers or Head Start programs. During the program’s first several years, the providers received a quarter of their funding from DHS and the rest from the Department of Education. The DHS money is composed of a mix of state and federal funds.

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The DHS portion of provider payments was meant to cover additional services beyond the standard six-hour day and 10-month academic year, including aftercare and summer programs. But private centers saw the two streams of money as a single package that allowed them to pay for staff, teaching supplies, rent, utilities, and other bills. Crucially, the funding covered all preschoolers in the 35 districts.

“When the Abbott preschool classes first started, it was a 10-hour day, and it really came from the acknowledgement that kids need more,” Zalkind said. “A six-hour educational day is great, but that learning should go on in the childcare part of the day and even more importantly in the summer, to prevent learning loss.”

“If you don't offer wraparound, you're not going to get working parents to participate,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark. “They've got to have a place where their kids can stay after the school day. That was part of what really powered a lot of the participation in the early days.”

In 2007, however, the state began limiting the DHS subsidies to families earning up to 300 percent of the poverty level and requiring parents to prove they were working or attending school for a specified number of hours.

In the succeeding years the income threshold for subsidy vouchers was further tightened, particularly after Gov. Chris Christie took office. Since 2010 only families below the poverty line, or $24,250 for a family of four, have been eligible for full subsidies. Households earning up to 200 percent of the poverty line pay on a sliding scale; those above 200 percent get no assistance.

State officials said the new rules promoted fairness by allowing them to distribute subsidies to poor families around the state. The change “creates equity in the eligibility criteria and benefits among the childcare programs,” a DHS spokeswoman said in 2012. Before, the program prioritized families in the 35 districts, some of whom were not low-income.

But critics dismissed the official explanation, saying Christie had “prioritized the interests of our richest residents over those of the poor.”

The number of kids receiving all types of childcare subsidies in New Jersey fell steadily over the next several years, suggesting the wraparound reductions were part of larger retreat from supporting childcare for needy families. Though funding has increased somewhat in the past three years, DHS programs are still only covering childcare services for 52,706 children this year, down from 76,937 in 2005.

This year’s budget for all the subsidies is about $270 million, less than the 2005 allocation of $291 million. They were highest in 2009 at nearly $316 million. The impact of the reductions is even deeper when inflation is factored in.

To the Abbott preschool providers, the rule changes simply looked like a series of big cuts. From a peak of $102 million in 2009, the wraparound subsidies they received plummeted to just $17 million this year, according to Advocate for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ).

Providers and advocates say the changes had major repercussions. Close to 32,000 children had once benefited from the wraparound funding; now it’s fewer than 4,500. Many low-income families who no longer qualify for vouchers instead have relatives or neighbors care for their kids before and after school, since they cannot afford their center’s more expensive tuition.

In Leibowitz’s class in Camden, only five of 15 students stay at Acelero for aftercare. The rest go home with parents or relatives by 3 p.m.

“Given the choice between having a full day and having to make a payment, it was preferable for families to give that $20 dollars or whatever the dollar amount might have been -- because it’s scaled by income -- to a sister or a mother or an aunt or an in-law, who would not only take the kid but probably offer you a meal at the end of the day,” said Ray Ocasio, executive director of La Casa de Don Pedro, a nonprofit Abbott preschool provider in Newark. “So we saw a precipitous drop in our enrollment, both for the summer and school year.”

One consequence was a loss of learning time for tens of thousands of children. While before- and after-care does not have to meet the Abbott standards, the kids are typically still in the same building with the same classmates and learning materials, and often some of the same staff.

“Doing it in a combined way like that created a seamless system of early learning for kids, a very strong system, and made it very accessible for parents who had to work,” Zalkind said.

By contrast, a parent or relative might just sit the child down in front of a TV or computer. Studies suggest home-based childcare rarely provides much in the way of education.

“What does that kid do from 3:30 to when mom shows up at 5:30 or 6 o'clock?” Ocasio asked. “Are they watching some cartoons? Or are they socializing and playing and getting the extra attention at school that maybe mom can't provide, because she has three other kids to deal with? It reduced the exposure of the children to that rich environment.”

A rash of closures

The providers were also hammered by the loss of income. Ocasio, whose program serves 255 children, says the percentage of his preschoolers who receive wraparound subsidies fell from 100 percent to 30 percent. His DHS funding fell from $1 million to $300,000, and his other reimbursements did not increase anywhere near enough to make up the difference, he says.

Yet having fewer children in aftercare did not save him money. His expenses -- rent, utilities, salaries -- have stayed the same or risen with inflation.

“We cut into the program. Our kids are not going on field trips. Our kids will have less technology, our kids will have less materials,” he said. “We’ve also lived with frozen salaries for the last five years, which hasn't helped. The last time we had a contract increase was in 2010. I had three teachers last year and three teachers this year who said, you know what? I get a better buck from the district than I get from La Casa, so let me go.”

He eventually had to cut pay for janitors and secretaries, he said. Some of them now earn salaries below the poverty line.

Preschools operating within districts did not suffer in the same way. While some in-district families stopped using before- and after-care where it is available, or started paying tuition, public school teachers are covered by union contracts that guarantee regular pay hikes, and facility and supply costs are subsumed in district budgets.

But private providers around the state continue to struggle to provide good learning environments while staying in business.

“We've seen a lot of centers closing, and sometimes parents get very little notice. The children are sort of ripped out and the parent has to find some sort of makeshift solution, where relatives or another center, maybe of not as good quality, are taking the child in,” said Joanne Quattro, an education specialist at United Way of Northern New Jersey, the NJ Spotlight conference in June.

Lynette Galante, director of Future Generation preschool in Bloomfield, said she used to operate seven childcare centers that were part of the Abbott program but eventually couldn’t make a profit and saw them close. Galante, the vice president of the New Jersey Child Care Association, now runs a private center that is not part of the state program.

Like Ocasio, many center directors regularly see their best teachers depart for district jobs or other employment, Quattro said.

“Your good teachers are going to leave and go work somewhere else. You end up paying younger people, less-experienced high school graduates who may be very dedicated and very good, or might not be,” she said. “Anybody can play with blocks with a child for 20 minutes. But how do you help that child to learn spatial relationships and math pre-skills without early childhood development education?”

As money gets short, broken toys and furniture are patched rather than replaced, and centers depend on random donated materials rather than the specific supplies they need to create music, math, science, and dramatic play centers, she said.

Camden’s McCombs said some of her smaller provider organizations have been ground down by years of barely scraping by.

“Just from a psychological perspective, our providers who have been in the trenches for a long time -- they're feeling it. They're becoming exhausted,” she said. “Some of them feel like, is anyone hearing the real impact that this is having on us?”

The DOE declined to make officials available for interviews. In a statement, the agency said it had “provided more flexibility to private preschool provider budgets,” allowing them to use their DOE budget for certain expenses that had previously been excluded. However, their total DOE funding was not adjusted to make up for the DHS cuts, and advocates say the new flexibility did not significantly help the providers.

Tracking down the kids

The financial struggles that community providers face could be mitigated by infusions of more state or federal funding. Some of the other persistent challenges confronting the preschool program are more complex, have different causes in different communities, and require creativity and hard work to address.

Among these is maximizing the number of 3- and 4-year-olds in the 35 communities who benefit from free preschool. Districts are required to enroll 90 percent of their “universe” of children, and some do sign up roughly that proportion or even more. But at least half of the districts fall short, some by as much as 20 percent.

Districts must come up with plans every year that explain how they will achieve their enrollment goals. However, there are no sanctions for districts that fail to meet the targets, and even when enrollment is well below the goal, the DOE does not take over the process. Some districts have been far from 90 percent for years. The only repercussion is that fewer poor children receive the benefits of high-quality preschool.

Some districts said their enrollment strategies are complicated by the state’s policy of calculating the universe of potential preschoolers based on the number of first graders.

In a few municipalities like Hoboken, rapid population growth actually leads to enrollment figures that exceed 100 percent as the number of 3- and 4-year-olds surges. But if the number of families has fallen in the past two years, the schools will likely have a smaller pool of preschool-age children to draw from compared with the number of first graders, and the official enrollment percentage will drop.

That was apparently the case in Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, which posted a preschool enrollment rate of 68 percent last year, the lowest among the 35 communities according to data from the DOE and the Education Law Center.

“Our area was hit significantly hard with superstorm Sandy and the closing of the casinos. The town and the community itself really lost a lot of people moving out of the area. They're taking their 3- and 4-year-olds with them,” said Anne Flynn, principal of the Robert C. Wood Sr. Early Childhood Center.

As required by the state, the district came up with a corrective action plan. It included three open-house registration sessions and outreach anywhere young families might go -- realtors, football and soccer leagues, pediatricians, the public library, post office, state child-welfare offices, and family courts, administrators said. A billboard on the main highway, Route 9, advertises “FULL DAY PRESCHOOL - FREE” and urges parents to call.

Meanwhile, in some large cities, limited facilities constrain enrollment efforts. Paterson had 3,357 preschoolers last year, or just 72 percent of those eligible, due in part to a lack of classroom space, program director Nancy Aguado-Holtje said.

The district actually fills all of its available preschool slots, according to an Education Law Center analysis. But the city is short on commercial buildings suitable for new providers, especially those close to where families live. Some of the existing preschools are relatively far from children’s homes, making them less attractive to families.

“You want to have the centers near the residents, because they want it close, but if there's no buildings in the residential areas that's when we have issues,” said Cory Fronte, the data specialist for Paterson’s preschool program. “Unless you have a commercial district with space, it's hard to get preschools in. Our own public schools are so overcrowded they could never absorb another 3,000 or 4,000 kids.”

Aguado-Holtje said her first choice would be to create more preschool classrooms, but she is also focusing on improving non-state-funded centers. She is collaborating with them to understand who they enroll and how they operate, and is hoping to someday see good results from the state’s Grow NJ Kids program, which aims to boost the quality of private centers.

A number of experts said Newark’s Ironbound district has an especially acute problem with a lack of preschool space. Parents in the area are reluctant to put their young children on buses to distant sites where there are open slots, and so opt out of the Abbott program entirely.

Other districts’ experiences suggest that outreach of the type happening in Little Egg Harbor can help bring in more students. But the prospect of significantly boosting enrollment appears dim based on current trends.

The Department of Education said local preschool budgets increase annually based on enrollment projections, and that agency staff provide feedback on enrollment plans every year “based on successful strategies being used in other districts.” Formulating plans and following them is the districts’ job, however.

“We work with each school district annually to determine the number of children they can feasibly serve, based on prior year enrollment and additional information (e.g., new classrooms identified to open in underserved areas),” the DOE said. “Districts have an incentive to find ways to serve additional children, as their funding is calculated based on the number of children they project to serve.”

Experts say that, if the Department of Education is serious about enrolling as many preschoolers as possible, it cannot depend on districts’ individual efforts. They say it must make a much greater effort to improve recruitment and address the barriers that are keeping families away.

Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, said the state should consider creating a special commission. Sciarra called for a federal-state summit to address the providers’ funding squeeze, and a statewide “strategic assessment” to figure out where new preschools are needed and how each district will expand its program.

“The Schools Development Authority, the school construction group, has really deemphasized preschool, when it is a priority for construction in (the school-construction) law,” Sciarra said. “We need to revisit that because they need to be a partner.”

Barnett noted that enrollment is lower in New Jersey for 3-year-olds than for 4-year-olds, indicating that kids are being kept out of school for reasons other than transportation problems or insufficient classroom space. It’s possible the state does not try harder to increase enrollment because it would cost more to educate those additional children, he said.

Changing the culture

One troubling aspect of the enrollment issue is the skipping of the first year that Barnett cited. Last year 46 percent of Abbott preschoolers were 3 years old, or about 3,000 fewer than the 4-year-olds, according to the Education Law Center. The DOE said in an email that it expects the gap to narrow significantly this year to 907 students.

Missing a year of preschool diminishes the program’s benefits to at-risk students. Fronte said a small study she did last year showed that new Paterson kindergartners with two years of preschool had better assessment scores than those with less than two years. As late as fifth grade, student who had attended for two years still had higher test scores than their single-year counterparts, NIEER’s study found.

Another persistent drag on the public preschools is chronic absenteeism, which refers to students missing more than 10 percent of school days.

Chronic absenteeism is much higher in preschool than in kindergarten or any other grade except the last year of high school, according to the DOE. The data is alarming to advocates because absenteeism in older students is associated with lower test scores, stunted social skills, and higher dropout rates, the very ills that high-quality preschool is meant to prevent. It also wastes money when schools hire teachers and set up lessons for children who do not show up, Barnett said.

Administrators in Little Egg Harbor, Paterson and other districts blame chronic absenteeism on various factors, including minor illnesses children get on their first exposure to school, high asthma rates, and the perception that free, voluntary preschool is a kind of daycare, where attendance is less important than in elementary school.

Paterson, like a number of other districts, is using the services of the nonprofit Attendance Works to combat absenteeism, Aguado-Holtje said. The message that preschool is important is emphasized through parent meetings, newsletters, parent-teacher conferences and outreach by family workers, who can help manage transportation obstacles and other problems.

“Overall expectations are set from the moment the parent walks through the door: Once the child is enrolled, they are expected to come to school every day,” she said. “It's a mindset we definitely have to address. It takes time to change a mindset, to change a culture.”

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