NYC's Universal Pre-K Is More Racially Segregated Than Kindergarten

New York City universal preschool classrooms are more racially segregated than kindergarten classrooms, according to a new report out today from the Century Foundation.

"While the expansion of universal pre-K represents a huge advancement for early education in New York City, pre-K classrooms are currently more racially homogeneous, on average, than kindergarten classrooms," said Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation who authored the report.

While overall enrollment in the universal pre-K program is diverse, in one-sixth of preschool classrooms, in the first year, more than 90 percent of all students came from the same racial or ethnic group, compared to one-eighth of all kindergarten classrooms. Just one in every five preschool classrooms were considered "highly diverse," where the largest racial or ethnic group constitutes no more than 50 percent of the student roster. Decades of research shows that racially integrated classrooms increase educational outcomes for all children.

The report used data from the city Department of Education from the 2014–2015 school year, the program’s first, and defined classrooms with 90 percent or more students from the same racial or ethnic group as “highly homogeneous.” Some studies say that schools risk alienating students if the majority group exceeds 70 percent of the student body.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s flagship program offers free, full-day pre-K to any student anywhere in the city. While the program is not the first of its kind (universal pre-kindergarten has existed in places like Georgia, Washington, D.C., Florida, and Oklahoma for years), it was implemented with impressive speed; it was a major tenet of Mayor de Blasio’s 2013 campaign and by 2014, 53,000 students were enrolled, triple the amount from the previous year. By 2015, that number rose to 69,000 children, 60 percent of the city’s four-year-olds. Comparable programs elsewhere have taken five years or more to fully implement.

While the program has been met with widespread public support, it has not been without criticism. A ProPublica investigation last year found that despite the influx of new registrants, the city’s poorest kids might be getting left out: In 2015, just 195 of 12,000 new students came from the city’s bottom fifth of zip codes for income, where families make less than $38,000 annually. Other skeptics say the push has disproportionately benefited affluent families who, before the expansion, shelled out thousands of dollars in tuition payments to send their kids to top preschools, daycares or camps and now got preference in the best programs for free. A controversial University of California, Berkeley study, contested by Mayor de Blasio, found that most new seats opened in wealthy neighborhoods and "better off" boroughs.

"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," said Josh Wallack, the DOE's deputy chancellor for strategy and policy.

One major goal of the city has been to give as many people as possible access to the program — an objective that has so far been largely successful. Adding cumbersome layers of paperwork that might help track detailed demographic information about a family could deter some from applying altogether.

Pre-kindergarten programs are broken up into two different categories by the DOE — district or charter school sites and community-based sites. Some community-based sites receive funding from the city Administration for Children's Services, which limits enrollment in ACS classrooms to students whose families meet low-income requirements. In 2014–15, DOE restrictions inadvertently encouraged racial and socioeconomic segregation: In programs that served both ACS students (more likely to be black or Hispanic) and non-ACS students (more likely to be white or Asian), regulations prohibited them from creating mixed classrooms that might be more racially diverse. Beginning in September 2015, programs could apply for a waiver that would allow them to combine and mix the classes, improving diversity — but Potter says this should be the default, not the exception.

The city’s deep and persistent struggle with housing segregation cannot be divorced from the problems of school segregation that have trickled down to the city’s youngest students. Programs that restrict enrollment to low-income families are more likely to be found in black and Latino neighborhoods, and families tend to send their youngest kids to schools close to home, perpetuating a neighborhood’s segregation inside the school’s halls. On a ten-minute walk in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, you will find three different pre-kindergarten programs: one is 67 percent white, one is 67 percent Asian, and another is 58 percent black. Despite the disparities, parents appear to be getting accepted to the schools of their choice. After the first year, the city centralized the enrollment process to a single application. This year, 88 percent of applicants in the first two rounds were accepted to schools in their top three choices, up from 84 percent last year.

NYC's Universal Pre-K Is More Racially Segregated Than Kindergarten

While a universal program has the potential to influence diversity in the upper grades, the city has so far not taken full advantage of the opportunity.

"Pre-K was not included in the first annual diversity report that the New York City Department of Education released in December 2015, which includes diversity data for each grade in each school, as mandated by a new law passed by the City Council," wrote Potter in the report. 

Additionally, there is limited data available about the socioeconomic status of pre-kindergarten students; parents who send their kids to community-based pre-kindergarten do not fill out federal free and reduced lunch forms, one of the most common markers of poverty. And the DOE has not made public any analysis of data from the Human Resources Administration, which would identify which students qualify for public assistance and could help further track classroom diversity.

Among Potter's recommendations are a transportation subsidy to encourage families to consider programs outside their neighborhoods, which could increase diversity. She also recommends that the DOE include pre-kindergarten enrollment in the mandated diversity report and create a diversity pilot program similar to the one currently in the testing stages at several elementary schools, where admissions officials are allowed to consider the socioeconomic status and other academic risk factors of students. And an expansion of district and charter school pre-kindergarten programs, which are more likely to be racially diverse but outnumbered by community-based programs, could help diversify the overall initiative.

Read the full report here

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