The district’s plan to reapportion 500, or roughly 25%, of pre-K slots allotted local nonprofits to a handful of new and expanded city school sites has raised concerns from child care providers and parents.
Mayor Lovely Warren weighed in on Thursday, saying it would be “an absolute travesty” to upend the program and imploring the district to turn its attention elsewhere.
Superintendent Terry Dade unveiled the proposal last month, outlining a plan to reconfigure schools 44 and 57 as pre-K centers. The district also would allot additional seats to other sites, officials say, including its Montessori Academy at the Dr. Freddie Thomas Learning Academy on Scio Street.
To determine which nonprofits lose seats, school district officials will use violation histories, number of certified teachers, annual safety assessments and site location, said Annmarie Lehner, chief of staff for the superintendent — “making certain we are maintaining the CBO (community based organizations) that are serving our kids well.”
She noted Friday that roughly 100 of the seats to be reclaimed are currently unfilled.
But local child care operators are warning of dire impacts.
“The biggest point I want to make, that I want the district to recognize, is that the majority … will close,” said Robert Stedman, vice president of services for children and families with Volunteers of America.
Dade: “I am really trying to think of creative ways to reverse the trend in enrollment”
The VOA operates one of the 28 nonprofit child care centers offering pre-K in the city. The district has slightly more sites, but currently enrolls 1,266 children compared with 1,927 at the nonprofit sites.
Locally, many the other pre-K providers operate in high-poverty neighborhoods and have come to rely on the district-administered state grant funding for their allotted early and universal pre-K slots. Other child care subsidies are paid only if the child is present. But the center’s expenses don’t change.
“Not only does the pre-K program go away, but infant, toddler, wraparound goes away for those children, too,” Stedman said. “It could potentially have a crippling effect on the economy of Rochester.”
Parents have voiced concern about the disruption for their children, what the loss of wraparound or full-day care could mean for working families, and complications that would arise from no longer being able to have all their kids at one center.
Transportation could become an issue, as centers in high-poverty areas report many of their families walk or take the bus. Advocates fear some parents might not enroll their children as a result. And there are questions being raised, by Warren and The Children’s Agenda, of whether the district can deliver the same level of service for the same cost.
“This change is pretty significant to a nationally renowned program that is very successful,” said Eamonn Scanlon, education policy analyst with The Children’s Agenda. “There should be enough planning time and community consultation to do this right having a decision from a plan being proposed in January, and then being voted on in February, is not enough time.”
Lincoln Park School 44 is located on Chili Avenue, in the southwest part of the city, while Early Childhood School 57 is a short distance off North Plymouth Avenue in the northwest.
“It is not going to cost more. It is going to be about a wash,” Lehner said, adding that officials are exploring the possibility of providing “enrichment” programming at one of the reconfigured sites until 6 p.m.
Reversing the district’s falling enrollment, and annual loss of 600 to 700 students to charter schools, was a motivating factor behind the proposal, district officials have said. That, and not wanting to shutter school buildings.
“This is not an exercise in simply recouping revenue,” Dade said Friday, adding that if the current rate of enrollment decline were to continue another 10 years: “You might as well shut us down.”
The city’s pre-K program is a model program, a bright spot. As Lehner explains: “We are not starting something entirely new. We are replicating what we know works.
“We’re still going to offer seats at community based organizations … but why would we not serve our students in pre-K?”
According to the district, 13% of students who attend pre-K within city schools leave for charter schools in kindergarten while 29% of those at the nonprofit sites take that route, Lehner said.
The district would serve both 3- and 4-year-olds. Numbers released Friday showed that that district would pull almost equally from both groups, capturing all the vacant seats and adding in 104 new, recently-approved, grant-funded slots for 3-year-olds.
“Due to a declining population in Rochester, in general, we had more difficulty filling our 4-year-old seats this year; however, we did make our grant target,” Lehner said.
As proposed, the two new centers in the current Schools 44 and 57 would account for 432 pre-K spots, an additional 18 would be at Montessori Academy. It was not immediately known where the other seats would be distributed, other than to a handful of other existing RCSD pre-K sites.
The proposal is likely to result in both layoffs and the need to hire more teachers certified in early childhood education. The new centers, plus the expansion of existing sites, will require at least 28 teachers, Lehner said. How many could come from the district’s existing ranks is now yet known.
Warren sent her daughter to a district preschool at 3 years old, and the nonprofit Caring and Sharing Child Care Center at 4. Her daughter then started in city schools and now attends a private Christian school.
As mayor, Warren has put education — and early childhood education, specifically — at the forefront, and been critical of a district that currently finds itself in dire financial straits, and in need of a state bailout.
“We’ve worked hard to build a pre-K infrastructure that is a model for the nation,” Warren said in a statement. “It would be an absolute travesty for the RCSD to dismantle it without regard to the children, parents and community based organizations who worked in partnership to build our strong pre-K program. Pre-K is not the place to look for dollars. In fact, it is our understanding that it would cost more money to implement the proposed changes. And, they would not only cripple the CBO service providers, they would also make it difficult for parents in the neighborhood to get their children to and from the program reasonably. Right now, pre-K services are being provided in the neighborhoods where the people live. They trust their providers and the system and structure works. We implore the district to look elsewhere for savings.”
“Parents have to have the right to choose where they want to keep their child,” said Joi DiGennaro-McMurty, executive director at Friendship Children’s Center on Fernwood Avenue in northeast Rochester.
That choice, she said, often hinges on the ability to send all kids to the same center, and having wraparound or before-and-after hours services.
“We already do a great job,” she said. “We have early childhood certified teachers. We already have day cares. And I don’t mean to be blunt, but why don’t they fix their own problems … instead of taking on a business?”
That the district is first assessing centers based on violation history with the state’s Office of Children and Family Services has raised concern, as that can vary based on the licensing representative and degree of self-reporting. Notably, the district’s sites are not subject to the same OCFS oversight.
“You have this great program that has achieve and continues to achieve results that are, on the national scale, at the top of the list,” Stedman said. “It’s a program that is not broken … So why is there this press to make changes to this program and fix things that are not broken?”
As for questions of whether this is the first step in a long-term goal to bring pre-K entirely within RCSD, Lehner said there are no discussions of further consolidation.
“We are not looking to take all of (pre-K) back,” she said. “We don’t believe that would give our parents enough choices. We can’t be in every location everywhere.”
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