Private Pre-K Providers Struggle to Survive in New York City

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Students wait for story time at Little Scholars Early Development Center in the South Bronx.

Little Sunshine Preschool looks orderly: Its hallway is lined with cheery murals in primary colors, and construction-paper snowflakes adorn classroom doors. In a nod to the cultural heritage of its surrounding neighborhood, two displays feature Chinese-themed art, including pretty sprays of cherry blossoms and red and gold lanterns.

Yet not a single teacher in this private preschool in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn,  has a master’s degree and nearly half do not return each year. Owner Bryan Wong says attracting qualified new teachers is quickly becoming one of his biggest headaches.

Three years into New York City’s high-profile push to expand free and high-quality preschool, 70,430 4-year-olds are now enrolled citywide, up from 19,287 in 2013, according to the Department of Education. Private providers are one of the program’s fundamental building blocks, but many of them say that surviving within the framework of city-mandated expectations, guidelines and funding is tough, even though the city has put in place numerous incentives and supports.

However, if free universal preschool is going to work in New York and provide a sustainable working model for programs around the country, private schools need to remain involved and, indeed, flourish.

“The idea of using both public and private preschool providers is a challenge for the field in general, and in no way unique to New York,” said Jeanne Reid, a research scientist at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College). “It’s an artifact of the early childhood system; it’s grown up that way. So if you use both public and private providers, the question becomes: How do you nurture and sustain quality across all those different settings when their resources, missions and histories can be so different?”

This school year, New York City’s Department of Education says it has "Pre-K for All" contracts with 1,129 private programs — also known as community-based organizations — ranging from established religious organizations to community centers, nursery schools, large private preschools with multiple locations and small schools like Bryan Wong’s Little Sunshine Preschool. Though most of these providers operate their city-funded units as nonprofits, many, including Wong's school, contain for-profit elements such as day care centers or classrooms for two- and three-year-olds.

These private pre-k providers are spread across the city’s five boroughs: 366 in Brooklyn, 326 in Queens, 221 in the Bronx, 148 in Manhattan and 68 in Staten Island.

Each private provider hires and pays its own teachers and maintains its own operation while meeting environmental, curricular and quality standards set and monitored by the Department of Education. The city employs 100 instructional coordinators and 120 social workers who visit private providers on a regular basis, sometimes weekly, to support and advise.

“Our instructional coordinator focuses on our curriculum and our facility," said Keisha Flores, educational director at Little Sunshine. She noted that this support is both helpful and appreciated, since private providers can tend to feel "on their own," especially when they compare their experiences to the support networks available to public schools.

In addition to the coordinators and social workers, a program assessment team visits schools two out of every three years to monitor program quality, and teachers and preschool leaders receive six days of professional learning throughout the school year.

If a private program does not meet quality standards, “our first move is to offer additional support, go into the program with our instructional coordinators and social workers and try to figure out how we can help that program improve,” said Josh Wallack, deputy chancellor for strategy and policy for the city's Department of Education. “But if we believe a program is really not performing well, and children would be better served elsewhere, we make that decision. This has only happened a handful of times. But we won't shy away from these tough decisions. For now, we've been incredibly pleased with the [private] partners we work with."

Jasmin Corniel, a preschool teacher and the founding director of the Little Scholars Early Development Center in the South Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania (the school has two locations, Little Scholars I and II), also participates in the city's pre-k program. Her school, a rented, self-renovated ground floor tucked beneath a large residential building, is bright and inviting with soothing pastel walls, child-level hallway peephole windows so students can peek into classrooms, fanciful open spaces with swirling, low dividing walls and lots of natural wood furniture.

Little Scholars’ students are mostly African-American or Hispanic, said Corniel, and many live in shelters. “Because of their home situations, and because many are dealing with domestic abuse, these children are in constant trauma, so it’s really hard to get through to them,” she said. “But when they come in here, it’s like a different planet for them, and their eyes just light up.”

Corniel founded the first Little Scholars school in 2011 when, as a first-time mother seeking a strong local preschool for her daughter, she came up short. “So, with a baby on my hip, I wrote a business plan, went to the small business administration and to the banks and we got started,” she said.

To fund each child at her first location, Little Scholars I, Corniel negotiated a yearly payment of $7,000 per child from the Department of Education. “That’s literally peanuts,” said Corniel. “But I was new so I think they thought: ‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ ”

Corniel said everything changed in 2014, with the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio on a platform that included expanding free, full-day pre-k. Corniel jumped on the city’s financial incentive to lure new providers.

“The build-out [of Little Scholars II] cost $1 million and we proposed $500,000 [to the city],” she said. “But they only gave us $130,000. We argued that more of the [renovation cost] should be covered, but that’s what we got.”

Toughened by her first negotiations, Corniel carefully budgeted for Little Scholars II and the city now gives her a yearly rate of $10,600 per child. Although it’s an improvement over her first negotiated rate, she has very little wiggle room. For example, Corniel pays $9,000 per month to rent the Little Scholars II space.

“I have a big issue with the fact that public schools don’t pay rent out of their per-child rate,” she said. “But we get less per child, and we pay rent. It’s really hard to make our programs stay afloat.”

A Department of Education spokeswoman said in an email that "site contracts are determined by a number of factors including occupancy costs (rent or mortgage) as well as programmatic costs (all other non-real estate related costs of operating a pre-K program) which differ by site, even for the same provider -- not based on skill or experience negotiating of the parties involved."

Bryan Wong, at Little Sunshine, said his financial negotiations were confusing. The city gives Wong $9,000 a year per child, and he pays $13,000 in rent each month.

“At the beginning, there were so many unknowns about what is required for 'Pre-K for All,' we really didn’t expect all the expenses,” said Wong, who worked as an IT technician before opening Little Sunshine; his co-director ran operations at several day care centers. “Suddenly we realized that to be a 'Pre-K for All' provider the city required that we get a certain amount of blocks, specific shelves and other furniture, a laptop and iPad for each classroom. It was a big shock, and we only realized all this after we’d submitted our budget and negotiated our per-child rate.”

Still, Wong noted that finances are not his top concern. "My biggest worry now is attracting and retaining quality teachers; and it’s so hard because, compared to what public schools can offer them, there’s absolutely nothing we can do.”

Since so few applicants respond when he posts on the Department of Education job board, Wong now hunts for teachers on Indeed and Craigslist.

“We are just a first stop for teachers on their way to careers at more established public schools," said Little Sunshine educational director Flores. "So even if we find someone who is really qualified, you just can't feel secure that they'll stay beyond a year. Their main focus is getting to a public school with all the benefits and supports.”

While ongoing assessments show that the city's efforts to monitor and improve preschool quality are showing positive gains, private provider teacher salaries remain an area of weakness.

“I believe in salary parity, end of story. Equal pay for equal work,” said Ellen Frede, former co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “At this point, what you don’t want in this mixed-delivery system is that the private providers become the farm league for the public school classrooms. You don’t want [private provider] teachers getting mentored and reaching quality and then getting stolen by the school district classrooms. Something needs to be set up so there’s equilibrium, because all children matter, wherever they’re educated.”

The city acknowledges that teacher pay is still an issue, said deputy chancellor Wallack. “We’ve been paying attention to this issue from the beginning and, in year one, we made a $16 million investment to try to move those salaries closer together. Since then, we’ve instituted hiring and retention bonuses to help [private providers] attract the best talent and retain it over time.”

Indeed, at Corniel’s Little Scholars II in the Bronx, where all lead teachers are certified and have a master’s degree in early education, new lead teacher hires receive bonuses of $2,500. Returning certified teachers with master’s degrees receive a yearly $3,500 bonus. “That’s really helping,” said Corniel. “I think New York is doing an amazing job. That said, pay is still a really big issue and it’s still not enough.”

Since none of Bryan Wong’s teachers at Little Sunshine have master’s degrees, however, they do not benefit from the city’s bonus program. “We have two teachers working toward their master’s degrees, one certified, one uncertified,” he said, noting that he pays his teachers between $40,000 and $44,000. “This year, I find that if I say ‘I’ll pay you this DOE-mandated salary,’ it just doesn’t feel attractive to teachers anymore. It’s getting really tough.”

Jeanne Reid, a research scientist at the National Center for Children and Families, is overseeing a study about how New York City's universal preschool settings impact quality. She acknowledges that private pre-school directors have a lot to manage with meeting city standards.

"It would not surprise us at all to find that [their] administrative burden is much greater than what public schools face," she said. "This can be a significant disadvantage, and takes away from devoting time to nurturing teachers, education quality, parental engagement and curriculum and professional development — all those things we know go into supporting good outcomes for children and families.”

Still Wong and Corniel each plan to keep growing; Corniel says she's contemplating starting a charter elementary and middle school, too.

Correction: Due to an error by Department of Education officials, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of instructional coordinators and social workers employed to help private providers.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.