New York City Prekindergarten Diversity Subject of New Report

By Christina A. Samuels — September 26, 2016 3 min read
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New York City has created tens of thousands of new prekindergarten spots as part of an initiative to bring full-day prekindergarten to every family that wants it.

But along the way, the city created classrooms that don’t fully reflect the diversity of the city, says a new report from the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

The report is based on an analysis of the program’s first year of expansion; universal prekindergarten in the city is now in its third school year. In the program’s first year, in about one-sixth of all pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students came from the same racial or ethnic group. In the city’s kindergarten classrooms, one-eighth of the classrooms had the same level of racial and ethnic homogeneity.

New York’s prekindergarten classrooms are a mix of school-based programs and programs run by community organizations. Community-based programs that limit enrollment to low-income families were more likely to be majority Hispanic or majority black. Other community-based programs had classrooms that were majority white or majority Asian.

The diversity of classrooms is linked closely to housing patterns, said Halley Potter, a foundation fellow and the author of the report. Neighborhoods are often have majorities of one ethnic or racial group, and that pattern holds in prekindergarten classrooms when parents choose programs that are near where they live.

Using Policy to Address Prekindergarten Diversity

But there are some policy levers that New York could use to create more heterogenous classrooms, and it’s worth making that effort, Potter said. For example, in early education, students are often learning as much from their peers as they are from their teachers. The peer effects from being in a more economically mixed classroom can be particularly positive for children from low-income backgrounds. The report points to a 2007 study that found that low-income children in an economically-integrated classroom made larger language gains than children in a class that was only for low-income families.

New York has many neighborhoods with different racial demographics that are geographically close to one another, the report notes. A transit subsidy for prekindergarten, similiar to one that exists for the city’s K-12 system, might encourage families to consider programs outside of their immediate surroundings. So would providing more information about any special offerings a prekindergarten program might have, the report notes.

Some of the community-based programs, which were generally more racially homogenous, have attempted to add more of a mix to their schools by reserving spots open to children regardless of their family’s income. That’s how a program run by a Chinese-American community group has been able to add black and Hispanic children, the report notes.

The city could also create a diversity admissions pilot for programs that are interested in creating more mixed classrooms, the report suggests.

“Part of what’s so exciting is there’s the potential to be even more diverse than kindergarten,” Potter said.

Focusing on Expansion and Quality

New York officials note that the city has been focused on expanding quickly and providing high-quality seats, and the city avoided collecting some information that was seen as potentially slowing down the recruitment effort. The universal prekindergarten program has grown from about 23,000 full-day slots to more than 70,000 in 2016-17.

The city has already implemented some of the suggestions in the report, including blended funding programs that allow a program to serve children from low-income families and children from more affluent backgrounds in the same classrooms.

In a statement, Josh Wallack,the deputy chancellor of strategy and policy, said that “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.”

File Photo: Preschoolers Liezel, 4, left, and Ryan, 4, walk the hall at a prekindergarten center in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood in Brooklyn in 2015.—Mark Abramson for Education Week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.