Early Childhood Opinion

Sophia Pappas, Executive Director, Office of Early Childhood Education, New York City Department of Education

By Sara Mead — May 17, 2012 8 min read
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Regular readers of this blog are familiar with both the challenges and opportunities of early childhood education. Even as research demonstrates the incredible learning potential of young children and the impact of high-quality early learning programs to improve young children’s learning outcomes, efforts to improve early learning outcomes continue to be constrained by limited--and in some cases, declining--funding, a fragmented early childhood system, a workforce with mixed skill levels, and even a lack of consensus in the field about the purposes of early childhood education. Sophia Pappas works at the heart of these challenges. As Executive Director of the Office of Early Childhood Education for the New York City Department of Education, Pappas oversees pre-k programs responsible for serving more than 58,000 4-year-olds in the City of New York, and also works to align pre-k offerings with the early elementary grades.

Pappas began her career as a Teach For America Corps Member placed in a Newark public school pre-k program, and wrote about her experience in the book Good Morning, Children. After leaving Newark Public Schools, she directed national growth and development for Teach For America’s Early Childhood Education initiative, increasing the number of corps members placed in pre-k and Head Start classrooms by 83 percent and integrating early childhood into Teach For America’s regional and national operations. A Long Island native, Pappas earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a masters degree in public policy degree from Harvard. She lives in New York City.

Read the whole thing. You’re the Executive Director of the Office of Early Childhood Education for the New York City Department of Education? What does that mean you do?
I’m responsible for making sure our city’s Universal Prekindergarten (UPK) programs set children up for success in kindergarten and on a path to be college and career ready by the time they graduate High school. This means holding programs in all settings--public schools and community based organizations that serve more than 58,000 children across the city--to high standards of quality and supporting administrators and teachers in meeting those standards. These efforts depend on strong collaborations with UPK programs, other city agencies, the state, researchers, the higher education community, and others. My team and I build these partnerships to help: (1) Our city’s youngest learners develop a solid foundation in all areas--ranging from early math and literacy concepts to higher order thinking and problem solving skills--and (2) Families in becoming informed and involved partners in their child’s education from the start.

Let me get this straight, 58,000 four-year-olds?
Well, actually a little more than 58,200. As a city, we’ve increased that number substantially over the course of the Bloomberg administration. We’ve gone from 35,000 children participating in pre-K back in 2001 to 58,205 in the 2011-2012 School Year. We’re also able to ensure thousands of children in our highest need areas receive a combination of pre-K and other publicly funded early childhood services through a partnership with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in that work?
The size and diversity of our city poses both challenges and opportunities. As we roll out the Pre-K Common Core, for example, we’re faced with a wide range of skill levels and mindsets among the teachers and Directors working with children every day. The challenge is to individualize our supports to meet the varied needs of educators in a way that empowers programs to take ownership of implementing the Common Core over the next few years. Our partnerships with hundreds of programs are also a tremendous and unique resource. We have programs across the city in a wide range of settings using instructional and assessment practices that lay the groundwork for the Common Core. The ability of my staff to collect and spread best practices and encourage the development of peer support systems among Directors is critical.

In order to provide a high quality pre-k program for all children, we need to have a comprehensive picture of how our programs are doing, to inform decisions around monitoring and support. As a result of funding constraints, we’re limited in the ability to collect the valid and reliable data we would like to have to measure various aspects of quality, such as classroom environment and child-teacher interactions, in all of our classrooms. The state is helping to address these limitations by devoting a portion of its Race to the Top grant to supporting participation of programs in high need districts in QUALITYstarsNY, New York’s Quality Rating and Improvement System. My team and I are also determining how we can maximize available resources to further support this work.

I try to stay grounded in the impact of policies on our children and families by visiting pre-K classrooms 2-3 times per week. Insights from those conversations and observations push me to make decisions that reflect where we are as a system and where we need to go, given the stakes for children and their opportunities in life. One of the primary tasks for me as the head of our office is to use that information, citywide data points, what my staff observe, effective practices from other districts and states, and early childhood research to make sound decisions advancing positive short- and long-term outcomes for our students.

What are some of your successes?
Over the past year, we’ve made significant strides towards integrating pre-K into a P-12 system. The Common Core rollout, UPK outreach campaign, and provider outreach efforts position pre-K as the first step towards college and career readiness.

In year one of our Common Core rollout, we developed sample Common Core aligned units of study that demonstrate how pre-K teachers integrate the Common Core standards into developmentally appropriate curriculum and instruction. Teachers were able to adapt the sample units to build on the interests of their children, while also focusing on expectations for learning aligned to the K-12 standards. Parents and educators can see the Common Core in action and find samples of student work on our website. This alignment to K-12 through developmentally appropriate practice is critical to ensuring our students enter kindergarten with the foundation of cognitive, language, and social/emotional skills needed to succeed. This year’s pre-kindergarteners - in both CBOs and public schools - will be the first cohort of students to engage in Common Core aligned units of study for their entire time in NYC public schools.

To ensure we’re serving as many four-year-olds as possible, we’ve launched an aggressive and comprehensive outreach campaign from March through the start of school. We galvanized over 70 volunteers from city agencies, outside organizations, and the larger public to spread the word in targeted high need communities. Our communication outlets range from texting and social media to on-the-ground canvassing and fliers distributed to a wide range of local businesses and organizations. Over 400 children and families attended a recent outreach event in the South Bronx, where they learned about pre-K options, met Walkaround Elmo, and heard Dennis Walcott, the Chancellor of our Schools, encourage families to apply for pre-K.

In our messaging to families, in both this campaign and forums we host for families with children currently in pre-K, we have started to orient the discourse around the role we all play--parents, educators, NYDOE and the broader community--in making sure a child’s first learning experiences prepare them for school and, ultimately, college and careers.
Finally, we’re working to develop a pipeline of high quality providers to ensure that every child who participates in UPK is on track for success in kindergarten. Our messaging to potential providers and expectations laid out in the UPK Request for Proposals (RFP) align to our overarching goal of ensuring all UPK programs provide children with a solid start. This year, we received a record number of proposals from potential new providers after proactively seeking out and engaging organizations in targeted communities.

Why focus on early childhood education? How did you come to this work?
My time in a Newark pre-K classroom taught me the critical importance of high quality early childhood education. The growth of my students from September to June each year demonstrated the positive impact of intentional teaching focused on moving every child forward. I saw progress every day that would help my children succeed in elementary and beyond. Some examples include: children who posed creative solutions for putting Humpty Dumpty back together, children who used their emerging writing skills to label the city and roads they built in blocks, children who made predictions and drew conclusions during a science experiment comparing the impact of wind on different objects.

What motivates you?
First and foremost, the opportunity I have every day to impact over 58,200 children and what I experienced each year with my own students. Research on the short- and long-term benefits of high-quality early childhood education and the fact that 85% of the brain develops before the age of five reinforce and fuel that sense of urgency.

What do you see as the biggest need or challenge to improve early childhood education in the United States today?
The ECE field has seen several promising developments in recent years, from the proliferation of Quality Rating Improvement Systems, to looking at a child’s school readiness in terms of development in all areas, to the alignment of standards from pre-K through 3rd grade (and in New York, pre-K through 12th grade). We need strong leaders in every program to realize the potential of these reforms. Their actions, their decisions, their relationships with children and families will ultimately make the difference. Policymakers like me can help by striking the right balance of empowerment and accountability needed for these leaders to achieve positive results for children. We can learn from early childhood programs in our system that have effectively recruited, selected, developed, and retained high quality talent. We can also partner with outside organizations to develop talent pipeline strategies that tap into lessons learned from existing ECE leadership pathways, K-12, and other fields.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
To help all children in New York City enter kindergarten with the foundation of skills, knowledge, and approaches to learning needed for future success.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.