New York City’s Pre-K System Was a Model. Now Employees Say It’s a Mess.

New York City’s free preschool program is a national model, embraced by parents and praised for its high quality. But a year into a new mayoral administration, the influential initiative faces challenges that may threaten its standing and undermine its future.

The problems are so severe that the program, which won accolades from experts and attracted visits from leaders of other cities hoping to copy it, could lose more than $70 million in Head Start funding and suffer a decline in standards, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees of the Education Department’s Division of Early Childhood Education.

The turmoil in pre-K and 3-K, which together serve 90,000 3- and 4-year-old city children, first spilled into public view after preschool providers complained that the Department of Education was behind in paying them this fall.

Now, several providers say the payments still haven’t come, despite city promises. The division also plans to do significantly fewer quality checks this academic year, workers said.

“I’m worried about the future of early childhood education in New York City, period,” said Emmy Liss, the division’s former chief operating officer, adding that she fears the division no longer has enough expertise to support the hundreds of sites and public schools. “I think we’re going to see a reduction in the academic and social-emotional benefits that kids get.”

Free pre-K for all was the signature achievement of Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty and was instantly popular with parents across race and class lines. Now, his successor, Eric Adams, is pulling back from expanding the program to provide universal preschool to 3-year-olds, as Mr. de Blasio had planned.

Major changes in policy priorities are typical of any new mayoral administration, and the schools chancellor, David C. Banks, has said that officials inherited an early childhood system that was “a mess of epic proportions.” He and other Education Department officials said the complaints reflect resistance to a new administration’s efforts to make changes.

The New York City schools chancellor, David C. Banks, has said the previous administration overemphasized expanding the number of seats in the free 3-K and pre-K program.Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

New York’s early childhood initiatives have resonated with families in a city where private preschool can cost more than $15,000 a year. As the city’s public school system loses students, prekindergarten and 3-K have also been a bright spot: The programs made systemwide enrollment declines less dramatic.

The city’s programs also built a good reputation, winning a gold medal from a national organization and attracting visits from national politicians, though one recent study found that in the initiative’s first six years, classrooms that served mainly white and Asian students tended to be of higher quality than those in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Workers in the division agree that there were issues in the program during the de Blasio administration: Some complained about slow progress on equity efforts, special education issues and leaders’ visions for early childhood education.

But the current level of internal turmoil has been unique, many workers said. Several spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to put their jobs at risk.

Many of these employees blamed, in part, the leadership of Kara Ahmed, who was named to the post after Mr. Adams took office and was the former principal of the city’s LYFE Program, an early childhood program for teenage parents.

The city’s teachers’ union took a rare no-confidence vote in the leadership last month, arguing that the division has been plagued by disorganization and “managerial incompetence.” The union accused Ms. Ahmed of mismanaging funds and said officials used “retaliation to silence dissent,” targeting or reassigning outspoken staff members.

In a recent interview, education officials attributed the complaints to the pains that come with major overhauls. The schools chancellor has said often this year that the city’s free preschool for 3-year-olds initiative has been flawed because it emphasized a rapid expansion; he has pointed to 40,000 unused 3-K seats. The mayor has also focused less on universal pre-K and 3-K and more on child care for families with children under 3 and on widening access to child care programs for low-income parents.

Ms. Ahmed said that as the agency shifts gears, she has tried to foster an open work environment. “I recognize that change is hard,” she said. “We’re going to continue to be honest about what needs to be changed. And not everyone will agree with that.”

Daniel Weisberg, the first deputy chancellor, said that staff reassignments and other overhauls were needed to address duplication with other divisions.

“Not a surprise that the folks who designed that structure — or were working in that structure — might disagree with some of those decisions,” Mr. Weisberg said.

More than 150 workers have left since this year began, including some who oversee staff members who measure the quality of programs, and many have not been replaced. This fall, the early childhood division was about 45 percent understaffed, with about 460 full-time positions filled out of about 830, according to a recent report from the city comptroller — the sixth highest vacancy rate across more than 130 divisions at city agencies.

Ms. Ahmed said she disagreed with the report’s findings. “I certainly don’t think we’re understaffed,” she said.

Employees said that staff departures have drained crucial expertise. On the division’s data team, for example, an internal tool that workers often used to flag issues at preschool sites crashed in May after no one was left who knew how to maintain the system, according to two employees on the team.

“You started feeling the gaps that your colleagues left,” said Humberto Cruz-Chavarria, the division’s former director of multilingual education. “They were taking with them institutional knowledge that couldn’t be replicated, but also logins and access to systems that all of us needed to to do our jobs.”

The schools chancellor and others have defended Ms. Ahmed’s leadership. Sherry Cleary, the former head of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute, said that “people did not give her a chance.”

“She comes at this work with the most profound dedication, no ego and extraordinary grace,” said Ms. Cleary, a longtime mentor to Ms. Ahmed who recommended her for the job.

Each year, Department of Education employees have visited programs to measure quality and offer feedback, using assessment tools that track key factors like the warmth of interactions between teachers and students.

But this academic year, there will be at least a 50 percent decline in the number of programs evaluated with those tools than in earlier periods, according to three people with knowledge of the department’s plans.

Ms. Ahmed said that the prior approach to assessments “was not getting us to a high-quality system.” This year, officials plan to assess more providers through a statewide system that they say will offer stronger, more timely feedback.

One employee, who declined to be named for fear of professional retribution, said that after a preschool site earned one of the lowest scores they could recall on a program assessment report in the spring, the evaluators raised concerns with division leaders. The employee said that the group was admonished and later learned that the head of the particular program had a close relationship with Ms. Ahmed.

An Education Department spokesman, Nathaniel Styer, did not comment on the specific incident. But he said that a solely punitive approach to assessment “has no place in our work,” and that sites have appreciated the culture shift.

In previous years, evaluators have found children eating on the floor or not having play time, and more rarely have uncovered serious infractions, including teachers berating students and using corporal punishment. Low-performing sites might have had early childhood division staff visit more often to help them improve.

Samantha Lopez, who joined the department in 2014 and resigned about eight weeks ago from the program assessment team, said that the division no longer maintained adequate records of new providers, among other issues.

“The systems had totally disintegrated,” Ms. Lopez said. “Early childhood in New York City is consistently held up as the ultimate example in this country of ‘We got it right. We executed it.’ But we’re not going to have a way of talking about the quality moving forward.”

New York’s federal Head Start funding may now also be at risk, several workers said.

After hundreds of social workers and instructional coordinators were moved out of their roles over the summer, employees said it was unclear how mental health services and instructional coaching that Head Start mandates would be fulfilled. The division’s policy support team, which helped lead health and safety reviews for Head Start programs, was disbanded months ago.

“That begs the question, ‘How are we meeting those requirements?’” said Courtney Klamar, a lead writer of the department’s Head Start application who resigned in the spring after more than four years in the division.

Dr. Ahmed said that the administration inherited several challenges from the previous administration and that officials have been “very transparent” with the federal Head Start office about resolving them. She said that “we have no knowledge or understanding” that the funding was in any danger.

Despite the criticisms, officials have made some changes that workers and early childhood advocates view as positive.

This month, Mr. Adams said the city would begin offering child care assistance for low-income undocumented immigrant families, who tend to be ineligible because of their immigration status. Mr. Adams and Mr. Banks also recently announced several changes to preschool special education, including extending the school day and raising pay for teachers to match rates in general education at many providers. They have also followed a plan initiated by Mr. de Blasio’s administration to create 800 new seats for students with disabilities by the spring.

Beyond the current challenges, a long-term funding source for the 3-K program must be found, because it has been supported primarily through time-limited federal coronavirus aid.

This fall, families with young children received an email encouraging them to sign up when 3-K applications open. But the email added a caveat: “Please note that due to limited seat availability, not all 3-K applicants will be guaranteed an offer.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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