Early Childhood Education at CAS Community Schools: A Model for NYC?

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The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) school-based Early Childhood Programs (ECP) are implemented in five of our New York City community schools, four in Manhattan and one in the South Bronx.  Designed as a partnership between the city’s Department of Education and CAS, this collaboration brings low-income, expectant families, newborns and families with children up to five years of age into the schools in which the children would complete fifth grade.  The population is comprised of mostly Latino immigrants (Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican, etc.), with a growing number of recent arrivals from Africa.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to enact Universal Pre-K (UPK) in NYC has a realistic chance; however, research shows that to be effective the program must be intensive, and that it works best if parents as well as children are involved. With its solid record of providing exactly this type of high-quality school-based early education programs for 20 years, CAS can be a source of expertise for NYC.

The CAS initiative began in 1994 and has been in full operation since 1996. Since then, the need for such a project has been confirmed through experience and evaluation. We have deep insights into how a program for pregnant women and children through age five, often called a Zero to Five Program (0-5), can be effectively implemented within a public school. There’s an extensive waiting list because of the scarcity of ECP in the communities we serve and because of the excellent reputation of the program.  

According to Moria Cappio, CAS director of Early Childhood Education, and deputy director Dr. Andrew Seltzer, the mayor’s focus on UPK offers the opportunity to expand our ECP, thus responding to the need of hundreds of working low-income families.  In preparation, CAS is already looking to find additional classrooms in our existing sites (where there’s space) and reaching out to our networks to explore partnering with new schools in our target neighborhoods.

Both agree that space is the biggest challenge. “Much of this expansion comes down to real-estate – within our existing community schools, there’s very limited licensable classroom space,” Cappio says. “We are finding the same hurdle in our conversations with possible new partners – the principals may be more than willing to partner with CAS to bring in UPK, but their building may just not allow it.”  The other obstacle she mentions is the tight turnaround time.  While CAS did gain good experience during our expansion two years ago, there will be a great deal of work – such as licensing classrooms, hiring qualified staff, and outfitting rooms – that will need to happen before September.  

Seltzer and Cappio point out a particular plus: there’s not much difference between our current programs, which already include elements of UPK, and what the City will implement.  “The ‘bones’ of the CAS model will remain the same – three teachers per classroom, family worker supports, ‘Tools of the Mind’ curriculum,” Cappio says. “The main difference is new UPK classrooms will run for a total of six hours and twenty minutes, while some of our other classrooms, where there is additional Head Start or Child Care money, are available for a total of ten hours.”

The CAS 0-5 model connects two federally funded programs – Early Head Start (expectant families to age three) and Head Start (ages three to five) – as well as privately funded initiatives to provide quality comprehensive educational, health and social services to low-income families and their children. The program also includes on-site intensive intervention for children with special needs. All children are assessed within 45 days of entering the program.

Parents entering the program during pregnancy know they are making a five-year commitment within a public school before their children enter kindergarten. The Zero to Three (0-3) and the Three to Five (3-5) programs include home visits, classroom visits, family orientations and individual teacher meetings.  Because of this early engagement with the school, the children and their families seamlessly transition from 0-3 to 3-5 programs and from there to kindergarten, which is often right across the hallway. Another value added is that parents are known to become leaders during elementary school and beyond.  

During the first three years, families are required to participate in an intensive home-based intervention model. They receive a minimum of three 90-minute home visits a month, and must attend weekly two hour, age-specific small groups held in the school. The teachers who conduct home visits lead their particular parent-child groups. There are a minimum of 32 home visits and 45 interactions within a year; thus, over the three years of Early Head Start, families participate in a minimum of 96 home visits and 135 parent-child group interactions.

Services to expectant families are a major component within Early Head Start. Pregnant women receive home visits and participate in parent-child interactions to expose them to best practices, child development and finding peer support. During the eighth month, they are assigned a doula, trained to provide continuous emotional support during labor and childbirth; doulas also conduct prenatal home visits during the eighth month, to help plan for the delivery and to schedule supportive post-partum visits.

As child advocates for over 160 years, CAS applauds Mayor de Blasio’s focus on providing Universal Pre-K.  We know that too many children start out behind in school for reasons mostly related to poverty, and we are ready to contribute our experience so that all children in NYC have a fair start in life.