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Abigail Kramer

Abigail Kramer

It's crunch time for pre-kindergarten. In just a couple of weeks, the city will open 2,000 new, full-day classrooms in schools and community centers across the five boroughs. If the city gets it right, the pre-k expansion could set a national standard for universal, high-quality instruction for 4-year-olds. Unfortunately, it could also be the cause of death for programs serving those 4-year-olds' younger siblings.

Though it has stood alone in the political spotlight this year, universal pre-k is not New York City's only early education program. For decades, the city has held contracts with hundreds of childcare providers—ranging from home-based daycares to nationally accredited preschools—to care for low-income kids from 6 weeks through 4 years old. In its current iteration, the subsidized childcare system has the capacity to serve 37,000 children.

National studies show that early childhood programs are critical for kids. The care a child receives while she's an infant or toddler—long before she's old enough to go to school—can impact the way her brain grows, potentially changing the trajectory of the rest of her life.

This editorial, written by Abigail Kramer, associate editor at the Center for NYC Affairs at The New School, home of Insideschools.org, was published in the New York Daily News on June 28, 2014.

When the mayor and the City Council agreed on a budget last week, they added $10 million to a voucher program that helps low-income families pay for daytime and afterschool child care.

The vouchers are an invaluable resource. At a minimum, they allow parents to work. At best, they help families afford the kinds of high-quality programs that prepare kids for success in kindergarten and the years that come after.

Unfortunately, those benefits are not shared equally around the city. As of January 2014, nearly 50 percent of the city's existing low-income vouchers were used in just two Brooklyn neighborhoods—each home to politically powerful Orthodox Jewish communities.

Monday, 04 November 2013 17:11

Teens at Rikers kept isolated in cells

The New York City Board of Correction released a report last week that documents the stories of three adolescents who were sentenced to more than 200 days in isolation on Rikers Island.

Each of the teens, who were 17 and 18 years old when they were interviewed by the Board, had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness—two with bipolar disorder; one with depression. They had been placed in what's known as 'punitive segregation' for behavioral infractions like fighting or assaulting a corrections officer.

Once in segregation, they spent 23 hours per day alone in their cells, according to the report. Their recreation took place in individual outdoor cages. They weren't allowed to attend school and received no special education services. The majority of their appointments with mental health providers were conducted through cell doors—the adolescent stayed locked inside while the clinician stood in the hallway.

Thursday, 28 February 2013 11:25

Strike is over but the bus is still missing

The drama of the city’s school bus strike officially ended more than a week ago—but you wouldn’t know it at my kid’s bus stop.

When the bus drivers’ union called off the strike last week, my sympathy for its members—who had lost nearly a month’s pay and gained almost nothing—was mixed with relief at the prospect of finally getting to work on time. My 6-year-old goes to school three miles and a tricky subway ride from our home in Brooklyn. I have a job in Manhattan. The school bus is the magic that allows those realities to coexist.

My relief was doomed to a short life: We waited at our regular stop that day, but the bus never came. It didn’t show up the next day either, nor the next. When the bus finally did appear at our stop—six days after the strike was over—it had a new driver, who looked to be reading directions off the back of an envelope. He seemed like a nice guy, if a little bewildered to be navigating a neighborhood he didn’t know with a bus full of kids, but he couldn’t say whether he’d continue to be assigned to the route. I can’t say either, because the bus skipped our stop again the next day.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013 11:10

Kindergarten Take 2: Repeating not redshirting

Elementary school applications are due in a month, which raises questions—as it does every year—for parents of kids who are technically old enough to start kindergarten in the fall, but who will be younger than most of their classmates.

Two years ago, I was one of those parents. My son's birthday falls at the end of the year, which means he'd always been one of the youngest at daycare and preschool. If I'd been planning to put him in private school (or if we lived almost anywhere outside New York City) he'd have been scheduled to enter kindergarten in 2012, after his 5th birthday. Since city schools determine grade assignments by calendar year, he was slotted to start in the fall of 2011, while he was still 4. I decided back in preschool that at some point early on, I'd finagle the start of a school year so he wouldn't move forward with the age cohort he was born into. So, this year he finds himself in kindergarten for the second time.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, I'm far from alone: Somewhere between 9 and 14 percent of kids across the country either start kindergarten late or repeat their kindergarten year.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012 14:55

Child welfare after the storm

The day after Hurricane Sandy blew through the eastern seaboard, a social worker in Manhattan was frantic to track down a little girl on Long Island. The child is 2 years old and lives with her foster mother in a neighborhood that had been slammed by the storm. She had a tracheotomy when she was a baby, and needs a feeding tube to eat and an oxygen machine to breath. No one knew whether the family had been evacuated or where they were.

When the social worker finally reached the foster mother, it turned out she was at home, without heat or electricity. She’d been trekking to a nearby hospital to keep the girl’s medical equipment battery pack charged. “It wasn’t sustainable,” says Arlene Goldsmith, executive director of the child’s foster care agency, New Alternatives for Children. “But we hated the idea of separating her from the foster mother. That’s the last thing you want.” Instead, the agency—which had sent its fleet of seven vans to Connecticut to fill up on gas—was able to get hold of a generator. Once she had power, the foster mother also took in the girl’s brother, who’d been made homeless by the storm.

Even in normal times, child welfare is largely a system of crisis management: The city pays social service agencies not only to find foster homes for kids, but to provide services that prevent families from falling apart, working with parents before they come at risk of losing their children.

(Read the rest of this story, "Child Welfare in the Storm: What Happens to Vulnerable Families after a Disaster? "on the Child Welfare Watch blog)

 

Wednesday, 02 November 2011 12:29

Black, special ed kids suspended most

City schools suspended their students more than 73,000 times during the 2010-2011 school year, according to new data from the city's Department of Education (DOE).

More than half of those suspensions were given to African American students, who make up 33 percent of the total student body. Close to a third were given to students with special education plans, who comprise 17 percent of students. Suspension numbers are up over 2009-2010 when there were 71,721 suspensions.

Monday, 11 April 2011 09:54

Charter school lottery: Why am I here?

Some charter schools hold public lotteries. Coney Island Prep held its first lottery in 2009.

Abigail Kramer is a public policy journalist at the Center for New York City Affairs and the parent of a 4-year-old in Brooklyn.

I’m running up two flights of concrete stairwell, on my way to torture myself.

I applied for a kindergarten spot for my son at Community Roots Charter, a small, progressive school in Fort Greene, and I really want to get in—as, I suspect, do the parents of the 457 other four-year-olds who applied, all vying for 50 spots, about 20 of which will go to siblings.

Like a lot of charter schools, Community Roots holds a public lottery, proving the transparency of its admissions by drawing names in front of a professional auditor and anyone else who cares to watch. I’m here, at least in part, to figure out who comes. The odds of getting in are abysmal, so why would any parent put themselves through this?

“We have a lot more people who leave disappointed than happy,” says Allison Keil, one of the co-directors.

And yet, about 25 grownups sit in the room, along with five or six kids, one of whom really, really doesn’t want to be here. At the front, the school’s office manager pulls tiny squares of paper from a spinning, plastic bucket. It’s like watching those Lotto clips on TV, where the balls bounce around in a box and the lady who pulls them out has a really nice manicure, except what’s at stake is your kid.

A round guy named Joe sits behind them in a pricy-looking suit and tie, one ankle propped on a knee. The auditor. Every few minutes he tells the name-reader to spin the bucket, reshuffling the fates of the kids who are left. The woman next to me is literally biting her nails.

Kindergarten fills up in about 15 minutes, and then the waitlist starts. I figure if my kid lands in the first 20 or so, then we might have a shot. He doesn’t. By the 50s, people are filtering out. Mom and dad of #89 give each other a sarcastic high-five. I’m glad someone still has a sense of humor.

Like so many things about raising a child in NYC, entering kindergarten is an intense encounter with scale and inequity. Some kids have guaranteed spots at schools with million-dollar PTAs. Some will be lucky to get an art class. If I weren’t a parent, my feelings on this would be clear: All the energy and angst that I’m spending in this room would be so much better spent on my neighborhood school, where any kid in a 12-block radius should have the right to the attention and quality that I’m trying to get from a charter. There’s nothing in my values or politics that makes it okay to prioritize one kid over another, except that I am a parent and I have no idea how to do right by my own child while also doing right. So here I am, staring at a projector screen and hoping that my kid will beat out somebody else’s.

We’re into the hundreds, and I know by now that we don’t stand a chance but suddenly it starts to mean something to me—that I’m here, that someone will care when my little kid’s unpronounceable name gets called. That to one person in this room, he’s not just another paper in a bottomless bucket. He’s my kid, who just wants to crash toy cars and be with me all the time. Whose circumstances I’ve done everything in my power to control since the day he was born.

Which, of course, is what all the parents in this room are doing here: Trying to find some sense of control as we send our kids into this gargantuan system that will define the next phase of their lives. I went on school tours and read about test scores and attendance rates and nodded or shook my head but, really, what do I know? My son is about to enter a world in which I will have very little access and even less power. A giant, haphazard machine that’s charged with educating 1.1 million kids every day—and which loses track of plenty of them along the way. Where he will be subject to all the vagaries and accidents and happenstance of the world—a bad teacher, an overcrowded classroom, this brutal anonymity that starts with 458 pieces of paper in a bucket

Number 107. I feel a small, piercing sense of gratitude that the bucket spinner said my son’s name correctly. It’s a stupid thing to care about but, two hours later, it’s why I’m here: Because I’m the person who cares more than anything in the world about what happens to waitlist kid # 107.