Sunday, June 7, 2015

City's Denial of Early Childhood Contracts Raises Questions

Students at the Williamsbridge NAACP Early Childhood Education Center in the Bronx (Isaak Liptzin/WNYC)

The Williamsbridge NAACP Early Childhood Education Center is a neighborhood institution. It's been open for 44 years, long enough for former students to now send their own toddlers and pre-kindergarten students to sing songs and learn the alphabet.
But Williamsbridge is now among 10 childcare centers that were not awarded contracts to continue serving their neighborhoods in the coming school year. The city's decision mystifies City Councilman Andy King.
"What justifies saying this program doesn't qualify for early childhood services?" he said, pointing to its longevity and good standing with local families.
King was joined by parents and teachers from Williamsbridge on Wednesday at a rally outside the early childhood center. He said members of the council's black, Latino and Asian caucus believe something is wrong because the centers whose contracts were not renewed by the Administration for Children's Services are in communities of color. Many council members have been complaining to the city and holding rallies.
Cheryl Dewitt, executive director of Williamsbridge, said she was puzzled because the Department of Education granted her a contract for pre-kindergarten services.
"Ironically we were awarded a universal pre-k contract this year and yet ACS deems us ineligible," she said, to the applause of teachers and families.
Williamsbridge is among dozens of early childhood centers that were saved by the City Council in 2012, after former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration revamped the system and rebranded it Early Learn. These centers did not win contracts from the Administration for Children's Services after very tough review process.
To compensate, council members used their district discretionary funds to save the same programs and Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration allowed them to continue serving their communities for one more year. But this year, they had to compete in a request for proposals.
The Administration for Children's Services defended the competitive process, and said it used an objective set of criteria in deciding on early childcare providers. Those with the top scores were selected, but the agency doesn't share the scores with the public.
Spokesman Christopher McKniff said 31 out of the 41 contractors that were chosen had previously been funded by the council. But he also suggested the decision not to fund 10 of them might be reviewed.
"Providing affordable, quality early education is a priority for this administration, and we are actively working with providers who were not successful in the RFP process to find alternative funding options."
But that still leaves families in the lurch, said Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and government relations at the Citizens Committee for Children. "For some families, it really will matter," she said, noting that these centers serve low income working parents. "The ones they selected, they've done so for a reason," she said.
At Williamsbridge, Dewitt said she has appealed the city's decision. She said her program cannot afford to stay open with two pre-k classes if it doesn't win a contract to keep serving more than a hundred 2 1/2 to 5-year-olds.
King said the city should have paid more attention to longtime providers in good standing when deciding who should get funding. "Do you put Michael Jordan in the draft? Or do you say Michael Jordan is on my team? You know? That's where we are."
With reporting by Isaak Liptzin