Springfield Arbors preschool consists of one long hallway on the ground floor of an assisted-living facility, with several classrooms strung along either side. The surrounding neighborhood, known as Six Corners, is home to a high school (the same one that Kelly attended), a community college and a steady beat of drug- and gang-related violence. Six Corners children live on the down side of what’s known in education circles as the achievement gap. According to analysis done by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Strategies for Children, between 12 and 14 percent of third graders in some Six Corners schools read at or above grade level, compared with between 37 and 43 percent in nearby Forest Park, a neighborhood known for its well-preserved Victorian homes, and as the birthplace of Dr. Seuss, the city’s most famous native son.
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Kelly came to preschool teaching about a decade ago, when the local caterer she was working for abruptly shut down. For a single mother with a high-school diploma, the options in Springfield were limited: Home health aides, retail salespeople and food-service workers all made about the same salary. Receptionists and secretaries made more, but those jobs required office experience, and the work itself sounded dull. Kelly wanted a job helping people. She had only ever worked in food service, but when she found a local preschool with an opening in the kitchen, she saw a chance to pivot.
She started by making herself known in the classroom, lingering to help out when she delivered lunches, introducing herself to parents in the hallway, befriending the teachers and asking them about their work. When an assistant-teacher spot opened up, she jumped on it. She considered it a promotion, even though the teacher’s salary ($9 an hour) was actually $1 an hour less than what she made as a school cook. For the first year, she split her time between the kitchen and the classroom while she earned her Child Development Associate certification, or C.D.A., which required her to complete a nine-month course that met for four hours every Saturday at the local Y.M.C.A.
At first she thought that credential would help her carve a path to some greater edification: a higher degree, maybe, and a higher wage along with it. But those dreams were quickly jettisoned. In 2011, just as she was completing her first class at the community college, an electrical fire tore through the three-family home that Kelly and her two children shared with her grandmother, mother, aunt and cousin. Her relatives’ apartments weren’t damaged much, but Kelly and her children lost nearly all their possessions. Worse, the fire seemed to usher in a newly dark chapter in her life. In 2012, her younger brother died in a horrific car accident; a year later, her cousin was shot and killed, and her aunt died. Her daughter’s boyfriend — the father of her newborn grandson — was also killed, in another shooting. Somewhere in the middle of those heartaches, the preschool she worked at closed, and Kelly moved on to Springfield Arbors.
The C.D.A. taught her the basics of lesson planning, class structure and family engagement, but her real training came through trial and error. Kelly’s classroom was often chaotic, but parents quickly learned that they could come to her with concerns, even after their children had aged out of her classroom. One mother asked her to step in as foster parent during a particularly tough time. Others hired her to babysit when they picked up night shifts at one job or another, so that Kelly might welcome a given child at 8 in the morning and not return him to his mother until well after 10 or 11 at night. The work was exhausting, but she found she had a knack for it — an instinct for what her students needed, an ability to relate to them and, when all else failed, a willingness to keep trying.
One early-spring afternoon, when a rainstorm kept the children indoors during what would normally be playtime, Kelly tried arranging a field trip to the basement hallway — the only substitute playground at Springfield Arbors. But when too many of them fell into tantrum mode at the same time, she changed tack and set up the portable chalkboard at the front of the room. It did not take long for one, then three, then a dozen of the children to notice her chalking letters and gather around. The letter of the week was “D,” and she had been teaching the students what words it was used in and showing them how to write and pronounce it. “Down, over, over,” she said in a long, slow drawl, as she drew first the spine and then the hump of the letter. She was speaking to one little boy specifically, and when she was done, she handed the chalk to him and held his hand as he repeated her movements. Then she removed her hand and nodded at him to try on his own.
At first, the class was enthralled by this demonstration. But then one little boy started screaming. Grandma, an elderly volunteer who sometimes came for an hour or two and mostly sat in back of the room on a small couch, grabbed the boy’s arm and yanked him to her side. “Cut it out,” she said. “Come sit!” The boy yanked his arm back, flopped onto the floor and wailed. Kelly kept her focus on the students at the blackboard. Eventually the screamer ran back over to the circle and forced another little boy off his seat, which made the other boy cry, which distracted the rest of the class and set half of them wandering off, before anyone had made a full D.
When nap time came it seemed impossible that any one of the tiny, furious bodies twirling through the room could be stilled long enough to let sleep come, let alone all of them at once. But the sleeping mats were soon laid out across the room, and the children took their cue, except for the little blond boy, who wouldn’t lie still. One of Kelly’s colleagues sat on the floor near him, urging him to calm himself. “Relax your body,” she said over and over, patting his back. But it was no use, so she traded spots with Kelly. Kelly leaned over the little blond boy and made eye contact with him and allowed him to grab at her hands with his. This seemed to do the trick. When he settled in just enough to release his grip, she took her cellphone out and played soft music, just for him, which clinched the deal.
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By the time all the children fell asleep, Kelly was sitting cross-legged on the floor with four little ones unfurled like flower petals around her. She was rubbing each of their backs in turn with one hand — rub, rub, pat, next; rub, rub, pat, next — while rocking a fifth in her other arm. Her classroom had a total of 19 students just then, and in order for her to grab lunch, the school’s cook had to be summoned to sit with the sleeping children. She pulled a pack of noodles from her coat pocket and tiptoed toward the door. “It’s a ramen week,” she whispered. “I just spent a fortune on household stuff yesterday, and my son has two basketball games this week.” The high school charged $5 admission to each game, and Kelly rarely missed one, even when it meant skimping on meals.
She returned a few minutes later with a bowl of steaming noodles and two co-teachers. As the children snoozed, the three women slipped into a whispered chat. One student’s voucher was about to expire, and the student’s mother had yet to contact the voucher office to renew it. They debated who was to blame for this looming catastrophe; but how the voucher office worked was a mystery, even to these women who were both mothers and teachers.
“You can’t call them,” one teacher said. “They never answer. You have to go down there.”
“She must have missed her appointment,” another added.
“They don’t always give appointments,” Kelly said. “They never gave my daughter one for my grandson.”
One teacher, Miss RJ, was summoned to the office: The nurse at her own children’s school was calling to say that both of them were sick. But Springfield Arbors was still short-staffed. So Miss RJ was stuck there, and her own children were stuck with someone else.
In the United States, the care of children who have not yet aged into public school has long run on two tracks, separated mostly by household income. The upper-and-middle-income track was designed specifically to engage and nourish young minds at their ripest juncture. The low-income track originated in the social-welfare system; its programs were created not just for children but also for their mothers, who needed to work. As such, they tend to be larger and staffed by teachers with high-school diplomas. They also tend to be chronically underfunded.
The last half-century is littered with attempts to merge these two tracks — that is, to make the day cares of the poor more like the preschools of the middle class and wealthy. But those efforts have long been plagued by a deep cultural ambivalence toward both charity and working mothers. When Head Start, the nation’s first public preschool, began in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty, its goals were twofold: to provide underprivileged preschoolers the tools they needed to keep up with their better-off peers; and to offer an economic boost for their mothers, some of whom were recruited and trained to work at the centers as educators. The program was part of what would come to be known as the country’s biggest peacetime mobilization of human resources, but enthusiasm for it was short-lived. Amid concerns about “family weakening” in the 1970s and “welfare queens” in the 1980s, funding for early education stalled. Today Head Start serves less than one-third of the nation’s eligible students. As part of a wave of reforms about a decade ago, Head Start began requiring half of its lead teachers to hold bachelor’s degrees. It’s too soon to tell what impact this has had on teaching and learning, but one unintended consequence is that it’s harder for teachers like Kelly to find work at the centers.
Head Start is not the only program to raise credentialing requirements for preschool teachers. In 1998, as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Education Law Center, an advocacy group for New Jersey public-school children, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered 31 low-income school districts to provide high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Among other things, the court’s definition of “high quality” included full-day programs staffed by college-educated teachers who earned salaries equal to those of their K-12 counterparts. The resulting program — known as the Abbott preschool program, after the lawsuit that led to the mandate — represents one of the first efforts among education reformers to replicate the models of Perry and Abecedarian and bring them to scale.
One recent morning in a brightly colored classroom at Egenolf, an Abbott preschool in Elizabeth, N.J. A 3-year-old girl with soft brown pigtails and a white shirt examined a row of water bottles, each of which had a pine cone submerged in a different liquid, and dictated observations to her teacher, Yamila Lopez Hevia. The cone in the “cold water” bottle was closing up. The one in warm water was closing, too — but more slowly. “And what do we think is going on?” Lopez asked. “Why might that happen?” After a brief pause, the girl pulled up two big words, each of which she had heard from Lopez.
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The pine cones, she explained, were a-dap-ting to their en-viron-ment.
Yamila Lopez Hevia leading her students in morning dancing and stretches at Egenolf Early Childhood Center in Elizabeth, N.J.
Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
It was the crowning moment to a much larger project that began when the children noticed that it was getting colder out and that the leaves were changing color. Lopez led them through a dialogue about how trees and other plants get ready for winter. From there, they turned their attention to what animals do. Lopez took the class to a local park, where they noticed squirrels collecting nuts and looked for birds who might be getting ready to migrate. In the end, they circled back to themselves, discussing sweaters and warm coats and winter boots. “We introduced some big concepts,” Lopez told me when I visited her class recently. “And it all started with that one simple question: ‘What do you see happening around you?’ ” The technique was called scaffolding, and it was a key tenet of current preschool pedagogy, which Lopez learned as a student teacher.
According to that pedagogy, preschoolers discover the world around them through trial, error and experimentation. They learn by doing things more than by thinking about them. The techniques that educators and developmental psychologists have devised for cultivating this natural tendency are decidedly Socratic. Rather than standing at a blackboard chalking letters or leading a large group in song, they assert, teachers like Kelly and Lopez should pay close attention to what the children themselves are interested in, or puzzled by, and respond to that. Any given moment is ripe with the opportunity to teach in this way, but doing it well requires a suite of disparate skills. A squirrel collecting nuts for the winter might hold a biology lesson; but to offer that lesson, a teacher needs to recognize the moment as it occurs. She also needs a grounding in that discipline and a clear sense of where the student in question sits on the developmental spectrum.
“The bottom line is really individualized intentional teaching,” says Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “And there’s specialized knowledge that preschool teachers need that’s different even from what kindergarten and first-grade teachers need.” For example, he says, preschoolers are apt to reverse letters. “It really helps to understand why they do that, if you want to help them get it right,” he says. “It’s not an isolated thing. Like, let’s take my sippy cup. My whole life up to now, my sippy cup is a sippy cup no matter what way I hold it — upside down, sideways, whatever. But now you give me this thing called a d. And I put it down one way and it’s a b. And another way and you tell me it’s a p. What’s with that?”
Barnett and others say that the ability to guide preschoolers through this stage of development takes a college degree. Teachers who don’t have rich vocabularies or groundings in math and science can’t impart those things to their students, he says. In a 2015 report, the Institute of Medicine agreed. The report argued that holding preschool teachers to lower standards than public-school teachers has fed the perception that the work itself is low-skill and in turn has helped justify policies that keep preschool teachers’ wages down and prevent them from growing professionally.
But teachers themselves have been divided over the prospect of new job requirements. Many of them migrated to the field precisely because it did not require a higher degree. College — navigating financial aid, carving out the hours for class and homework — takes time and money and know-how. And for those who have been doing the job for years or even decades, the suggestion that they need additional training can feel like an insult.
Abbott addressed these issues head-on. It provided intensive college-admissions counseling, including help with financial-aid forms and scheduling. It also covered tuition for teachers in the program and nudged the college programs to bring their classes to the preschools. “We had the college professors go into the Newark schools and hold their classes there so that the teachers didn’t have to travel,” Barnett says. “We also paid for substitutes when the teachers needed to go to classes during the day, because we knew that not everybody could do this at night school.” The process was neither cheap nor easy nor fast, he adds. Many teachers struggled through remedial courses and community college before making their way into bachelor’s degree programs. All told, it costs $14,000 per child per year, more than twice the national average.
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