At the Future of America Learning Center in the West Bronx, the pre-K curriculum is built around adult jobs—visiting real workplaces and then learning about the vocabulary and skills that grown-ups use every day.
At a career-month event, 4-year-olds meet doctors and nurses from the Montefiore Medical Center. Back in their classroom, they set up a replica triage desk and play doctor with a real stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff. In another unit, students visit a Citibank vault and then deposit real coins in a classroom bank.
If they are upset, children can choose to visit the “oasis,” a corner furnished with soft carpets, pillows and a mini-armchair. The idea is for kids to learn resilience, the self-soothing skills that help people of all ages overcome conflict, disappointment and discomfort. There are three adults in each twenty-student classroom at Future of America, one with a master’s degree. And the center is open for eleven hours per day, which means people—a good number of them single parents—can drop their children off on the way to work and pick them up when their shift is over, without worrying about arranging after-school baby-sitting or nutritious meals. All of that is provided at one location.
This is a gold-standard pre-K education—the kind that, according to research by Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman, increases children’s lifetime earnings and their chances of being employed, and decreases their probability of becoming incarcerated or reliant on public assistance as adults. Heckman has found that high-quality pre-K for poor children yields returns of 7-10 percent on every $1 in government spending, annually.
And this gold-standard pre-K is expensive. A year at Future of America costs about $19,000 per child, covered by state and city dollars, a sliding scale of tuition payments based on parental income, plus an additional large funding stream unique to Future of America: subsidies from unionized employers like hospitals and nursing homes. This is because Future of America is operated by the Service Employees International Union’s 1199 chapter. Over 80 percent of the students’ parents are union members, working as nurses, surgical technicians, kitchen staff and janitors.
Few New York City children—or American children—have access to an affordable, full-day, high-quality pre-K program like this one. Though parents in affluent New York neighborhoods shell out up to $40,000 per year to pay for private preschool, 41 percent of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds—and almost half in the Bronx—are not enrolled in any early childhood education at all. And despite the fact that a 1997 state law guarantees pre-K to all New York City 4-year-olds, that program has never met its $500 million funding target, and 75 percent of the students enrolled are in half-day pre-K, which conforms neither to their parents’ work schedule nor to the children’s academic, social and emotional needs.
In New York City, applicants for the free pre-K programs housed in public schools—which account for just over one-third of the city’s pre-K slots; the rest are in community-based organizations—exceed the number of seats by a ratio of 3.5 to 1 in the Bronx, 4 to 1 in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and 5 to 1 in Manhattan and Queens.