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Mayor Adams overhauls literacy for young kids while seeking early education cuts

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The Adams administration has introduced a new curriculum for the city’s youngest students that officials say will help them become much stronger readers – but early education providers and advocates worry the mayor’s proposed budget could undermine the effort.

The changes to the curriculum are part of the administration’s focus on overhauling literacy instruction in a school system where only half of elementary and middle school students reach proficiency.

“If we truly want children to be proficient readers by the third grade, we have to start at their earliest ages,” said Deputy Chancellor of Early Education Kara Ahmed. “They don’t get a do-over and we owe it to them to get it right.”

But starting in November, Mayor Eric Adams proposed cutting a total of $170 million from the early education budget in the coming fiscal year, saying there are more seats for the city’s free preschool programs than parents are using. Now, as the City Council is reviewing the mayor’s proposal as part of budget negotiations, advocates worry those cuts will ultimately result in less access to the new reading instruction.

“The mayor cannot achieve his goals of improving education and cut early childhood [education] at the same time,” said Gregory Brender, chief policy director of the Day Care Council of New York. He said if the proposed cuts go through, classrooms or even entire providers may have to close.

Officials said the plan is to better match early education seats with demand.

“We will maintain all seats for which there’s a need, and we will work to continue to right-size the number of seats,” education department spokesperson Chyann Tull said.

But critics say Adams is just making it harder to live up to his top education priority.

“The Adams administration is focused on literacy,” said Councilmember Lincoln Restler. “But the problem is that they’ve reduced the number of kids who are going to be able to benefit from these programs.”

All elementary schools have to adopt vetted curricula aligned with the “science of reading.” Ahmed said the administration is expanding that initiative to early childhood education this year, infusing programs for infants through pre-school with an emphasis on the same best practices.

On a recent morning at PS 147, The Isaac Remsen School in Bushwick, teacher Sandra Gomez pulled letters out of a bag while her class of 3-year-olds repeated back the sounds and traced them in the air with their fingers.

Ahmed said the new early childhood curriculum, called the Creative Curriculum, is better aligned with the research of how young children learn to read. It focuses on phonics, vocabulary and comprehension.

“They’re able to recognize letters, match names and letters, and increase their vocabulary,” said Gomez, who interperses her lessons with songs and dancing.

Like so many of the city’s elementary schools, PS 147 used to teach Units of Study, the popular Columbia University Teachers College curriculum that Banks said was ineffective because it glossed over phonics while teaching kids to guess at words from pictures and context clues. This year, teachers were given new materials through the Creative Curriculum, as well as training.

According to Ahmed, the Creative Curriculum is in place at 90% of the city’s early childhood programs, and the remaining 10% are set to adopt it next year. Schools throughout the system are expected to use the same screener to assess whether children are hitting developmental milestones, Ahmed said, and teachers have received coaching to help them shift their pedagogy.

“You can’t build a house starting on the second floor,” she said. “This is really where the foundation begins.”

The mayor has said the budget cuts to early education will come largely from eliminating unused seats.

Officials said there are approximately 53,000 3-K seats and approximately 75,000 pre-K seats total. Of those, as of December, there were approximately 10,000 vacant 3-K seats and 15,000 vacant pre-K seats, officials said.

But Restler said if those seats are vacant, it’s because the administration isn’t doing enough outreach to parents.

“I hear from parents in my district … on a weekly basis that they are unable to find programs in their community that they can afford,” he said.

“I get why parents are apoplectic that they’re not going to have a program for their child come September. We’re doing everything we can to facilitate outreach, ensure that applications are going in, to show the Adams administration that the demand is there.”

Rebecca Bailin, executive director of the advocacy group New Yorkers United for Childcare, said it will be harder for the mayor to meet his literacy goals if he slashes preschool slots.

“Getting in the weeds on early literacy is really important. But if he really cared about it he would be fulfilling universal 3-K and pre-K,” she said.

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