De Blasio's vision, reputation on the line with pre-K initiative, experts say

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a news conference on Thursday, August 28, 2014 in the school yard of P.S. 307 on his pre-K program. (Credit: Charles Eckert)

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Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration will be tested this school year on their execution of his universal prekindergarten vision, a massive undertaking that has more than doubled the number of pre-K seats.

Classes begin Thursday, and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has acknowledged there undoubtedly will be "glitches."

How quickly and effectively the city responds to each problem will be heavily scrutinized, especially because whether the initiative is a success or failure will be difficult to measure -- at least initially, experts said.

"Considering how large an expansion this is, I think it's going to be hard to tell," said Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor of education. "We may have numbers in the first few weeks, but it'll take longer to know how satisfied people are in the quality."

The pressure and national spotlight are on the city and its efforts to provide universal full-day pre-K to every 4-year-old, de Blasio has noted.

He laid out an ambitious plan to increase the number of seats to 53,000 this year from 20,000 last year. Over the summer, aides and advocates have hit or come close to self-imposed targets by hiring and training 1,000 new teachers, creating classroom space using 600 public schools and 1,100 community-based organizations, and enrolling more than 50,000 students.

They deployed multilingual outreach workers door to door and to community events and launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign. Fariña said she regularly stops families on the street to ask if their children are signed up for pre-K.

De Blasio last spring wrestled with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over how to fund the expansion. The mayor initially advocated for a tax on the city's wealthy, but Cuomo ultimately provided $300 million in state funds.

De Blasio wants to expand his "historic" pre-K initiative to 70,000 students a year.

Asked how he will ensure quality and demonstrate success, the mayor last week said the city will be "constantly monitoring" classes, providing support where it's needed.

"We're certainly going to find some objective measures and objective entities to help us judge ... the effects of the first year," he said. "By definition, some of that takes a little time to show itself."

He said he expects one metric will show pre-K students this year are better prepared for kindergarten next year.

The initiative's readiness was publicly challenged last week by City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, who said de Blasio submitted only 30 percent of pre-K vendor contracts to his office for final safety and quality checks. The mayor responded by rallying with the leaders of the city departments of fire, health and investigations to his side, arguing their agencies have thoroughly assessed the sites and Stringer will eventually receive the contracts.

De Blasio has sunk so much political capital into the pre-K expansion that a failure might color his tenure going forward, but it's too soon to judge the effort, experts said. The public might forgive any small initial mistakes given the scale and complexity of the rollout, experts said.

From students in the wrong classrooms to delayed shipments of textbooks, every school year starts with glitches, said Bill Cunningham, a former communications director to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, echoing Fariña.

"It's a lot of moving parts," Cunningham said. "If something occurs, how they handle it and how forthright they are will be important. How they deal with it, how they rectify it, whether they're ready for the next school day."

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