When Richard Buery was appointed New York City’s deputy mayor for strategic policy initiatives in March 2014, universal prekindergarten was still somewhat of a mystery. But under his leadership, the city increased its full-day pre-K enrollment from 19,000 students to more than 68,000 by December 2015.
Slant Editor Nick Powell talked to Buery at City & State’s New York City Legislative Preview event on Jan. 27 about getting pre-K off the ground and how the city is tackling mental health issues.
City & State: What was involved in getting the universal pre-K program off the ground and coordinating all of the moving parts, especially with the notoriously bureaucratic Department of Education?
Richard Buery: First of all, I don’t remember those first seven months (laughs). They’re a blur. We are incredibly proud of what we were able to do. It was a tremendous effort by lots of folks.
One of the things about the pre-K for all expansion is that it was truly an interagency exercise, not only led by the Department of Education but also the Administration for Children’s Services, the Health Department, the department of Design and Construction, the School Construction Authority, the Buildings Department. And we sort of just took it in steps. We had to identify new seats for children. That meant going from 560 program sites when we started, we had 1,300 last fall, and then 1,800 open now. We had a very competitive process to identify both school-based and community-based program sites. We had to develop a campaign apparatus to recruit these families and connect them with services. We had to make sure these programs were safe. We had to hire 2,000 teachers and teaching assistants each of those years. So there were lots of moving parts, but ultimately it came down to two things: First of all, I think it’s a testament to what can happen when you have a leader who decides that something is going to happen, because the mayor was very clear to everyone that this was his priority. So that meant that every part of city government was willing to do whatever it took to make it happen. And the second thing I would say is that it required city agencies to work differently than they had worked before. That meant working collaboratively when there wasn’t a tradition of working collaboratively, and working proactively when there wasn’t a tradition of working proactively.
To give one quick example, we had a number of sites, particularly private community-based organizations that were part of the program that had to do construction or work to get permitted and up and running for school in the fall. And normally the process for getting permitted can be a little challenging, as you can imagine. You need your building department permits, your health department permits, the fire department has to come out. And the fire department might come out and say “well, the buildings department has to do this first,” and you get the buildings department back out. We just sort of flipped the process on its head. Rather than having each of those providers having to navigate the very complex process of getting permitted, we organized a list of providers who had to get permitted and then worked with the agencies to make sure they were doing what they had to do in the proper sequence to get work done, up to and including, when necessary, having staff from the city go out and do last minute work to get sites on board. It really is something that everybody who worked on it is very proud of and I think the families of New York are benefitting from it now.
C&S: One of the early critiques of the universal pre-K program was that while it was successful in getting off the ground and getting solid enrollment in the first 18 months, it wasn’t necessarily serving the low- to middle-income communities it was intended to. Why do you think there was trouble attracting those families to the program, and how did you adjust your outreach and messaging on that?
RB: I would start by challenging the premise. The truth is, the vast majority of the expansion of pre-K in both years happened in neighborhoods that were at or near the median income of the city. So that was not true. The growth was primarily concentrated in low- and middle-income neighborhoods. But it’s also important to say that the benefits of pre-K are enjoyed in all neighborhoods – wealthy neighborhoods, middle-income neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods – and it was very important to us to have a program that truly met the needs of all New Yorkers. Everyone benefits from pre-K. We know that pre-K tuition in New York can be upwards of $10,000 a year or more. And for almost every family in New York, that is real money. And we think having this really benefits all New Yorkers across the income spectrum.
That being said, there are really particular challenges in serving some high-needs populations and hard-to-serve populations, such as those who are in temporary housing or shelter. And so we’ve just had to make a big effort to make sure that we’re going out and reaching these families. We hired dozens of staff whose job it was to go out into the community, to identify families, to make sure they understood that pre-K was available to them. It’s hard to walk through any park in the summer or in the spring and not be tackled by a pre-K outreach worker if you’re standing anywhere near a four-year-old. Because we’re out in the streets making sure that families can go find the service.
One of the things we’re most proud of is that we worked very closely with the Department of Homeless Services and the Department of Housing this year to make sure that we were reaching families in shelter, which was one population that in the first year was really not taking advantage of pre-K in the way that we wanted. We’re proud to say that more than half of four-year–olds in shelter this year are enrolled in pre-K and we’re continuing to work to get those numbers up. There are a lot of complex reasons why sometimes low-income families are harder to serve, but we made sure that we had enough seats for all those families in those neighborhoods, and we’re really hitting the ground to make sure that those barriers to accessing service do not stand in the way of educational opportunity for the children who need it most.
C&S: You’re involved with the mental health initiatives that the city’s been pouring money into. As part of the overall departmental review of Homeless Services, will there be interagency coordination on mental health, with Homeless Services and HRA?
RB: Absolutely. One of the basic insights about mental health services is that promoting mental well-being is not only the work of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It’s also the work of the Education Department, it’s the work of the Homeless Services Department, it’s the work of the Police Department, the Corrections Department. Every part of the city that engages New York has, as part of its responsibility, promoting mental health, promoting well-being, and making sure that you have appropriate responses for those who are experiencing mental illness.
So there are a lot of investments we’re making as part of the roadmap and as part of ThriveNYC, and I have to give a shout-out to the City Council as well, who’s been a great partner in this work. A lot of this work is about making sure all city agencies are working together more effectively. One element of ThriveNYC, besides the individual programmatic investments we’re making, is something called the Mental Health Council. This will be an interagency working group composed of the commissioners of about 20 city agencies, and its job is to do a few things. One is to track the implementation of the initiatives that we’ve already put into place, but also to have an ongoing conversation about what the city needs to do better to support mental health. That will be the primary place where we’re asking commissioners to collaborate, to bring new ideas to the table and to make sure that mental health remains at the forefront of city policy, that we continue to prioritize the experience of New Yorkers. We know that one in five adult New Yorkers in any given year experience a diagnosable mental illness. Depression is the single leading cause of disability in the city, so we know that unless we can invest in doing better by adults and young people who are experiencing mental illness, the city is not going to live up to its full potential. The economy suffers, the school system suffers, and so we’re going to continue to make sure it’s the work of every part of the city government.