Kendra Hurley is a New York City-based writer and researcher. Her work has helped fuel reform and shape policy in areas including early education, homeless services, and child welfare.
Seven years ago, I enrolled my baby son in that rarity of rarities: a socioeconomically diverse child care center, Hanover Place Child Care, LLC, a large for-profit enterprise in downtown Brooklyn, New York. Usually child care in the United States is rigidly segregated along class lines, but Hanover was one of a handful of the borough’s early education centers providing subsidized care for low-income families that had recently begun enrolling a new group: middle-class families who had the means to pay full-price. By the time we were there, it had become a place where a teen mom's toddler spent her days playing alongside the kid of a housing-court lawyer.
When talking about school-aged children, the benefits of mixing kids from different class backgrounds are substantial and well-documented. But for kids too young for kindergarten, the effects of economic integration are far from understood. This is largely due to lack of opportunity. In the United States, government funding for child care has almost always been reserved for the poor, with everyone else forced to seek private arrangements defined by what they can—and cannot—afford. In other words, segregation by class has been baked into the United States’s approach to child care, leaving few opportunities to explore economic integration.
Thanks to the recent explosion of public pre-K programs around the country, that’s starting to change. Because many of these programs are open and free to all regardless of family income, they offer a first big possibility to create the kind of integrated classes that we found at Hanover. Last November, New York City announced a new goal to create pre-K classes diverse in race and class. Meanwhile, a recent study of pre-K programs provides some of the most promising emerging evidence yet that economically mixed preschools could be a key to bolstering learning for young children born into economic disadvantage.
As a parent at a diverse child care center, and, later, a researcher seeking out diverse child care centers, I saw firsthand some of the benefits of economic integration in early education. But I also learned that there are many ways to go about it wrong. As pre-K programs like New York City’s take on the important task of integration, it’s worth looking to downtown Brooklyn for insight into how—and how not to—go about it.
Around the time my son was born, gentrification was barreling through the borough. In fast-changing neighborhoods, many parents with professional jobs hired nannies, but some others turned to the handful of local child care centers that had primarily enrolled low-income families receiving subsidized child care. Most of the new families were concerned with cost—these centers’ relative affordability was part of their attraction. At Hanover, for instance, some made relatively modest salaries in academia, government, or the nonprofit sector. Others were professional women raising babies on their own. Racially we were a diverse bunch—many white families, some black, and a number of mixed-race families, including mine; I’m white, my husband is Indian-American.
But for the first time these “private pay” parents, as they came to be called, brought economic diversity—and in some cases racial diversity—to a few subsidized centers that had historically served primarily poor Black and Latinx families.
The centers took different approaches to bringing these families into their fold. At least two Brooklyn centers that historically served only low-income kids actively embraced their newfound diversity, intentionally creating classrooms and opportunities that allowed children and parents of different backgrounds to mingle with each other. “We can see the connection and communication that parents have,” Ann Goa, then-director of Magical Years Early Childhood Center in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, told me when I wrote about her center for Chalkbeat. At these centers, staff say the diversity became one of the key attractions to all families.
But I visited two other centers that created separate “private-pay” rooms that, for much of the day, kept children whose families paid out-of-pocket separate from children receiving subsidized care. An administrator of these centers told me their preference would be to provide only subsidized child care because poor parents already have so few child care options, but after the city reduced the number of their subsidized slots, they filled them with private-pay parents. Keeping kids from those families separate made for easier bookkeeping, since centers must abide by different regulations and reporting requirements for children whose care is subsidized.
It may have also had the effect of attracting more private-pay parents, as research shows that middle-class parents are more likely to choose a school when they see a critical mass of enrolled families like themselves. Like magnet programs in public schools—these “private-pay” rooms created concentrations of relative privilege within an otherwise unprivileged environment, bubbles that both insulated the middle-class families, and attracted more families like them.
The approach that Hanover took to private-pay families fell somewhere between the two extremes of embracing and separating out the diversity that families like ours brought.
When we enrolled in 2012, Hanover served more babies and toddlers whose parents paid using child care vouchers than just about any other child care center in all of New York City, according to data provided by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. It had served as a rare bastion of center-based infant care for poor Brooklyn families for over a decade before it introduced families like mine to the mix.
But for a long time I had no idea of that. That’s because most of the babies of parents with professional jobs wound up clustered together in a small windowed room for eight infants. Whether this was intentional segregation, accidental, or something in between, I could never confirm. But as our children grew older, they moved into classes with more kids, bringing with them economic diversity.
"Educated middle-class parents are more likely to … insist on high standards, to rid the school of bad teachers, and to ensure adequate resources (both public and private)—in effect, to promote effective schools for their children," longtime integration researcher Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation wrote almost two decades ago. At Hanover, I quickly became that kind of hyper-involved parent. To the annoyance of one teacher in the infant room, I sometimes stopped by unexpectedly, just to see how my son was doing. I once complained about toddlers being given potato chips. And whenever I discovered during drop-off or pick-up that the ratios of teachers to children had dipped below state regulation, I let the administration know, and they'd quickly send in a floater teacher. I still believe that at times like these my sense of entitlement benefitted all the kids.
But there were also ways in which us private-pay parents were affecting the center that I felt uncomfortable about. Many of us gave teachers gift cards or cash during the holidays. It was a gesture the teachers appreciated—child care is not a highly paid profession, after all. But I also worried that these gifts were construed as lobbies for preferential treatment that only a few families could afford.
And sometimes it seemed that we truly did get preferential treatment. One administrator sometimes categorized kids as needing a “gentle” or “firm” teacher. I was grateful that my son typically wound up with the gentle teachers, whom I considered to be the best ones. But it also seemed to me that many of the kids of parents who I knew to have professional jobs ended up with those teachers, and that troubled me.
When one fellow parent confided that she had asked one of the center's most loved teachers to work for her privately, as a nanny, I got the opportunity this presented for the teacher—this parent was about to make her a job offer. But I also began thinking of us as middle-class colonizers. Armed with canisters of organic puffs and aerodynamic strollers, were we private-paying parents hoarding the center’s prized resources? What was the harm-to-good ratio of our presence?
In the years since then, emerging research from the fast-growing public pre-K programs nationwide suggest that economically mixed preschool classrooms benefit low-income children academically. In what may ultimately be considered a landmark study, in late 2017 Dartmouth College economist Elizabeth Cascio published research comparing end-of-year test scores for low-income kids enrolled in some “universal” preschool programs that are open and free to all with those in “targeted” programs earmarked for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. She found that low-income preschoolers enrolled in the programs that included peers from higher economic backgrounds showed more growth than those in programs that only accepted low-income families. This held true even when she accounted for factors such as class size and teaching quality.
In a challenge to the longstanding practice of reserving public early education funds for those in need, Cascio’s findings have her and others in the field asking: What if higher income kids are, in fact, the secret ingredient that makes public preschools effective for more disadvantaged children?
Jeanne Reid and Sharon Lynn Kagan of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University’s Teachers College offer a succinct explanation for why this might be: they call it “the effect of peers.”
In the play-heavy, highly social world of preschool, peers are more central than ever to learning, the researchers suggest in their report “A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education.” Because a preschooler’s higher income background is strongly correlated with having higher skills, socioeconomically diverse classrooms may boost the learning of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and “higher-skilled children promote the learning of their lower-skilled peers.”
There was one moment at Hanover when I believed I witnessed exactly this. I had just kissed my son goodbye when the teacher instructed her class of 2-year-olds to grab books and sit on the rug. In no time the kids who had been in my son’s infant room—the ones I knew to have parents with professional jobs—were seated, happily flipping through picture books. Some of the other kids seemed unsure what to do. Empty-handed, they assembled on the edge of the rug, just standing there watching the kids with the books. At the time, I imagined that the kids with books, who were a racially diverse group, were teaching, through example, about books, and that reading could be a source of pleasure.
But years later when I relayed this anecdote to the educational ethnographer Alexandra Freidus of Seton Hall University, she had a starkly different take: Maybe instead of learning the joy of books, those kids from less-resourced families were instead learning that books were for other kids, not them. “Kids figure out class cues very early,” Freidus said.
Freidus is among a new wave of integration researchers who spend less time thinking about how to achieve diversity—on how to get different bodies in the same room, that is—and more on how to do it in a way that works for all. Some ideas are strikingly simple. For instance: Don’t allow parents to give teachers holiday gifts directly; instead, set up a pool where everyone gives what they can, and anonymously. Or find ways to make sure all parents contribute and feel valued, and “be mindful to not let the parents who are very vocal overcome all of the other parents,” advises Ronni Fisher, board member of Helen Owen Carey Child Development Center, a Brooklyn preschool that thinks carefully about its newfound socioeconomic diversity.
In this emerging field of diversity research, populated with books bearing titles like When Middle Class Parents Choose Urban Schools and Despite the Best Intentions, a new term for what happened at centers like Hanover has taken root: When wealthier families enroll in high-poverty schools, it is no longer talked about solely as integration. It’s also called gentrification.
When I look back at my son’s time at Hanover, I can now see that gentrifying is actually what we private-payers were doing. We sized up the center as though it were an empty loft in a neighborhood far from Manhattan: an undervalued investment opportunity that held potential, if you worked it right. We brought some important resources with us, including increased accountability. But without the school having an explicit mission that involved equity, I fear that we eager, new parents gobbled up more than our fair share.
That said, I am still grateful that my kids had friends from different backgrounds during their early years, when awareness of race and class first emerges. I think it makes a difference for parents, as well, to have their first experience with a school be a diverse one. And research shows that parents are far more likely to consider economically mixed settings when their kids are little. It’s for all these reasons that I’m hopeful that universal pre-K programs might succeed at popping the bubbles of sameness that comprise most early education settings in this country. But I also consider my family’s experience a case study in some of the ways integration goes astray when done without intent.
One example that always comes to mind: the family field trip to Prospect Park Zoo. We all took the city bus together, but when we got to the zoo, staff divided us into two groups—those who needed to pay for admittance, and those who had already purchased zoo memberships, which turned out to be all us private-pay parents. Zoo cards in hand, we members were waved through the gate while the other parents waited their turn in line. These groups stayed separate pretty much the rest of the field trip, a sad little microcosm of class in America.
I still wonder what our kids learned that day.