AUSTIN, TEXAS — Richard Buery, deputy mayor for strategic policies in New York City, stopped by SXSWedu to talk about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature initiative: universal pre-Kindergarten.
The large-scale program — more than 50,000 children enrolled in full-day pre-K in the 2014 school year — has attracted interest from other municipalities as well as the federal government, marked by President Barack Obama’s $1 billion infusion in early childhood education to expand access to preschool to tens of thousands of 4-year-olds.
Buery, who went to see the SharkTankEDU competition modeled after the popular ABC reality show, came away impressed by one contender in particular. He wasn’t the only one: Curriculet, an online reading provider that recently partnered with USA Today to offer newspaper content and assessment questions based on the articles to students, won the contest Wednesday.
Before Buery shared NYC’s best practices on the panel, called “The ABCs of Implementing Universal Pre-K,” he stopped to chat with StateScoop. According to event officials, he is the first administration official from the Big Apple to be a speaker at SXSWedu (Joel Klein, former schools chancellor under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spoke in his role as CEO of education technology company Amplify).
Below is an edited version of the Q-and-A:
StateScoop: Tell me what are you’re doing here, what you want to see and what you’re talking about.
Richard Buery: This is my first time at SXSWedu, which has been interesting so far. Two things. One, obviously in New York, so much of Mayor de Blasio’s agenda is around improving opportunities through improving education. So even though we in New York sometimes think we have invented everything, I recognize that we have not. So on a very basic level, it’s just good and interesting to hear what’s happening. I’m particularly interested in a lot of the innovations around technology, and how people are thinking about how technology can improve what’s happening in the classroom and how you manage systems. A big part of our pre-K story is how we think about technology and its role in developing systems.
I’m speaking today with [Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning] Libby Doggett about our pre-K launch and what it means to bring pre-K to scale. One of the things that we’re really committed to in New York is having our experience be a resource for others around the country who are trying to build a large pre-K system, so that’s really most what I’m here for.
Q: There has been a lot of interest nationally in enacting universal pre-K. How is New York influencing other states?
A: All around the country, there are municipalities and states thinking about bringing pre-K. And at the federal government, you have President Obama, who has been very clear about the role of early childhood education, recently [distributed] $1 billion worth of awards, which New York state got a part [of], to develop and expand pre-K. So I think for us, we think we’re both part of the wave but also the crest of the wave too. I feel like we’re part of that wave, but we also very intentionally think of ourselves as leaders as well.
Part of that is because we’re New York, and what we do gets a lot of attention. And I think that by showing even the largest of cities, with the right things in place, can build comprehensive quality systems that reach most 4-year-olds, we really do hope that can be an inspiration to others. But we’re also investing and documenting our experience through our implementation study that will eventually be public. So hopefully, when administrators around the country want to think about what they’re doing, that’s a resource as well. For better or worse, the things that we do well and the things we don’t do well, we want to share.
Q: There’s a lot of talk about integrating technology sooner in classes rather than later. How is tech being implemented in NYC schools right now?
A: I think there’s a lot of amazing things happening in NYC schools. One of the things about NYC, it’s not all necessarily happening top-down, there’s a lot that’s happening on the ground. So what you see around the system are all sorts of innovative tools around classroom management. Part of our job is to identify what’s working, what’s working at scale and what’s popular, and see if we can bring that to larger parts of the system.
I think what [NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen] Fariña would probably say is, try to create space for innovative teachers and principals and superintendents to develop models without being too heavy-handed, without trying to take something that sounds promising and put it in a thousand schools overnight. But really creating an ecosystem that allows folks to develop things … that can be brought to greater scale.
Q: What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen at SXSWedu so far?
A: I was actually really interested in Curriculet, and I think probably in part because I’m a middle school parent. Last night I had dinner with a friend from law school who has a child who is my older son’s age, and the first thing I asked her was, “What are you reading?” And I think for parents and teachers, trying to find appropriate books for your children but also trying to find books that will excite them, is a challenge that teachers and schools struggle with.
So I’m really interested in these models that both give teachers and parents real information about what their students are reading, what their skills are, but also try to help identify what’s exciting to kids and give kids power over what they read. When I was a kid you went to the library, scanned the bookshelves and you picked what was interesting based on the cover. How can we use technology now to create more dynamic ways of connecting children to books that will inspire them? I actually want to learn more about that.
Q: So that might be something you want to enact in NYC schools?
A: I would say it’s something I want to learn more about and share with my colleagues at the Department of Education. And that’s partly why I’m here; what little nuggets can I bring back to my colleagues?
Q: Are you the only one here from Mayor de Blasio’s administration?
A: There’s no one else here from the Department of Education in an official capacity. It’s the kind of thing where I think we should have a presence. We should be learning and sharing.
Q: Anyone you’re particularly interested in meeting or hearing?
A: I got here late, so I missed some speakers that I would have loved to see. So no. I’m going to go do a few conferences and hopefully not mess up my talk this afternoon, and go back to the dirty snow tomorrow.