Angel in the Nursery

A Seat at the Table

Randi Levine, Policy Director

Advocates for Children of New York

NYZTT: Do you have a favorite story?

RL: When I was working in Head Start, we would do a unit every year on what children wanted to be when they grew up. I always remember a little boy who said he wanted to be a yellow truck. Did he want to drive one? No, he wanted to be one! Other children talked about how they wanted to be teachers and doctors. In listening to the hopes and dreams of all of these young children, I wanted to make sure they had the pathway to get there and do whatever they wanted to do when they graduated. 

After law school, I came to Advocates for Children and represented individual families whose children were facing barriers to accessing the early childhood services and programs they needed – children being excluded from early childhood programs because of their needs and children being denied services. I saw families hit roadblock after roadblock – but also saw the difference that advocacy can make in helping connect children with the support they need as early in life as possible.  

NYZTT: Can you share some policy successes?

RL: In NYC, it has been exciting to see that there is now a promise of a pre-k seat available for every 4-year-old child, and yet we have a lot of work to do to ensure that the program is truly universal and that all children, including children with disabilities, children who are homeless, and children from immigrant families can access the programs they need. We advocated for the City to launch a task force focused on increasing access to ECE for children living in shelters, and the City was able to accomplish that. We are urging the new administration to pick this work back up and ensure every family that wants a seat in an early childhood program is able to access one.

We’ve also focused a lot of attention on preschoolers with disabilities. While the City expanded 3-K and pre-K, the City has a shortage of preschool special education classes for children with more significant needs, even though the City is legally required to provide these classes. In fact, at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, more than 1200 children who had a legal right to preschool special education classes did not have a seat. After years of advocacy, the City announced a plan last spring to use federal COVID-19 relief funding to help strengthen preschool special education and address the shortage of classes next year. We now need to ensure successful implementation of these plans. 

NYZTT: AFC recently released a report, “Not Yet for All,” on the topic of preschool special education. How does the report result in change?

RL: A report is one advocacy tool that brings awareness of problems to the public and policy-makers so they can focus on the issues and work on improving the system. Other advocacy included press stories that highlighted the individual children who did not have seats; parents, advocates, and educators who testified at city council hearings about the children waiting for seats; organizations that came together and sent a letter to the Mayor calling on the city to address the shortage of classes; and meetings with key policy-makers to educate them and to propose solutions. All of these voices and all of these steps helped lead to the decision for the City to use part of the federal COVID-19 relief funding for initiatives to improve preschool special education.

NYZTT: What makes a successful policy advocate?

RL: There are many different ways to be a successful policy advocate. The best policy advocates I’ve seen are passionate about their work and able to show policy makers both the impact of the problem and the solution. They have the ability to think strategically about how to bring about change. They are grounded in the experience of the impacted communities and partner with those communities. They develop relationships with the families impacted and with the key policy-makers who hold the power to make change. 

NY ZTT: What would you like to say to Mayor Adams? 

RL:I want him to know that as he thinks about further expansions of early childhood education as he has pledged to do, children from historically marginalized groups need to be front and center. You have to think not only about how to make a policy work broadly, but what specific supports need to be in place to make it work for every child and family.

NYZTT: Any final thoughts?

RL: NYZTT has been an important partner on policy advocacy throughout my years at Advocates for Children. For example, in 2009, there was a proposal to charge parents a fee for Early Intervention services in New York. At the time, there was no formal coalition focused on Early Intervention. NYZTT leapt into action, stood with us, and advocated successfully to defeat the proposal. 

NYZTT: Thank you, Randi, for your dedication in working tirelessly on behalf of New York City’s youngest!