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Why the District's plan for early-childhood ed is both risky and promising

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by Christie Balka

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Over the last two decades, neuroscience has confirmed what parents and kindergarten teachers know from experience: The first five years of life are the most important to brain development. According to the oft-cited High Scope/Perry Preschool study, high-quality early-childhood education is one of the most effective ways to reduce the opportunity gap, increase graduation, and boost life outcomes.

Given these facts, it is hard to understand why public institutions haven’t made access to high-quality pre-K one of their top priorities. In Philadelphia, for instance, more than 35,000 3- and 4-year-olds have risk factors, including prematurity, low maternal age at birth, developmental delays, and growing up in poverty. Yet only about one-third are enrolled in Head Start or Pre-K Counts.

Monday’s announcement that Superintendent William Hite’s "Action Plan v.1.0" calls for expanding the number of high-quality pre-K seats over the next five years is welcome news. But scarcely three days later, the District disclosed that it planned to cut costs next year by moving 2,000 Head Start students from schools to community-based sites. The intent is to move them all to high-quality sites, those ranked either 3 or 4 by the Pennsylvania’s quality rating system.

At first glance, this action may appear to contradict Hite’s goal. But that is not necessarily the case. If the plan is carried out well, it can expand access to high-quality pre-K programs in the city. But if the only objective is to save money, the plan won’t help the city’s youngest learners.

The School District already partners with dozens of community-based early-childhood education programs that meet Pennsylvania’s definition of high quality.

A rigorous quality rating system known as Keystone STARS, put in place during the Rendell administration, evaluates programs based on their environment, teacher and staff credentials, and management practices. To partner with the School District, community-based programs must attain a rating of STAR 3 or more (on a scale of 1 to 4) and show a commitment to continuous quality improvement. Their teachers must have the same credentials as public school teachers and follow the same early-learning guidelines. And the facilities that house these programs are often more modern and adhere to more stringent health and safety requirements than school-based Head Start programs.

These partnerships have clear benefits for the School District, community-based providers, and families. They not only cost the District less, but they also extend its reach into high-need areas and relieve space pressures in overcrowded schools. They offer the eligible community-based providers stable enrollment and reimbursement and the ability to provide supportive services to children who need them, without the headache of managing a federal grant. Most partner sites enroll children in mixed-income classrooms (as opposed to those made up exclusively of Head Start students), where they learn better. In many cases, partners offer programs that are more responsive to neighborhoods’ ethnic and language diversity, they’re located closer to home, and parents view them as safer for young children. 

Transferring additional seats to community partners will reward the city’s best programs and provide a strong incentive to others to move into the ranks of the best. When a provider moves up to STAR 3 or 4 in order to partner with the District, all the other children in that program benefit from a higher-quality learning experience.   

But building capacity in these centers takes time and money -- that’s the rub. Although the District has been transparent about the fact that financial pressure is driving the pace of change, we have yet to hear that the pace is optimal from an educational perspective. Can community-based facilities be expanded and, where necessary, can quality be improved quickly enough to absorb 2,000 new students by September? If not, will the District lower the bar for participation by sites that don’t meet quality standards? What resources are available to help community providers improve their quality? Will any of the $8 million in savings be reinvested during the first year, when it will be needed most? With additional community partners, will new resources be allocated to improve essential kindergarten transition activities? And does the District intend to streamline a pre-K enrollment process that parents already find maddening?

Although restructuring the District’s pre-Kindergarten and Head Start program holds tremendous promise for the city’s children, it cannot be rushed at the expense of quality. Nor should it be the major initiative supported by the superintendent’s Action Plan v. 1.0 in this area. Providing high-quality pre-K to only a fraction of preschool students who are at risk is simply unacceptable in a school district that is plagued by poor student performance and low graduation rates. The current enrollment ceiling must become the floor upon which pre-K enrollment is expanded over the next five years.

Thus far, we have not heard anything about the scope of the expansion and how it will be paid for. We look forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with the School District and to hearing more details about funding commitments and cost estimates before the next version of the plan is released.

Christie Balka is the director of child care and budget policy at Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and a leadership board member of the Notebook.

The opinions expressed in this guest post are solely those of the author. The Notebook invites readers to submit posts on current topics in education. Send submissions to


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