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

By the Notebook on Jan 11, 2013 05:23 PM

by Christie Balka

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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Comments (13)

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 11, 2013 6:44 pm

Hmm...37 schools being closed because they are underutilized while Head Start programs have to rent space in the private market.  Seems like a disconnect.   And while I understand that there are many excellent community based providers, further privatization of District services and the loss of more union jobs, should also be a concern here.   Sustained capacity is best assured by publically operated and owned facilities.   There is no reason why head start centers as well as schools can't be structured in ways that assure the community has a real voice in shaping their programs and operations.

Submitted by Christie (not verified) on January 12, 2013 8:29 pm
Ron - I don't think the dichotomy between public and private is as clear when it comes to early childhood education. Most early childhood education is unsustainable without public subsidy, and all of it's closely regulated by public entities. In spite of this we have a mixed delivery system in the US -- not because anyone sees profit in it (the notion is laughable), but because historically this country has lacked the political will to build a system of universal, free early childhood education. A mixed delivery system doesn't imply all early childhood teaching positions in schools are unionized and all those at community-based sites are not. Currently some teachers and staff at District partner sites are union members, though none, to my knowledge, are represented by PFT. As for community input, early childhood programs typically have a greater level of parent involvement than K-12 schools for a variety of reasons. Many parents perceive community-based early childhood programs as more responsive to the community than schools. Regardless of where they're located, Head Start programs are required by federal law to involve parents in governance. The bottom line here is what's good for kids. STAR 3-4 early childhood programs demonstrate an extremely high level of teaching and learning despite public perceptions that school-based pre-k is necessarily better. (I've seen Head Start programs that were based in schools but cut off from anything else that went on in the building because principals didn't sufficiently 'own' the programs.) So I'm not as convinced as you that one model is better and another is worse. But we can probably agree that several things are needed in order for young children to succeed when they start school: we need to build public will for much more widespread access to pre-k, especially in Philadelphia; young children need a seamless transition between pre-k, kindergarten and the early grades; and building capacity requires resources.
Submitted by Mary Graham (not verified) on January 13, 2013 9:14 pm
Our agency is one of the community partners with the School District. And our teachers are unionized and part of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers. Teachers in community based programs that partner with the school district must meet credential standards. For those serving PreK Counts funded children, the teachers must be Certified, just like teachers in the public school. For those serving Head Start children, teachers must have degrees in ECE. High quality child care centers often have staff who have worked there for many years. They see their work as part of an investment in the children and in the community. They are just as dedicated as public school educators. I would hate for this discussion and decision become an issue of who are better teachers, public school employees or community based teachers. That is not the issue. The issue is accessibility of high quality programs for young children. If public schools are closing because the facilities are in serious need of repair and/or under enrolled, then moving these programs to newer community based programs make sense. Community based programs MUST meet basic health and safety guidelines mandated by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. Many of the public school classrooms can't meet these guidelines because of the age and conditions of the buildings. Many children have been served over the past years in community based programs so this proposal by the School District is not a new direction. What is different is the sheer number of slots that will be moved to community based programs in such a short amount of time. What will matter is how well planned these moves are and how well financed they will be. Setting up new classrooms without start up money is nearly impossible. Community based programs need these funds before the classrooms are opened; not after. And the financial supports must continue to increase for the community based programs. Just because we are able to do it cheaper doesn't mean we don't need the additional funding. Rather we will use the funding for delivering services; not for bureaucratic costs and expenses. These moves should not be made just because it is cheaper. They should happen because the location of the program may be more accessible to the families. And as mentioned in Christie's article, many of the child care programs have staff that are more familiar with the community and their needs. They may have bilingual or multi lingual staff that are able to communicate in the families native language. What we all need to remember is that this is a partnership with the community based programs and the School District. It is an extension of how the School District is responding to the needs of the children and families they serve. The School District is not abandoning these families; they are trying to serve them better.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 14, 2013 9:38 am

Mary and Christie, thanks for your informative responses to the concerns I raised.   I've been educated by your remarks.   While I agree the concern with the quality of programs children receive needs to be paramount, I think saving union jobs remains a legitimate issue as well.   Here in Philadelphia and across the country we have witnessed attacks on unions and working class living standards carried out  under the slogan of "its all about kids."  Kids have parents and if they are driven into poverty, the whole familiy suffers.

Submitted by Mary Graham (not verified) on January 14, 2013 9:32 am
Absolutely we should be concerned about preserving jobs across the city....both union and non-union. As both Christie and I said, moving these children into community based programs solely to save money is not appropriate. But moving them to better serve families so they can keep their jobs is just as important as union members keeping jobs. A key point you should remember about Head Start families...they are already living in poverty. They are the poorest families in the country. If they miss a day of work because the child's school is closed or they missed the bus and can't get to work, they won't get paid. All workers need protection. What would even be worse is if the School District decided to stop offering Head Start services completely because of funding or being forced to operate classrooms in schools that are being closed. There has to be a better solution to this rather than making it a union/non union issue.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 12, 2013 12:12 am
I thought she was the deputy director of PCCY.
Submitted by More risks (not verified) on January 12, 2013 8:46 pm
How about getting out of the ivory tower and thinking about the convenience for parents like me, who can take a pre-schooler and an elementary student to the same location. Also, I appreciate that in my district pre-k program I know that 100% of the instructors are certified, paid well, and with benefits--not so for my neighborhood place with a Keystone stars rating of 4. Same goes for professional development---the kindergarten teachers check in regularly with pre-k teachers so that teachers can prepare for students the coming year--and differentiate for those students who are advanced with the k curriculum. I guess that's something PCCY doesn't consider in their ivory tower.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on January 13, 2013 12:19 pm
In terms of funding, may I remind readers that there was enough in the Title I funds to save full day Kindergarten, as this is not required by the State of PA which would make it not "core curriculum". Another reminder: Title I was to be used to "level the playing field" by providing enrichment/resources to "at risk" (impoverished) children. Which is better use of Title I money, a $90,000 plus "Instructional Reform Facilitator" (translated that would be an undercover Administrative Assistant) or 6 children (at $15,000 each, more children if it costs less than this per child) attending a high quality PreK (research based proven to improve educational outcomes for "at risk" children)? PSD wastes a good deal of the Title I Federal grant money on bureaucratic props. High quality PreK is a far far better use of this money. Take a look at the Kaleidoscope program that Settlement Music School has. I'm always impressed with the kids' art and work that is on display at the Germantown branch.
Submitted by Gen (not verified) on January 13, 2013 1:05 pm
"As for community input, early childhood programs typically have a greater level of parent involvement than K-12 schools for a variety of reasons. Many parents perceive community-based early childhood programs as more responsive to the community than schools. Regardless of where they're located, Head Start programs are required by federal law to involve parents in governance." Oh Please, when Parent Power is bringing dozens of parents to SRC and City Council meetings these so-called ECE advocates are nowhere to be found. I don't know about I disagree with Ms. Balka about the parental involvement piece here--not only is it required in public schools as well, but the small isolated community child-care providers more often than not exist in silos. Responsive in what way? North Philly parents aren't any more likely to know the specifics of instruction than any other parents (including me). I'd like to see the evidence of ECE programs being perceived as more responsive. It's seen as day care for the lucky few who can take advantage of too few seats. On a facilities level, schools with full service kitchens and classrooms for spaces with carpets, book corners, and science labs are also better equipped than the cramped quarters in neighborhood based programs. While ECE centers are improving--due in part to PCCY's work, they are far from excellent especially in terms of teaching credentials and spacing issues.
Submitted by Sharon Easterling (not verified) on January 14, 2013 12:14 pm
As the Executive Director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, I have been involved in the work of expanding preschool opportunities in our region for almost 30 years. Christie Balka is correct in pointing out that there are pros and cons in the School District's proposal to privatize Head Start slots. The truth is, there are both outstanding programs and terrible programs in both public schools and community based programs. A recent study by Steve Bagnato and his team at the University of Pittsburgh confirmed what 40+ years of research has demonstrated - that high quality programs produce good outcomes for kids whether they are located in public schools or community based settings. For me, the real issue is money. The school district is taking this move to save $8 million a year. How will they save money? By reducing the salary of a lead teacher from about $80,000 + generous benefits, down to $34,000 + modest benefits. Whether you view this as a loss to the public sector or a gain for the private sector - is most likely a matter of your affiliation...but it really has nothing to do with serving more kids or serving kids better. It's all about the money. Unfortunately, the School District continues to miss the best opportunity to save money. High quality Pre-K settings have been shown to reduce the incidence of special education placement from 14% to less than 4% - and similar stats for grade retention. These facts could easily translate into an annual savings of $12 million/year for the School District - with that amount compounding with every new age cohort of children. Therefore, the smartest bet might be to take the full amount spent on Head Start and re-deploy the $8 million to serve an additional 1300 children across the city. But that's not what will happen. We'll continue to hear about how early childhood education is the most important way to close the achievement, while our actual investments make a mockery of that truth.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 14, 2013 3:17 pm
Sharon, I don't know much about ECE, but your assertion about special education is important. During my student teaching, my cooperating teacher and the school in the SDP at which I was student teaching was dealing with several legal cases. Not only does special education cost more because of the additional services, but the money from legal cases is also probably substantial. So add the cost from legal cases and the savings will be even greater than what you stated. EGS
Submitted by Christie (not verified) on January 14, 2013 2:03 pm
"...there are both outstanding programs and terrible programs in both public schools and community based programs." Sharon, are you suggesting there are terrible Keystone STAR 3 and 4 programs? Please clarify.
Submitted by Sharon Easterling (not verified) on January 14, 2013 4:12 pm
My comment was more about the universe of child care and public schools -- but my point is that quality is determined the skill and practice of teachers and leadership - not the sector. But your point is well taken, if the School district restricts sub-contracting to STAR 3 and 4 programs, they are much more likely to be doing good things for kids.

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