More, better care
Access to early education has improved; quality is now a focus. But unmet needs are still vast.
by Dale Mezzacappa
The last six years have seen a transformation of child care and early education in Philadelphia.
With prodding and money from the state, quality has been significantly upgraded, access has been expanded, and thousands of child care practitioners have improved their own education and skills, which is better for children. A growing cadre of parents has become more aware of how to find, choose, and evaluate the services that exist.
“We know that the best long-term strategy in getting our kids where they need to be academically over the long term is the quality of the early childhood experience,” said Sharon Tucker, deputy education advisor to Mayor Nutter.
At the same time, huge hurdles remain to ensure that all the city’s children have the opportunity to enter kindergarten ready to learn and become literate by grade three – a key predictor of future success.
For example, despite the increase in program quality and access, early education options in the city remain a confusing hodgepodge. While spending for child care subsidies has gone up, less than half the eligible low-income families actually get them, and thousands are on waiting lists. Underutilization is a problem for the federally supported Early Intervention program, which targets children of all income levels who have significant developmental delays.
“That means that the School District and any other early education provider who’s picking up a child at [age] three or four will get that child already behind unnecessarily because the child has never received the federally funded early stimulation that’s available,” said Donald Schwarz, deputy mayor for health and opportunity. “The issue is assuring that families know about this, that people can identify developmental problems and then get children into the service.”
Administratively, the city and District still largely operate in parallel worlds, rarely working across agencies to direct services where they are most needed. For instance, the city provides a number of services for children up to three years old, including Early Intervention, while the District deals with older children.
With help from the Mayor’s Early Learning Advisory Committee, officials are trying to overcome that divide, but the effort is just getting off the ground and has been hampered by the budget uncertainty at both the city and state levels.
“We’re trying really hard to coordinate [services] with the School District because otherwise we have redundancy,” Schwarz said. “And the cost of redundancy means that fewer children are served.”
A call to action
Drawing on a compelling body of research from economists, child development experts, and scientists demonstrating the importance of early brain growth, reformers across the spectrum have made early childhood education a national rallying point.
The arguments are both practical and moral: business leaders cite economic research on long-term cost benefits of quality preschool, while neighborhood organizations and advocates for low-income families look at its role in increasing educational opportunity.
Gov. Rendell jumped on that bandwagon, and since 2003, Pennsylvania has moved from the bottom third of states investing in high quality preschool to one of the nation’s leaders in that area. It has significantly boosted child care subsidies for low-income parents, set higher standards for preschools and child care, and created programs to assist with quality improvement.
In this process, everyone from legislators to parents to child care workers has had to change how they think about early child development.
“The paradigm shift that has been taking place is [seeing] that early childhood education is very much a part of the whole education continuum in a child’s life,” said Sharon Easterling, director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC), an advocacy group. “That’s what Pennsylvania has done.”
For Philadelphia, this shift has meant a significant increase in how many young children receive quality early childhood education. The numbers attending District-run programs, including Head Start and Pre-K Counts, have jumped from about 6,000 in 2002-03 to nearly 10,000 today.