Demand for Pre-K is high, but availability varies across neighborhoods
The School District is making its spring push to enroll as many of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds as possible in pre-kindergarten for the fall.
Although the District wants more families to sign up, this year the challenge is less about pre-K awareness among families and more about access.
That’s because in certain neighborhoods, there just aren’t enough pre-K seats to match demand.
In Kensington and the Lower Northeast, for example, enrollment has already outpaced the available seats. And when this happens, the enrollment process becomes a game and Philadelphia is “like a big chess board,” said Diane Castelbuono, deputy chief of the Office of Early Education, who leads the enrollment effort.
When there aren’t enough spots in a neighborhood, the District spends months shuffling families around to ensure that they get a seat and that their needs are met.
The process also comes down to handing families off to private providers subsidized by the District that have open seats in a given neighborhood.
“We have a matching problem,” Castelbuono said, “We have the seats where we don’t have the families. We need to get the need and availability matched up correctly.”
One reason the shuffling process takes so long is the District’s outdated paper-based enrollment system.
Once families send in their applications, assuming all the necessary information has been properly included, the School District must then verify each family against income eligibility requirements. The application packet is 34 pages long.
Children are eligible for Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts if their families are at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level – about $72,900 for a family of four. Families living at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level – $24,300 for a family of four – are eligible under the Pennsylvania Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program.
“We try to get everyone an answer within six to eight weeks,” said Castelbuono about verification, a time frame that has many parents asking why.
But a number of these challenges would dissolve with the advent of universal pre-K, said Castelbuono.
The city’s commission on universal pre-K released its final recommendations report to the city in April. It suggested that the city adopt an online portal system that could streamline the enrollment process for families and providers.
An online application and placement process would also free up time for families, providers and the District, by making unnecessary the problematic practice of “holding seats.”
Now, parents will sometimes apply for three or four different providers, will be accepted, perhaps, by all of them, but won’t notify providers about where they chose to place their child. Hence, the providers are left unsure of who will actually fill the seats.
“This is currently a manual process and it’s inefficient,” Castelbuono said. The web-based system could automatically match families with their first choice, freeing seats up for another round of enrollment and giving providers a clear sense earlier in the process of where the pieces will fall.
Additionally, a universal system could tackle the lengthy verification process by giving the city a waiver with income eligibility.
“It could be like our free school lunch system,” said Castelbuono. In the District, all students receive a free lunch under the federal program. For districts where high proportions of students qualify, the rules allow districts to feed everyone instead of going through the time-consuming and labor-intensive process of verifying individual applications.
The same logic can translate to pre-K verification. The city could commit to funding all 3- and 4-year-olds, with verification occurring on the back end as opposed to the front end, said Castelbuono.
She added, “We could be more efficient if we didn’t have to verify income. We know we have a sufficient number of low-income families.”
Each year, the District has about 4,000 seats to fill, a number that mostly includes 3-year-olds enrolling in the two-year program for the first time.
The number of families now signed up for pre-K across the city is on par with where the numbers were at this time for the last two years.
The District also reached 100 percent enrollment by September in the last two years; that is, all seats were full, “a goal we intend to follow through on again this year,” Castelbuono said.
Though the District’s pre-K registration flyer says, “space limited” above a photo of smiling children, it says it wants to stay away from publicizing the number of families that have already enrolled so as to not discourage families.
“When we say that 3,000 families are already enrolled, for example, that can lead some families to not apply because they think they won’t get in. I prefer to say that there are seats still open.”
And when people stop applying, there are sometimes many seats still left open in certain neighborhoods.
At that point, the District begins its targeted recruitment, which is slated to begin soon for September enrollment.