With too few Pennsylvania children enrolled in pre-K education programs, a statewide campaign was launched Thursday to trumpet the need for such schooling.
In Pittsburgh, a press conference was held at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill for Pre-K for PA, a statewide coalition of nonprofit organizations whose goal is to bring quality pre-K education to as many Pennsylvania 3- and 4-year-olds as possible while identifying necessary funding sources.
Jewish leaders, as well as Pittsburgh Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak and Curtiss E. Porter, who represented Mayor Bill Peduto, spoke at the conference.
Few specifics about the campaign were released at the conference beyond raising public awareness of preschool, but spokespeople said those details are still to come. One stated goal was to find a dedicated source of funding for preschool education.
Today, available public funding helps fewer than 20 percent of preschool age children in the state access high-quality pre-K programs, said Michelle Figlar, executive director of the Squirrel Hill-based Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), one of the coalition partners, in kicking off the conference.
“We are leaving most of our children out,” she said.
That puts the children, not to mention the state, at a competitive disadvantage.
Every dollar invested in early learning generates more than $2 in local economic impact, Figlar said, as well as $17 in long-term public savings and benefit.
As for the kids, evidence suggests high-quality preschool education reduces grade repetition, while making the children more likely to graduate high school, go on to college and earn more during their careers.
“Our children get to be 3 or 4 once in their lives,” Figlar said. “They do not get a do-over.”
But first, their parents must be able to afford a quality preschool education. For many, even public school pre-K programs are out of reach.
Rudiak, whose district includes the South Hills neighborhoods of the city, conveyed serious stories of residents struggling to afford a pre-K education.
One woman, a Beechview resident, pays $7,000 per year to send her autistic 5-year-old son to preschool.
She told Rudiak, “After our mortgage, student loans, utilities, etc., there is very little left for something like preschool. … It’s almost become luxury.’”
Rudiak used the conference to call on Gov. Tom Corbett and the legislature to restore full funding for pre-K programs “and ensure that every child, every family, every school and every neighborhood have the opportunity to succeed.”
At the JCC, there are 216 children attending the early childhood learning center which just underwent a $2 million renovation, President and CEO Brian Schreiber said. Many of those kids are there on scholarship.
In fact, last year, the JCC doled out more than $200,000 pre-K scholarships, according to Schreiber.
Done right, a quality preschool program becomes a community.
Meryl Ainsman, a former JCC board member and mother of adult children who attended preschool there, said they still keep in touch with friends from those early days.
“They shouldn’t just be babysitting,” Ainsman said of preschool programs. “You really need trained teachers; you really need a core curriculum. This can’t be cobbled together.”
Porter, until recently, the chancellor of Penn State-Greater Allegheny in McKeesport, and now chief education and neighborhood reinvestment officer in the Peduto administration, said the mayor is “deeply, deeply interested” in pre-K education.
In fact, during a December meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama and 15 other recently elected mayors, Peduto suggested the president use Pittsburgh and its 5,000-some children who lack preschool opportunities as “the living laboratory for early childhood education.”
“The president thought that was an interesting idea,” Porter told the Chronicle after the conference. “He didn’t commit obviously, but it’s our obligation to follow up on this because he did show interest.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)