More, better care

Access to early education has improved; quality is now a focus. But unmet needs are still vast.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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.

Through Pre-K Counts, the District formed partnerships with more than 50 community-based centers and helped many of them make the leap from custodial care to providing education.

“When we first got involved with this work with the child care partners, the battle was convincing [some of] them that they were educators,” said Donna Piekarski, the District’s Director of Early Childhood. “It’s probably been some of the most rewarding work we’ve done, because when the light bulb goes on, the place takes off.”

Through Keystone STARS, these centers get help from the state to improve their management, finances, and educational quality. The centers are rated according to a STAR system on factors including staff credentials, professional development, financial management, and the educational environment. The state has also increased requirements for child care employees, requiring lead teachers to have at least a BA in early childhood and other workers a Child Development Associate degree.

One achievement of the Mayor’s Early Learning Advisory Committee was to get a $500,000 grant to help send child care providers to school to upgrade their skills.

Many options, not enough slots

Today, there are more than 113,000 children aged 0 to 5 in Philadelphia. Nearly three-quarters of them are poor enough to qualify for subsidized child care.

More than 30,000 children do receive subsidized care through the state’s Child Care Works program, up from 20,000 in 2005. And a higher proportion of those families are sending their children to centers – providers that are more likely to be licensed and regulated for quality – than to family child care homes.

But while the state has boosted the number of subsidies over the past several years, there are still not enough to serve all families who seek help. This year, 4,700 Philadelphia families are on the waiting list, meaning that they sought a subsidy after the money had run out.

“It’s a very difficult thing when you have to turn a parent away,” said Piekarski. “But it’s all fund-driven.”

But building political support for early childhood is still chancy; one of the biggest battlegrounds in the protracted state budget battle was over Gov. Rendell’s proposal to further increase child care subsidies, Pre-K Counts, and Keystone STARS (see early education funding story).

In Philadelphia, parents seeking services face such a tangle of options that it is hard to sort them out. District-run preschool comes in the guise of several different programs – Head Start, Pre-K Counts, Bright Futures, and Comprehensive Day Care – and parents who call the District seeking help get voice prompts asking them which one they want. Just finding the proper contact is daunting.

“We know we have some work to do in that area,” said Piekarski.

Many parents also don’t realize that a spot in preschool is not guaranteed, like it is in K-12.

“We have tremendous wait lists and disappointed parents and disappointed children,” Piekarski said. “I had one in my office yesterday. It was heartbreaking because all our slots are filled, and here’s the little boy. [His mother said,] ‘But I promised him he’s going to go to preschool this year.’”

Schwarz, Tucker, and Piekarski all said that they would like to see universal pre-K in the city within the next 10 years, meaning at the very least enough slots for all three- and four-year-olds to attend quality programs if they want to.

As part of her Imagine 2014 strategic plan for the District, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has decided to open up child care centers in high schools, starting with one at Lincoln this year. She has also announced plans to set up early childhood resource centers around the city where parents can learn about available services. As yet, there is no timetable for opening the first of them nor is there a decision about where it will be, and the grim new budget reality complicates this plan.

Saving money in the long run

While the short-term funding picture is bleak, Schwarz pointed out that coordinating and enhancing services for young children has the potential to save taxpayer dollars in the long run. One of the best predictors of student graduation is whether a student is reading on grade level by 3rd grade.

Piekarski has data from testing of more than 10,000 kindergarteners on DIBELS, a major test of emergent literacy. Results show that those who went through formal child care are more likely to have sound and letter fluency than those who either went through informal care or none at all. In addition, pre-and post-testing of four year olds last year in District programs showed progress in areas of social and emotional development, language and literacy, mathematical and scientific thinking, and the arts.

At the same time, results on the District’s definitive test of literacy at the end of grade three are still troubling, having essentially remained flat for at least six years. According to the Developmental Reading Assessment, less than half – 48 percent – of 3rd graders were on grade level in 2009.

“We know that if children read at grade level in 3rd grade, all of the public sector investments that are required thereafter will be reduced, particularly the very expensive ones, including special education, imprisonment, complex behavioral health institution placement, and so forth,” said Schwarz. “And that’s probably most important to the future of the city.”