City commission hears from public on pre-K plan

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

The community came forward Monday to give feedback on the city’s plan to close the current child-care gap that leaves two in three preschool-aged children without access to affordable, high-quality pre-kindergarten.

"It is a great start, but it can do more," said Lorraine Simms, expressing the sentiment of most community members who spoke before the city’s commission on universal pre-K.

Simms, a grandmother of 16, is a community liaison with the West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Initiative, which works through Drexel University to build awareness about early childhood education and improve the quality of child-care centers.

"Our children need to learn how to read by the end of 3rd grade, and pre-K is a major factor in determining whether they will be able to do this," said Simms. "The plan needs to emphasize the importance of having high-quality teachers. … We need skilled teachers who can meet students’ needs."

Earlier this month, the commission released an initial plan that recommends how Philadelphia can expand and fund high-quality early education for all 3- and 4-year-old residents. To gather feedback, the commission will be holding community meetings like this around the city over the next few weeks.

"This is a critical time in our movement, so we need to hear your voices," said Loretta Sweet Jemmott, co-chair of the commission. "And as we listen to your feedback, and write it down, we will work to incorporate it into our final report.”

Co-chair Sharon Easterling added that the commission is “trying to create a plan that builds on the best parts of our system and provides lots of resources for the child-care providers who are serving our most vulnerable children.”

Like Simms, many community members emphasized that growing and maintaining a talented early childhood workforce is essential to an effective universal pre-K system. And increasing workers’ wages and providing technical support to providers, they said, will be essential to establishing this workforce.

Nationally, pre-K teachers receive an average wage of $27,130, compared with nearly $50,000 for kindergarten teachers, according to the commission’s research. The low wages make it difficult for early child-care workers to sustain a living.

“I keep going to work every day, because I love it so much, but it’s clear that the lives of early childhood education workers are overlooked,” said Christopher Rouse, a pre-K instructor at Western Learning Center.

Rouse said he was homeless for a few months because he was unable to make ends meet on $9.60 per hour with no benefits.

“As pre-K workers, we are bridging the gap for these 3-year-olds to do something they’ve never experienced before. It’s important work and I love to see the impact we make, but the city is not investing in us,” Rouse said. “We cultivate the future.”

The center where Rouse works is rated a STAR 4 on the Keystone Stars scale, meaning that it provides the highest quality care to its children. Yet to maintain this quality, Rouse said, teachers must meet a certain number of training hours each year and some of these trainings must be paid for out of pocket.

Members of the commission reacted to Rouse’s testimony with a sense of urgency and understanding.

“We are committed to raising salaries,” said Easterling. “We can’t build the skills of young people on the backs of people who continue to be impoverished. It’s not right.”

Speakers highlighted the amount of time and funding it will take to move facilities to become high quality, a large focus of the commission’s plan.

“Quality is not cheap, and it takes time,” said Allison Acevedo, director of education at United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. “Under United Way’s Success By 6 quality improvement initiative, it takes 18 months and $30,000 for one child-care center to go through the quality improvement program.”

And this amount of time and money doesn’t even cover how much it takes to sustain quality, Acevedo said.

Some speakers called on the commission to keep the needs of English language learners in mind, reminding the commission of the importance of building a system that will be a natural bridge to the K-12 school system.

“Great ideas came through tonight, and we will continue to engage the community, because it is important to give everyone a voice,” said Jemmott. “The community realizes how important it is to give all of our children access to quality early education, and this will not happen overnight.”

The commission will continue to collect comments until March 15 and will release a final report on April 15.