Mayor joins kids in celebrating the first full year of free pre-K in Philadelphia

Despite the success of the program so far, officials lament their inability to expand enrollment because of a lawsuit challenging the beverage tax, which funds free preschool.

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

The sky outside was gray and the weather dreary, but it was colorful on Friday morning inside the Please Touch Museum. Nearly 1,000 kids ranging from 3 to 5 years old and wearing an assortment of school uniforms buzzed around, celebrating the completion of Philadelphia’s first year of free pre-kindergarten.

The new program offered preschool to all residents, regardless of income level, on a first-come, first-served basis, but targeted areas with high-risk children. Funded by the city’s new sweetened beverage tax, the program faced several challenges during its first year.

The most significant one was from the soda companies and their supporters, who have sued the city over the tax.

In the museum, children were oblivious to the challenges. They raced around, serving plastic ice cream, watching model cars drive through a car wash, and shooting rockets through the air.

A few kids stood still long enough to discuss their favorite parts of the new pre-K program. Most said they like the time allotted to “playing,” while one child insisted it was the teachers.

Amid all the activity, those teachers and child-care professionals somehow managed to keep track of their respective students. While keeping an eye on about 10 children climbing on a model gas station, Daisy, a teacher from Children’s Place Preschool, elaborated on the changes the program spurred there.

Attendance had changed, she said, and new students are coming that previously couldn’t afford it. Daisy also mentioned that the new lesson plans that came with the curriculum made it easier to teach and allowed teachers to better address differences in learning.

Some parents accompanied their children to the museum, eager to participate in honoring the program. Lil Carrol, the mother of 5-year-old Chastity, explained that she enrolled her daughter when she heard about the program, moving her from a private preschool.

Although she initially had reservations, she said, she was quickly won over by the curriculum, support system, and the emphasis the program put on feedback from the parents.

“It’s great they [are] giving parents voices,” Carrol said.

Mayor Kenney’s visit to the event lasted about a half-hour. In that time, he traveled through the museum taking photos with dozens of children and shaking many hands, his excitement from the successful first year of Philadelphia’s new pre-K program clearly showing.

When he spoke, however, he voiced frustration about the effects of the soda companies’ lawsuit on the revenue for the schools. “The fact that we can’t roll our program out fully because of the selfishness of these soda company owners, it’s just sad,” he said.

Kenney also mentioned the resistance he’s gotten from politicians outside Philadelphia, mentioning “there’s actually a state representative from Pittsburgh that has introduced a bill to preempt the beverage tax in Philadelphia … I don’t understand why a guy from Pittsburgh has any interest in … us help[ing] ourselves educate our children.”

PHLpreK Director Julie Beamon echoed the mayor’s frustration with the outside forces affecting the program’s expansion. but expressed pride in how the program assists at-risk children.

“What’s nice about the program, because we don’t have an income requirement, a lot of our families just reach the cut-off for eligibility for CCIS, which is subsidized child care. That’s really a population that we’ve been able to serve with this program. Where parents can’t afford to pay the full cost of pre-K, but they don’t qualify for subsidized child care, we’ve been able to meet that need.”

Beamon said she is “really looking forward to expanding and making sure [the program is] serving children that are in high-need areas and children that are most vulnerable and would most benefit from pre-K.”

Hannah Melville is a junior English major at Haverford College and a summer intern at the Notebook.