Officials celebrate expansion of Philadelphia pre-K program after state budget increase

A person sits on the floor and holds up the letter “D” as a child sits on the floor and other children and adults look on in a classroom.
Philadelphia Mayor Mayor Jim Kenney, right, visited a pre-K classroom at Amazing Kidz Academy on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. (Dale Mezzacappa/Chalkbeat)

Philadelphia and state officials gathered Thursday morning to celebrate the expansion of a well-established prekindergarten program in the Oxford Circle area, and to highlight the increase in state spending on early childhood programs. 

The officials — including Mayor Jim Kenney, Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, and newly elected state representative Anthony Bellmon — toured classrooms at the Amazing Kidz Academy  in the 1200 block of East Cheltenham Ave. 

This year, Amazing Kidz, which has four locations,  was able to add 80 slots through PreK Counts and Head Start following a combined $79 million increase for those programs that lawmakers adopted in Pennsylvania’s current budget. Thursday’s event was the ceremonial opening of new classrooms at Glading Presbyterian Church.

The event was sponsored by Pre-K for PA, a nonpartisan statewide coalition of individuals and organizations campaigning to increase the availability of high-quality and affordable early childhood programs.

Additional state aid for early education is important “because looking at Philadelphia as a whole, we know that 43% of income-eligible 3- and 4-year olds, or 12,000 children, do not have access to publicly funded, high-quality pre-K,” said Lisa Smith, the owner and operator of Amazing Kidz. 

“Free, high-quality pre-K is a universal opportunity for society and families of all demographics to level the playing field in kindergarten readiness and developing children into lifetime lovers of learning,” Smith said.

Amazing Kidz has the capacity for 452 children and employs 53 staff members over four locations, Smith said. Smith was able to purchase three buildings at Glading – the gym, the church, and the school.

Carol Austin, the executive director of First Up, a pre-K advocacy group, said that this issue inspires agreement across party lines and across all demographic groups. Austin noted that in a poll last year of registered voters, 90% agreed that early care and education is important to help “set children on a path to healthy and productive lives. Imagine trying to get 90% of people to agree on something. Yet, they did.” 

Kenney, who will leave office in January 2024 after serving two terms, regards the city’s early childhood initiative, PHLPre-K, as one of his biggest achievements. 

During a tour, Kenney sat with children in two classrooms as they learned about letters and sounds and later made a joke at his own expense. 

“People say I don’t smile,” he said later. “If you want to see me happy, take me to a pre-K.”

He recounted a story in which one of his own assistants went to a pre-K with him that she had attended herself as a 4-year-old. He also recalled the SEPTA bus driver, and mother of two, who told him the availability of free, high-quality pre-K allowed her to get a job. 

Plus, he said, a lot of child care and early childhood centers are family businesses, and many are run by women, especially women of color. 

“These children are perfect,” he remarked. “They don’t see race, they don’t see age, they are who they are. We’ve got to keep them on that path.” 

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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