As cities across the country expand their preschool offerings, Detroit is at the front of the pack.

A new report awarded the city a gold medal for a program that provides free, high-quality pre-K classes to 4-year-olds from low-income families. Only two other cities — Seattle and San Antonio — received a perfect 10 out of 10 from researchers at the National Institute of Early Education Research.

The ratings reflect the high standards of the Great Start Readiness Program, a statewide, state-funded system that has expanded over the last decade. Lead teachers in the program are required to have bachelor’s degrees; teacher-to-student ratios are among the best in the country; and providers are subject to a wide range of quality controls.

Crucially, the ratings also account for the number of students enrolled in the program. Researchers found that 42% of eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled in Detroit — a total of 4,200 kids.

That number is still too small. Other reports have highlighted the need for expanded access to early education in Detroit, where few students enter kindergarten ready to learn. Gaps in access are even larger for less rigorous childcare programs and programs for younger children.

Quality early childhood education has been shown to help prepare students for kindergarten, especially if they come from low-income families. 

The report — the 2019 Assessment of City Pre-K Programs — looked at 40 large cities nationwide. In the last edition, Detroit only got a silver medal.

GG Weidenfeld, an assistant research professor at NIEER and Rutgers University, said the city’s rating improved because researchers got access to more accurate enrollment data.

“Last time it was much harder to collect data,” she said. “This round, there’s a lot more going on in Detroit.”

Mayor Mike Duggan recently reiterated his promise to expand the program to every child in Detroit. Weidenfeld said Duggan’s staff helped NIEER experts access more accurate data.

If Duggan is successful, Weisenfeld said Detroit would become a national model.

“Sometimes cities expand access without thinking about quality,” she said. “We’re excited  to see what happens. We’re hoping Detroit becomes the next city to really tackle universal pre-K.”