pre-k report

5 questions with Emily Neff on new Pittsburgh pre-k report

Pittsburgh educators and community leaders are part of a growing movement in cities across the country committed to improving access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs as fundamental building blocks for a lifetime of learning.

Benefits for kids range from improvements in literacy, language, math and social skills, to decreased grade repetition and special education placement and increased rates of high school graduation and college enrollment.

The Pittsburgh Association for The Education of Young Children (PAEYC) recently released a comprehensive report – “Increasing Early Care and Education Opportunities in Pittsburgh: A Review of Pre-Kindergarten Expansion in U.S. Cities” – which compares pre-k programs among 17 cities to identify challenges and highlight opportunities for advancement.

Emily Neff, PAEYC public policy associate, served as lead author and editor of the report that she says will be helpful in planning next steps for Pittsburgh’s Early Childhood Education Task Force.

Kidsburgh sat down with Neff to discuss results of the report.

What will be the most important result of improving our city’s pre-k opportunities for our kids?

Young children and their families are at the center of this effort. While the report focuses on efforts to expand programming for 3- and 4- year- olds, pre-k is only a “first step” to engage younger learners. We know early learning experiences matter.

During the first few years of a child’s life, more than 1 million neural connections are formed each second, and 90 percent of brain development occurs before the age of 5. Early educational experiences have the potential to influence children’s perception of learning and impact future academic and life outcomes. We want to see our youngest children in early learning environments where they can grow and thrive because this is what every child deserves.

Over 1,100 of Pittsburgh’s income-eligible 3– and 4-year-olds do not have access to publicly funded, high-quality pre-k classes. What are the roadblocks?

One of the most difficult components of reaching all children is finding sustainable funding. Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program, Head Start, and Early Head Start help to fund Pittsburgh’s pre-k program. While in recent years we have seen historic increases in state pre-k funding, we must continue to increase investments to serve all eligible children.

Other major roadblocks include barriers for individual families such as the need for wraparound care and services outside a six-hour school day and lack of access for transportation to programs. In addition to funding the programs, pre-k expansion efforts must also consider a comprehensive approach to meet the logistical, socioeconomic and cultural needs of families.

This report indicates that Pittsburgh is well-positioned to expand access to its pre-k offerings. What is the city’s biggest challenge to achieving this success?

The most challenging aspect of expanding pre-k for any city, including Pittsburgh, is to find sustainable funding for comprehensive programs that meet the needs of all families. Representatives from City of Pittsburgh government, Pittsburgh Public School District, the early childhood field, foundations and community organizations comprise the Early Childhood Education Task Force. The task force is currently developing a plan to implement pre-k expansion in the city.

Different cities have had varied strategies for improving their education systems. Are any cities offering model pre-k examples?

Prior to the report, PAEYC and representatives from Pittsburgh Public Schools visited Cleveland and New York City for a learning tour of their universal pre-k programs. Both programs have seen success in expanding high-quality programs to pre-k age children. We continue to learn from their successes and challenges.

However, there is not one particular city that Pittsburgh is patterning for its pre-k expansion. In 2015, Pittsburgh joined the National League of Cities (NLC) cohort for city leadership to build an early learning nation. Through the NLC, we have had the opportunity to connect with cities across the nation with the same goal – expanding early learning opportunities for children from birth through age 5. We felt it important to review several cities to highlight effective strategies these cities have implemented.

Is there a timeline for Pittsburgh to improve its success with early educational opportunities?

The Early Childhood Education Task Force is currently developing an implementation plan to expand pre-k access for 3- and 4- year- olds in the city. This plan is slated to be completed by April 2018.

Pittsburgh has already put forth a great deal of effort to improve early educational opportunities. In 2014 the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Early Childhood Education worked to develop a plan for a “prenatal through pre-k” continuum of programs and services.

The Pittsburgh City Council Women’s Caucus furthered the cause by establishing a $250,000 child care quality fund to seed low-interest loans and provide grants in support of early childhood providers offering high-quality care.

In 2016 Pittsburgh City Council approved Tiffini Simoneaux as early childhood manager. In her role, she implements the vision developed by the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel and finds new ways to improve early learning quality to expand access to early childhood education.