With More Poor Students, Suburban Districts Look to Expand Public Pre-K

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  • March 20, 2014

PreKBy Sarah Jackson

Several years back, Ed Leman, then superintendent of District 33 in West Chicago, began searching for funding to expand preschool services to students in his school district, 30 miles outside of Chicago.

Like many communities in suburban DuPage County, Illinois’ District 33 was experiencing dramatic jumps in the number of low-income students. Educators in the early grades were struggling to meet the needs of this changing population, more and more of whom were arriving on the first day of kindergarten far behind their higher-income peers.

These challenges were new to some suburban educators in the area, who as recently as 10 years ago had almost no low-income students in their classrooms. “We can’t begin the academic work,” Leman told the Chicago Tribune in 2010, “because they’ve taken such a step back in such rudimentary things as entering a classroom, handling their materials, interacting with tablemates and orienting a book right side up.”

District 33 ran a pre-K program, but slots at the publicly funded preschool were hard to come by. In most states, preschool falls outside the funding structure for K-12 education. So when public preschools programs do exist, they are often susceptible to politicking and budget shortfalls, which has been the case in Illinois. The state’s Preschool For All program has never been fully funded and the Early Childhood Block Grant, which pays for preschool, has suffered $80 million in cuts over the past few years.

For District 33, the solution came through a partnership with the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which worked with the district to build Educare of West DuPage. Today, the center offers year-round preschool to 102 at-risk children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, with funding from private foundations. Educare’s model, which is now being expanded, is in many ways similar to other programs being implemented in cities and states around the country and to Obama’s Preschool for All proposal: year-round full day services, low staff ratios, well-trained teachers, rigorous curricula, and health care and family support programs.

Early results from Educare’s model show that low-income children who attended Educare preschools entered kindergarten with vocabulary and school-readiness scores that were near national norms. On average, low-income children enter school with significant shortfalls in these and other skill sets. These results mirror national research that has found that investments in high-quality pre-K can help prevent achievement deficits between low-income students and their more advantaged peers. And Economist James Heckman has found that investments in high quality pre-K eventually pay off in longer-term benefits to society as a whole, like lower social welfare costs, decreased crime rates, and increased tax revenue.

Big cities, of course, have traditionally been home to more of the nation’s low-income school children. And it’s here that lawmakers have been taking the lead in finding innovative ways to fund universal pre-K programs. In San Antonio, mayor Julian Castro led a successful campaign in 2012 to institute an eighth of a cent sales tax increase to expand preschool to more than 22,000 four-year-olds over the next eight years. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has proposed an increase in taxes on higher-income residents to help fund public preschool for all four-year-olds (though now state financing seems likely). And Seattle’s city council has proposed providing free preschool to three- and four-year-olds living in households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

But disadvantaged young children live outside of cities, too. As poverty continues to rise in suburban communities, it’s the youngest children who are most likely to be poor. (A child under age five in DuPage County, for example, is about twice as likely to be poor as a senior citizen.) These imbalances, some are proposing, set the stage for nasty face-offs between young and old over scarce resources. To avert these no-win showdowns, communities around the country will need new regional models and funding structures to support their youngest children. Doing so is critical to these communities’ futures.

In suburban Oak Park, Illinois, for example, six government bodies have come together to create the Collaboration for Early Childhood, a public-private partnership designed to better meet the needs of the area’s youngest children and their families through high-quality preschool, parent information and support, and developmental screening. All governmental agencies participate and contribute financially and the group works to overcome fragmentation by leveraging all available community resources.

Confronting Suburban Poverty in America points out that low-income students in the suburbs are going to schools where students are performing only slightly better than their counterparts in urban schools and not nearly as well as students in typical middle- or higher-income suburban schools. Publicly funded pre-K may help more students in low-income suburbs do better in school over the long haul, increasing the school’s share of students meeting standards and lowering the burdens educators and schools in these communities face.

“In preschool, you never know if you’ll be here the next year,” preschool teacher Christina Stangarone told the Chicago Tribune. “You’re just praying that the state will be generous and that the school district and board believe in the program.”

Low-income children in the suburbs deserve more than a prayer.

Photo/White House

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