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High-quality pre-K skips most York County kids

Jessica Schladebeck
505-5438/@JessDispatch
  • "York (County) is one of the higher need areas. Their numbers of need are significantly higher than those of the state."
  • 84 percent of York County 3- and 4-year-olds do not have access to high-quality pre-K, according to advocates

Alijrik Owens pulled an egg from a small cardboard carton and expertly cracked it before dropping it into a pan and moving onto the next egg; she was preparing a breakfast of scrambled eggs and pancakes for her family, she said.

Her eggs, however were actually plastic, the pancakes rubbery and the hot chocolate the 4-year-old student prepared was made piping hot not by the stove she pulled it from, but by her imagination. The "family" she was cooking for was a collection of dolls and classmates who had decided to join in on the game of house.

A few steps away from Alijrik's kitchen in the Hannah Penn pre-K classroom, Da'Vion Nelson was enthusiastically molding a blue Play-Doh monster while bragging about the cake he had at his birthday party last week.

"It was strawberry," he said, cutting his creation in half. "Strawberry cake and strawberry frosting, that's my favorite."

Students were spread out in different stations across Rolanda SanMartin’s pre-K classroom for afternoon work time where they were able to choose the activity they wanted to start — whether it be at the puzzle station, the blocks station or even a station with fake snow — and were able to move to another, only after they had cleaned up.

The class of 19 starts the day at 8:30 a.m. when they arrive at Hannah Penn for breakfast, and throughout the day enjoy several activities like small group, read-aloud time, reflection and work time until it's time to leave at 2:30.

"I love being a pre-K teacher," said SanMartin, who has 10 years of experience. "I just hope we get the funding from the state that we need."

Numbers: Students like Alijrik and Da'Vion are among the minority of young learners who have access to a high quality pre-K program.

According to data collected by Pre-K for PA, an organization dedicated to expanding access to early education programs across the state, 84 percent of York County 3- and 4-year-olds — 9,169 out of nearly 11,000 potential young learners — do not have access to high-quality pre-K. Of those without access, nearly 60 percent live in families below 300 percent poverty.

"York (County) is one of the higher need areas," said Kate Phillips, a spokeswoman for Pre-K for PA. "Their numbers of need are significantly higher than those of the state."

Across the commonwealth, 69 percent of children do not have access to early education programs. The state for 2014 was ranked 30th in the country in providing access to 4-year-olds and 14th for 3-year-olds, both of which mark a drop in ratkngs from years prior.

Advocates for the expansion of early childhood education are hoping for a $120 million investment in pre-K programs — the amount of funding Gov. Tom Wolf had originally hoped to allocate — which would allow for an additional 14,000 slots.

Recent budget negotiations have halved that investment, with Wolf, according to a recent press release, urging legislators to approve his full request.

Phillips said it will take a total of $400 million in state investments to increase access to children at greatest risk of academic failure.

"We are certainly hoping that the legislature sees our issue as one of the top priorities," said Jodi Askins, executive director of the PA Association for the Education of Young Children. "There's also a certain time factor when you're considering the funding of these programs. There are kids that miss out every single year; it's not like we can say, 'We'll get you next year when we see the funding,' because those years of their lives are over."

Investment: Advocates suggest that Pennsylvania is at a competitive disadvantage because it is being outpaced by other states when it comes to expanding high-quality pre-K programs.

"I think of all the things we spend money on, this is actually an investment that pays off," said Josh Carney, an advocate and the owner and president of York-based Carney Engineering. "It's the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do."

According to an impact economic study performed by Ready Nation/America's Edge, every dollar invested in early education will generate $1.79 in immediate return and up to $17 in the long term "in savings and benefits through the economic ripple effect of reducing costs to our schools and society, including significant criminal justice savings ..."

If Pennsylvania were to fund high-quality pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds, the investment would initially generate about $800 million in additional goods and services and create almost 28,000 new jobs, according to the same study.

"For me, education has been the key to getting where I am," Carney said. "There's a lot of kids sitting around in tough circumstances and pre-K really is the right way to get people on their feet. I mean, those are my future stars, my designers and engineers. Every kid that falls through the system is a lost opportunity."

SanMartin's class recently had a police officer, a mechanic and other local workers visit her students.

"They learned that to get the job the want they have to go to school," she said. "It's never too early to start that type of learning."

Development: "Pre-K for PA is focused on early learning as a great equalizer," said Phillips, the organization's spokeswoman. "These students start school ready to learn. When a child has not had access to early learning, they start school outside that circle of learning, and we want to bring people into the learning circle early on in life."

Up to 90 percent of brain development happens by the time a child turns 5, she said, making early education all the more important.

"It's a lot about learning how to learn," Phillips said.

According to data from Pre-K for PA, early childhood education reduces grade repetition through eighth grade by a third, reduces special education placements by nearly half through third grade and increases the likelihood of high school graduation.

Askins emphasized pre-K isn't just a place for students to go while their parents aren't home.

"It's more than letters and numbers and colors; it helps with social and emotional development as well as the cognitive aspect," she said. Teachers "can spot the kids who have not had early education experience — they're the kids who don't know how to take turns or who don't know how to share."

Students in SanMartin's class participate in PATH, or "promoting alternative thinking strategies," to learn how to handle a difficult situation.

"Instead of hitting someone ... the student learns not to immediately react, but to take a deep breath and think about how to handle a situation," she said. "We want the kids to learn empathy and leadership; I always tell them, no matter how young they are, they can still be leaders in our school."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.