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City pre-k program has high demand and empty seats

Four-year-olds Lyriq Brooks (left) and Ceyanee Brown work with pre-K teacher Shannon Hurley at the Columbia North YMCA.
Four-year-olds Lyriq Brooks (left) and Ceyanee Brown work with pre-K teacher Shannon Hurley at the Columbia North YMCA.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia's city-funded pre-K program, launched last month, still has about 500 empty seats despite waiting lists and heavy demand at some centers.

Meanwhile, a $1.8 million grant from the William Penn Foundation will fund three years of research on the program's roll out to provide feedback on how prepared kids are once they get to kindergarten.

The city's office of education hoped to have 2,000 3 and 4-year-olds enrolled across the city by the first week of January, but as of Monday there were only 1,562 in about 100 classrooms citywide.

City officials and advocates attribute the  lag  to  the time of year and hesitancy some parents have about pulling their children from an existing program close to home for a city-funded option that could be of better quality but farther away.

The city will spend $12.2 million, funded through the sweetened beverage tax, on pre-K in fiscal year 2017, ramping up to about $60 million per year starting in 2021. The goal is to offer higher quality programs, predominantly to high-risk kids, to set them on a path toward success in grade school.

"I think what this says is, it's not a  simple process," said Mary Strasser, acting director of the city's  pre-K program.  "There are lots of variables -- 88 providers, 2,500 families -- and you just need to take the time that it takes to make sure that you get the right kids in the right place."

Strasser said interest is high. The pre-K Office has received more than 4,000 calls from parents; about 1,200 families have completed applications but haven't finished enrolling in some cases because their first choice was full.

Large cities like New York and San Antonio took several months to reach full capacity when they rolled out pre-K programs, Strasser said.

"I think many of us thought: I can't believe they're doing 2,000 in January, that's crazy," said Carol Austin, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, which helped create the city's pre-K program. "So given that expectation, having 1,500 is quite extraordinary."

Austin said there are plenty of low-quality pre-K centers, particularly in low-income areas, that are in some cases competing with the new free seats.

"It's going to take some time, but I wouldn't read into the 500 seats. It has nothing to do with demand," Austin said. "The key here is getting kids into quality centers.."

The program is free and open to any 3- or 4-year-old living in Philadelphia. Strasser said that so far, 79 percent of families enrolled live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which for a family of four means bringing in less than $48,000 a year.

Strasser said the Powelton and West Philadelphia centers filled up very quickly. Centers in Fairhill, in North Philadelphia, still have many of the 80 seats allotted available.

So far, seats have not been taken away from providers struggling to fill classrooms, but the city plans to adjust its allocation to better meet demand, Strasser said.

Jerry MacDonald is director of the Caring People Alliance, which has 20  seats in West Philadelphia and 20 in North Philadelphia. The center has only enrolled nine kids at the West Philadelphia center and 15 in North Philadelphia.

"Not all families understand the importance of quality, of having a teacher with a bachelor's degree in the room," MacDonald said. "So a lot of times, decisions are made based on convenience."

MacDonald hopes he can fill the seats before the city takes them away. The organization is rated three out of four stars by the state and has spent tens of thousands setting up two new classrooms.

The push to start in January was in part a way to show the courts what the controversial beverage tax is paying for, Mayor Kenney said Monday.

"We wanted to start because we wanted to put these programs in place to show how critical they are to children's success so for any legal challenge, we'd have that to show the judge or the Supreme Court," Kenney said.

The city won a legal challenge to the tax in December, but the case is under appeal. The program won't expand beyond 2,000 seats as long as it is in litigation.

On Monday the city also announced the  grant from the William Penn Foundation.

The National Institute for Early Education Research, an early childhood education research center at Rutgers University, will conduct classroom observations and interview children, teachers and parents to provide recommendations to the city.

"You want to make sure the kids who need it most are in fact the kids whose families are able to sign them up and get them in," said Steven Barnett, director of the institute.

"Cities are really the ones pushing to up the access to high-quality programs for young children and actually putting up money to do that. So how can we support this to make it the best possible for children and families?"