August 1, 2008

Wait Lists Grow Along With State Preschool Funding

By Meadows, Robyn

Hundreds of 3- and 4-year-olds in Pennsylvania sit on a waiting list to attend free preschool. Despite a 15 percent funding increase, the governor's free program, Pre-K Counts, does not have enough money this year to meet the skyrocketing demand for early childhood education, educators say.

The 2008-09 state budget pays for 800 new spaces and a total of 11,800 children.

Hundreds of requests made by families across the state, including dozens from Lancaster County, will have to hope spaces open up, according to Kristi Beach, the Pre-K Counts coordinator for KinderCare Learning Centers.

Oh, we have huge waiting lists, said Beach, whose company has Pre- K Counts centers in Lancaster county. There are going to be a lot of disappointed families this year. We are lucky that we got the money we did this year.

Michael Race, spokesman for the state Department of Education, says the long waiting list is evidence of the strong demand for the program.

For families, there is much on the line.

The state's Pre-K Counts program is designed for children who are at risk of falling behind in school - for example, those who speak English as a second language or have emotional needs.

And, it is designed to give working-class and middle-class families who earn too much, but not enough to pay for preschool, the chance to give their children a boost before kindergarten.

In the age of No Child Left Behind, children are expected to know and master more skills before they head to first grade. And educators are under intense pressure to narrow achievement gaps.

Children are tested now before they even go to kindergarten to determine who needs intervention.

Early childhood education works, according a state study of Pre- K Counts' first year. And pre-school officials, who test their charges to measure their progress, say children who participated last year have made tremendous growth in school readiness skills.

But before lawmakers agreed on funding this school year for Pre- K Counts, the governor conducted public-service announcements on radio and TV.

The media blitz succeeded, but families who responded now find themselves waiting.

The final 2008-09 state budget provides an additional $11.4 million for Pre-K Counts. This raises the total outlay to $86.4 million.

Race said the state funded the program the best it could.

While the state says the funding increase can accommodate 800 more children, many preschool centers are planning to use their increases to expand from half-day to full-day programs.

And children who were in the program last year as 3-year-olds have first dibs on 4-year-old programs.

The 2007-08 school year was the first for Pre-K Counts. Lancaster County garnered nearly $2 million in state grants that paid for 314 spots.

The programs are run mostly by private agencies that partner with public school districts.

The state has not announced the specific dollar amounts preschool centers will receive in the upcoming school year.

But it has announced 359 slots for the six centers in Lancaster County, that's up 45 spaces from last year. But the officials with these agencies said that does not mean they are in Lancaster County. A few of the companies also operate centers in other counties.

Officials from the six Lancaster County providers said their enrollment is about the same as last year. There are a few spots open in the Lancaster School District.

Laura Hess, the director of the Little People Day Care School in Columbia, said she couldn't expand despite the demand. Her school serves children from Columbia and Donegal school districts.

We have many, many, people on the waiting list, she said. The phones calls have been incredible. I have at least 20 on the 3-year- old (class) waiting list and at least another 20 on the 4-year- olds'.

KinderCare has state-approved Pre-K Counts locations across Pennsylvania, including a few here, such as the one on Eden Road and another off Greenfield Road on Charter Lane.

There is so much need in this area, Beach said.

We wish we had more space available.

Owl Hill Learning Centers operates two programs between Lititz and Manheim Township. In addition, it partners with a handful of agencies to service children in the Lancaster School District.

Owl Hill's Mary Ann Garrett said she has 33 students enrolled in the northern portion of the county, and just as many there on a waiting list.

We are disappointed because it's been so successful, Garrett said. And, we have had so much interest in it, and there is such a need for it.

But she is grateful that the program was not cut.

Hildebrandt Learning Centers, based in Dallas, Pa.. runs a Pre-K Counts program at Salisbury Elementary in the Pequea Valley School District. Its enrollment from last year is still at 40 students.

But Hildebrandt is expanding from a half-day to a full-day program.

Cocalico School District is not expanding because it did not ask for any new money.

There is not enough room.

We would love to be able to offer this program to more students, and hopefully will someday have the space to accommodate them, said April Hershey, Cocalico's assistant to the superintendent.

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