State grants bolster pre-kindergarten programs in Westmoreland County |
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Jamie Martines
Kate Berger, director of JB’s Bright Beginnings, claps as Rep. George Dunbar, R-Penn Township, helps pre-k students cut a ribbon to celebrate the first Pre-K Counts classroom at JB’s Bright Beginnings in Irwin on Sept. 18, 2018.

Several pairs of tiny hands helped cut the ribbon Tuesday that officially opened the first Pre-K Counts classroom at JB’s Bright Beginnings — a North Huntingdon pre-kindergarten and early-childhood learning center that is one of 10 such facilities across Westmoreland County to receive a Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts grant this school year.

Classrooms like this are an opportunity for all students to start kindergarten and first grade on equal footing, said Rep. George Dunbar, R-Penn Township.

“Those dollars that we spend here will get that return down the road,” said Dunbar, who joined the celebration in his district.

The state grants help fund centers that provide high-quality pre-K programs to at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, according to the state Department of Education. Families earning up to 300 percent of the poverty level — $75,000 per year for a family of four — are eligible to participate in these programs at no cost.

The 2018-19 state budget passed by lawmakers in June increased early-childhood education funding in Pennsylvania by $25 million, to $251 million.

“The increase in funding is going for those individuals who otherwise wouldn’t be in a program,” Dunbar said.

The payoff for students isn’t just academic success, educators at JB’s Bright Beginnings said. Pre-K is when students start learning how to follow directions and solve problems on their own — skills that help them as they get older and academics become more demanding.

“We’re their stepping stone from home to school,” said Jillian Miller, the center’s assistant director.

This is the first year JB’s Bright Beginnings, which serves 212 families living in the Hempfield Area, Norwin and Penn-Trafford school districts, will offer a Pre-K Counts-funded program. The grant covers an additional 20 slots for new students. The facility typically has a waiting list of about 20 students each school year, according to director Kate Berger.

Though the grant will help shrink the waiting list at JB’s Bright Beginnings, the region still has a long way to go before all young learners have access to pre-K programs, said Jesse Sprajcar, community Impact Director at United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Statewide, about 61 percent of the 175,200 3- or 4-year-olds eligible to participate in publicly-funded pre-K programs do not have access, according to data provided by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education. In Westmoreland County, about 65 percent of the 3,830 eligible children do not have access.

“The need is there,” said Sprajcar, a former kindergarten teacher who now works with the United Way to bolster pre-K programs across the region. “We just need the support behind it.”

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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