Demand for preschool booms in Western Pennsylvania, but expense, limited space are barriers
Finding a pre-kindergarten program can be difficult and expensive, even though experts say early childhood education is vital to students’ success.
Pre-K in Western Pennsylvania includes tuition- or grant-supported public school programs, private school programs and child care centers.
“Especially in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, a full-day, full-year pre-K program can average $1,000 a month,” said Michelle Figlar, deputy secretary of child development and early learning at the state Department of Human Services. “Outside of that, a high-quality pre-K program could still be $400 or $500.”
The state Pre-K Counts program is meant to help working-class families afford classes, setting its income limit higher than Head Start at 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, Figlar said. A family of four at 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines has an annual income of $24,250.
There is only enough funding through Head Start and Pre-K Counts to help one in six children access high-quality programs, said Cara Ciminillo, interim executive director for the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children.
“When children begin with high-quality early learning, the early investment prevents the achievement gap from becoming too wide and reduces the need for costly interventions,” she said.
Pittsburgh Public Schools is the region’s largest public provider of pre-K classes, with an average of 1,700 students a year in 34 locations, said Carol Barone-Martin, the district’s executive director of early childhood education. It accepts subsidized and full-tuition students.
“Kids who have quality pre-kindergarten are a lot more prepared for school,” Barone-Martin said. “We see that in test scores as far up as the third grade.”
The city’s pre-K program is open to anyone, but there’s not enough space for everyone who applies. Families that don’t qualify for federal Head Start aid or state Pre-K Counts aid can pay full tuition, $6,500 a year, said district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh.
“I don’t know of any other districts that have embraced it the way we have,” Barone-Martin said.
Many school districts’ pre-K classes are limited to subsidized programs. Penn Hills offers a free pre-K program for up to 34 students, funded by federal grants. The district screens applicants for health, cognitive and motor skills development, and takes low-scoring children, said Renel Williams, director of teaching, learning and assessment.
When the district collected test data three years ago, students who participated in the program were 75 percent proficient or better on state reading and math tests, Williams said. She did not have data comparing them to students of the same age who hadn’t gone through pre-K, but such proficiency among children starting at a disadvantage helped save the program when funding was tight.
Not all Pre-K is created equally, said Steven Green, CEO of the Butler County Children’s Center, which runs Pre-K Counts classes at Sugarcreek Elementary in Cowansville and Northwest Elementary in Butler.
“Pre-K classrooms in elementary schools are much more successful because kids participate in elementary school activities,” he said. “It gets them used to the building, so when they go to kindergarten they’re not overwhelmed.”
The Allegheny Intermediate Unit runs 58 Head Start classrooms and 13 Pre-K Counts classrooms. Private providers are partners for some of the programs, said spokeswoman Sarah McCluan. Other districts, such as Keystone Oaks and West Allegheny, offer small pre-K programs — one or two classes for a few hours each week — to provide experience for high school students in childhood development courses.
Moon Area School District has partnered with Westmoreland County-based Special Education and Behavioral Connections to open the Moon Early Childhood Center in the district’s former Hyde Elementary building, offering pre-K to as many as 120 children ages 3-5. Families will pay tuition of $950 to $1,110 a month, said David Fales, executive director for the company.
Connections heard about the community’s demand for the former school to remain a place for education and parents’ desire for more pre-K choices, Fales said.
Jeannette City School District planned to add a pre-K program this fall with the help of a Pre-K Counts grant, but the state budget stalemate has left funding uncertain, Superintendent Matthew Hutchinson said.
The district expanded its kindergarten program to full-day last year, and if state funding comes through, Jeannette hopes to add pre-K for about 40 students, he said.
“We’re seeing a need to enhance education programs, and that’s where we saw this grant continue our commitment to early education,” Hutchinson said.
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh offers pre-K classes at 56 of its 59 diocesan schools and runs four private pre-schools, said Jacqueline M. Lucci, executive assistant for the Department of Catholic Schools.
Diocesan programs range in price from about $700 to about $5,000 a year, depending on the child’s age and how many days a week the school operates, Lucci said.
KinderCare, a private pre-K provider, offers a pre-K class for 4- and 5-year-olds and a “transitional” curriculum for 5-year-olds who just missed the enrollment cutoff age. KinderCare’s tuition averages about $200 a week.
Enrollment varies among the Mt. Lebanon, Bethel Park, Downtown Pittsburgh and Moon locations, averaging 20 students, said Wendy Donovan, KinderCare’s district manager. “Some might have a smaller classroom setting of 10,” she said.
“Typically, classes fill to capacity,” she said.
Robin Gieseki has been sending her sons, 5 and 3, to Mt. Lebanon KinderCare since they were 6 weeks old. Gieseki’s said her older son is finishing pre-K there, and she plans to enroll him in KinderCare’s preschool program.
“We didn’t even go to the elementary open house or learn about the program, because we love (KinderCare) so much,” she said.
Matthew Santoni and Katherine Schaeffer are staff writers for Trib Total Media.