“No one is clamoring at the state House for good data about pre-k for the landscape,” O’Leary said.
In late 2014, with the announcement that $15 million would be split across five communities—Springfield, Lawrence, Lowell, Holyoke, and Boston—the data problem got a spotlight, frustrating those who wanted to hit the ground running.
Somerville, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, got its own infusion of federal dollars to expand preschool through the Early Learning Challenge Grant, offered as part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. While the school district has a long history of offering preschool for 4-year-olds whose families want to pay for it, it has added four new public school classrooms since 2010, and this year the district added a Head Start classroom to its roster through a partnership with the agency.
Strategies for Children estimates only about 56 percent of Somerville’s 3- and 4-year-olds are in formal early-childhood programs, but by surveying the children actually entering Somerville Public Schools, Lisa Kuh, the district’s director of early education, has found a rosier picture. Out of the 420 children who entered kindergarten this year, less than 10 percent came in without any preschool experience at all. Of the 4-year-olds taking advantage of the public preschool classrooms, however, closer to half enrolled without prior experience in a formal early-childhood program.
Kuh has interviewed parents of enrolled preschool and kindergarten students to find out, retroactively, why they chose certain early childhood arrangements. Some families, culturally, find it important to keep their children at home with relatives as long as possible and have made preschool decisions accordingly. Some segments of Somerville’s immigrant population have been wary of the public systems and kept their children away from them. And other families, especially those with higher incomes, have sought out their own enrichment activities to prepare their children for kindergarten.
This feedback has informed future planning. The district has also started collaborating with other government agencies for a more complete picture of who isn’t enrolled in a formal early childhood program.
“Short of knocking on doors, which we don’t have the capacity to do, we’re working with city hall now to figure out how to get data from families about babies,” Kuh said. The district has collected birth records from 2013 to populate a mailing list for families who still live in town.
It’s a lot of work for a district that technically doesn’t have any mandate to serve the youngest learners. But looking at its own kindergarten-readiness and early-assessment data proves it makes a difference. Kuh has found children coming into kindergarten without any preschool experience have weaker social-emotional skills, which contribute to learning, and are less advanced in literacy than those who have had formal education previously.
“We know that having high-quality pre-k makes a difference,” Kuh said. “It makes a huge difference.”
Cities just have to overcome all the challenges to expanding it.