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If we want pre-K for all, we need to build pre-K for all

Ample evidence has proven what good early childhood education can do for a population's intellectual, emotional and economic well-being. But to provide high quality, age-appropriate educational opportunities for all our youngest learners, we need to put our money where our mouths are, argues LISC's Amy Gillman in an op-ed for The Hechinger Report. Gillman makes the case for a serious national commitment to funding and building pre-k facilities that have the best interests of our children—and our future—in mind.

The excerpted article below was originally published as:
"Why are we sending children to pre-K programs in converted salons, bars and turkey coops?"
by Amy Gillman, The Hechinger Report

Political leaders are pledging to make pre-K accessible to all families and nearly three in four Americans support major investment in early childhood learning — we are a long way, though, from acting on what we say we value.

Early childhood education is still woefully underfunded and seats are in critically short supply. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, at current levels of public funding, it would take about 75 years for states to reach 50 percent enrollment for four year olds, and 150 years to reach 70 percent enrollment. The need is particularly great in low-income neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, where only 17 percent of preschool-age kids have access to quality, affordable education.

But envisioning a place for every child is not enough; the right kind of space is crucial. To be effective, early childhood centers need good lighting, sinks and windows at child height, bathrooms that teachers can supervise without leaving the class and a design that invites exploration and independence while maintaining safety.

The reality is that pre-K facilities, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods, are too often housed in makeshift spaces, from the ubiquitous church basement to such anomalous settings as a converted hair salon and a repurposed bar.

The Children’s Investment Fund found that many Massachusetts early childhood education centers serving low-income families were not up to code or poorly equipped, and all but one were inaccessible to children with disabilities. Twenty-two percent had high levels of carbon dioxide and one in five did not even have windows. One program that took up residence in a former turkey coop was so cold in the winter that an outdoor hose was kept running to keep pipes from freezing.

Pre-K professionals, however poorly paid, are famous for their ability to create great learning experiences with paltry resources. But inadequate conditions take their toll on teachers, too, and the most experienced are often driven away.

When Khadija Lewis Khan opened the Beautiful Beginnings Child Care Center in Providence, Rhode Island, to serve low-income families, she used the only available space she could afford — a former clothing store in a strip mall. Four-foot-high shelving units were all that separated classrooms in the cavernous room. Bathrooms were a long walk from learning areas. The open plan magnified sound and visual distractions.

Behavior issues were chronic. Bathroom trips and the quirky layout resulted in lost class time; the center failed accreditation. Teachers suffered from headaches and stiff necks. Khan measured the stress of the day by how quickly the aspirin bottle ran out. Continued[+]...


Amy Gillman, Director of Community Health
Amy focuses on integrating health and wellness strategies into LISC’s neighborhood revitalization work. She also oversees our early childhood and healthy food lending activities, and has been instrumental in the development of 190 early learning facilities and leveraging some $96 million to make good nutrition more accessible in low-income places.