Great Learning

A month in, Philly pre-K faces a paradox: high demand and empty seats

Posted: Monday, February 6, 2017
Source: NewsWorks/WHYY

A month after it began Philadelphia's pre-K program still has 500 unfilled seats, but officials and advocates praise the city's progress and say open slots don't indicate soft demand.

About 1,500 of the 2,000 slots made available through the city's sweetened beverage tax have been claimed, according to the Mayor's Office of Education. Another 600 children have applied to the PHLpreK program, but have yet to enroll at a specific early child care center.

Many of those families are stuck on waiting lists or still shopping around. Right now the city is trying to readjust its distribution of new pre-K seats so that centers with backlogs can take on more students.

"There are a lot of kids on waiting lists at different providers," said Mary Strasser, acting director for the city's pre-K initiative. "That's part of our rightsizing process. And we're making those adjustment today and early next week."

The coexistence of both empty seats and overflow may be difficult to reconcile, but research suggests the tricky economics of pre-K make it tough to match supply and demand. Families tend to prefer sites that are close to home or work, and are unlikely to stray even a short distance for higher-quality centers.

Therefore city government has to be precise when choosing where to add new seats. After testing the waters in the first phase of the PHLpreK roll out, officials say they're ready to recalibrate based on early enrollment figures.

"We're confident that these seats will all be filled once we redistribute them," said Stasser. "And we will hit our 2,000-[seat] target."

Philadelphia's pre-K program has been in the spotlight ever since Mayor Jim Kenney introduced an unprecedented sweetened beverage tax to pay for the initiative. The program's launch in early January--exactly one year after Kenney's inauguration--is widely considered one of the mayor's signature achievements during his first year in office.

During the fierce debate over the beverage tax, supporters argued there was a large unmet demand for quality pre-K seats. A report from the Philadelphia Commission on Universal Pre-Kindergarten said there are more than 17,000 three and four-year-olds in the city who couldn't access publicly funded, high-quality pre-K and were living at or below 300% of the federal poverty line.

"A remarkable achievement"
So what does it say that a month after Philadelphia pre-K began--and more than three months after the city began soliciting applications--a quarter of the new seats haven't been claimed? Was demand for pre-kindergarten not as hot as city leaders anticipated?

No, say advocates and experts. Simply put, they argue, scaling up a new pre-kindergarten program in three months is challenging.

"I'm shocked they got as far as they did," said Diane Castelbuono, who heads the Office of Early Childhood Education for the School District of Philadelphia, which received some of the city's pre-K slots. "It's extraordinary."

Castelbuono expected the city might struggle to fill seats in the middle of winter because most families make their schooling choices in fall.

"I had my concerns about a mid-year opening," she said.

Many observers also worried city government was stretching itself too thin in an attempt to get the program running as soon as the new tax went into effect. Those fears, however, have largely been allayed, said Castelbuno. She expects the remaining unfilled seats will fill in as the city adjusts to initial enrollment figures.

"The city's learning a little bit about where demand outstrips supply and where supply outstrips demand," she said.

Carol Austin, who heads the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children and serves on the city's pre-K advisory board, also takes the number of filled seats as a good sign--not a troubling one.

"I think that's quite a remarkable achievement considering that this process really only got started in October," she said. "There wasn't a lack of interest at all."

So far the city's pre-K hotline has received over 4,000 calls, said Strasser.

One of the hurdles, however, has been fielding and processing all the requests.

The city hired an intermediary organization to handle intake and all applications must go through a centralized system. That has slowed the process, said Strasser.

In particular, it's been difficult for the city to certify that applicants live in Philadelphia and are the appropriate age. To try and speed the process, the city has allowed families to begin taking pictures of essential documents such as birth certificates and submitting those pictures via e-mail.

"You know the mechanics of stuff like this takes longer than two seconds," said Strasser. "It's not like you're going to a convenience store and buying a drink."

She said that pre-K programs in other major cities--including New York and San Antonio--have required multiple months to reach full capacity.

Most early applicants are low-income
Another critical indicator for PHLpreK will be the demographics of the students it serves.

Amid significant debate, the city decided to open the initiative to all Philadelphians. Other major government-funded early childhood programs have income requirements. Families applying to the state-run pre-K program, for instance, cannot make more than 300% of the federal poverty level.

So far, according to Strasser, 88 percent of families who have "initiated applications" with PHLpreK live at 300% of the federal poverty level or below.

She said that number is about in line with expectations and should appease those who thought the city's well-to-do would crowd out needier applicants.

"We definitely are reaching the families we want to reach with this program," she said.

William Penn to fund PHLpreK study
Making sense of this early data is difficult since the city hasn't run a program like this before.

The William Penn Foundation has agreed to fund a three-year research project that will evaluate PHLpreK's effectiveness, WHYY/Newsworks has learned.

The study--which will include periodic updates on the initiative--is slated to cost just under $1.8 million.

Academics from the National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University have signed on to do the work. The study will focus on the design of PHLpreK, its implementation, and eventually its outcomes.

Researchers will look at roughly 600 PHLpreK participants and measure their kindergarten readiness to see if the initiative improved student learning.

"We really want the evaluation to serve as a GPS for quality," said Milagros Nores, NIEER's co-director.

Depending on outcomes, it's possible the William Penn Foundation will fund further research that follows students through the upper grades. Some past studies suggest the benefits of early childhood education fade as students age.

"It's important to have an outside set of eyes looking at the work that's being done," said Elliot Weinbaum, program director for William Penn. "Obviously the city and its citizens are investing a huge amount of money in this."

Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation supports education journalism at WHYY.

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