A quality start for Philadelphia’s youngest learners


group of children in pre-K

A quality start for Philadelphia’s youngest learners

“Mommy, how do astronauts shower?” Charlie, my daughter, asked when I picked her up from school yesterday. She is learning about gravity in her pre-k class this week and has been participating in experiments to test out this principle. The classroom science center is stocked full of everyday items – balls, feathers, pinecones, pencils, rocks, balloons, paper – all for Charlie and her fellow pre-k scientists to explore, test, and observe the law of gravity. There are stools and chairs to stand on; blocks to make ramps; and play-doh to make hills and mountains so that they can test how fast or slow things fall at different heights and weights. There is also a clipboard to draw or write out observations so that they can analyze the data after they have completed their experiments.

Charlie has also learned that while earth has gravity, there is no gravity in space, hence her question about how astronauts shower. She makes these types of logical connections all the time and while this is a part of natural child development, Charlie has a teacher who has been trained to create the best learning environment possible so that she connects the abstract to her daily life. Her pre-k classroom is in a child care center that subscribes to national and state standards of best practice based on research. And both her teacher and her center director make sure that I am a part of Charlie’s learning and development through parent conferences, parent committees and family events.

Charlie is only half way through pre-k and it’s amazing what she has learned. She has learned important pre-literacy skills such as predicting what will happen next while reading a story. Her entries in her daily journal have gone from markings, to drawings, to invented words, to actual words that are almost spelled correctly. She recently completed a still life clay sculpture of a dinosaur family and knows from cooking club that if you are out of eggs you can use applesauce and your muffins will turn out just as good, important lessons in following directions. She has done yoga, kickboxing and basketball to develop her gross motor skills, and she is working to master her fine motor skills by learning to hold her pencil correctly and to press firmly when trying to write. She knows what will happen if you add vinegar to baking soda and has discussed the change in these properties. She is adept at making up games, can initiate and participate in conversations, and she knows how to show compassion and to accept and give an apology when needed.

All of these things that I have described about Charlie’s pre-k class are preparing her to be a competent learner in kindergarten.  Unfortunately many of Philadelphia’s young children are not in settings that are getting them ready for kindergarten. In fact, data show that of the more than 42,000 age-eligible pre-k children in Philadelphia, only 36 percent are in publically-funded high-quality pre-k.

Luckily, for some 2,000 Philadelphia preschoolers, this year marks the beginning of a new experience. These 3- and 4-year-olds became the first wave of children to benefit from the City-sponsored early childhood education initiative, PHLpreK. Funded by the new sugary beverage tax, PHLpreK offers engaging, appropriate activities in settings that facilitate healthy growth and development for young children and prepare them for success in school. PHLpreK will give directors and teachers the training, support and resources they need to offer higher quality pre-k services. Officials expect another 1,000 seats to open in September with the program providing for 6,500 seats in total when fully scaled.

Research shows us that young children who attend high-quality pre-k have better school and life outcomes. They are more prepared for kindergarten, less likely to engage in delinquent behavior, more likely to graduate high school, and they make more money over a lifetime(1). The hallmark of the City’s march toward universal pre-K is access to the type of quality that would afford all young children in Philadelphia a solid educational start. Ensuring that start means providing access to quality pre-k programs that are comprised of:

  • Well trained and prepared teachers who are responsive to needs and know how to build strong relationships with children and families.
  • Ongoing professional development and staff training on curriculum content, classroom management, and the social and emotional development of students.
  • Low student-to-teacher ratios (10:1) and class sizes with no more than 20 children.
  • Evidence-based curriculum that addresses the developmental needs of 3- and 4-year-old children.
  • Activities that engage parents and extended family members in children’s learning and development.


The William Penn Foundation has been, and will continue to be, a proponent of high-quality early learning. The momentum – created with both public and private support – that is ushering in this new era of early childhood education is an exciting moment for Philadelphia. Continuing to build a body of evidence that demonstrates the positive impact of this work is important and the Foundation recently partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Education and the National Institute for Early Education Research to fund an evaluation to make sure we are meeting our citywide pre-k goals.

Class is in session for Philadelphia’s early learners. And for many of these youngsters – and their teachers – learning has never been such fun.

We welcome any questions, thoughts or feedback at blog@williampennfoundation.org.

(1) Schweinhart, L.J., Montie, J., Xiang, Z., Barnett, S.W., Belfield, C.R., Nores, M., 2004. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through Age 40 Summary, Conclusions and Frequently asked Questions, Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press


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