Photo Gallery | Child Care of the Berkshires preschool program
For the preschool-aged children and families of Berkshire County, access to more free early childhood programs can't come fast enough.
State figures for December indicate that 486 local children from income eligible families qualify and could benefit from but are wait-listed for vouchers that would allow them to attend a certified early childhood or school-age education program.
The state's Department of Early Education and Care recognizes the need to reach the commonwealth's youngest children too. To help put expansion planning into motion, the department on Jan. 15 announced $500,000 in grant money to be allocated to 13 high-need cities and towns, including North Adams and Pittsfield.
"A high quality early education experience provides children with a solid foundation for learning and optimal development that is essential for long-term success," said Early Education and Care Commissioner Tom Weber in announcing the grants.
According to state data for December, a total of 25,759 children from income-eligible families in the commonwealth are on waiting lists for vouchers to attend a state-accredited infant, toddler, preschool or school-age education and care program.
Under the new Commonwealth Preschool Partnership Initiative, the two Berkshire cities will each receive a $40,000 grant to convene a team of public and private sector professionals to work out all the details to create a high-quality program that meets their local needs — from curriculum to classroom construction all the way to training to salaries needed to attract and retain highly credentialed teachers.
Between the two cities, leaders from more than a dozen agencies plus the two public school districts will spend the next few months weighing options, poring over data, and looking at where the gaps can be filled to better help kids and families. All grantees will be required to send progress update to the department in March and May.
By June, these communities must deliver to the state a solid, itemized plan to offer more free preschool options to the families that need it the most, the ones who couldn't afford or access such education otherwise.
Anne Nemetz-Carlson, executive director of the North Adams-based Child Care of the Berkshires Inc., said the new grant funding will help agencies continue the work that began about a year and a half ago under a previous state grant designed to help better align programs and services from birth to age 3. That funding cycle ended in December.
For her region, Nemetz-Carlson said these types of grants "ensure our partners up here in North County are all at the same table on initiatives like early intervention and enrichment, and that we'll have a plan ready to go if we got the money for it."
So while the new preschool planning grant program affords communities the funds to hire consultants, architects, planners and tap into other resources to identify the costs and logistics of running a free preschool program, it doesn't afford them the certainty of when, where and how such programs will be funded into existence, be it through the state or other streams of revenue.
Funding the future
The Preschool Partnership Initiative is specifically focused on getting 3- and 4-year-olds into high-quality preschool programs, defined by a criteria developed by the Department of Early Education and Care. This age group, particularly 4-year-olds, is targeted because that's the critical age children should be preparing social and academic skills enabling them to successfully transition from preschool into kindergarten the following year.
"But we know that this is expensive and will cost a lot of money, and we know that city and school budgets cannot support this at this time," said Karen Vogel, community impact program manager for Berkshire United Way. The agency is one of the Pittsfield project's partners and also a leader in the Pittsfield Promise initiative, which advocates for early childhood programs and increased literacy rates in the city.
Said Vogel, "Without state support, our chance of supporting [the free preschool plan] is nil, but we hope the money's coming down the pike at some point."
She said initial estimates for offering a community-based free preschool program come in at around $10,000 to $12,000 per child per year. By comparison, in 2014, Pittsfield Public Schools spent an average of $13,755 per pupil and North Adams spent $15,484, with a state average of $14,518, according to state expenditure data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Vogel said that while about 60 percent of the approximately 450 kids entering kindergarten in Pittsfield each year have some sort of preschool experience, nearly 200 kids are not getting an early education, putting them at risk of falling behind their peers as they try to move up the grade school ladder. She said she hopes that the partnership grant project will allow agencies to come up with a plan to reach at least 100 kids during its first year of implementation.
In North Adams, the goal is to develop budget projections to reach between 60 and 80 preschool-aged children who would otherwise not attend a program.
Both Vogel and Nemetz-Carlson said funding is the biggest barrier to getting kids enrolled in preschool.
Vogel said parents can easily pay between $250 and $300 a week for infant and childcare, and not every family can afford that. "Some parents can't work because they don't have childcare, which affects the financial stability of our city right now," she said.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, a vocal advocate for early childhood education, agrees.
"I think the reasons to invest [in preschool programs] are so broad in terms of economic development, especially if you have people staying home because they can't afford childcare," Farley-Bouvier said.
She added, "If you can have a good preschool experience, it makes a huge difference if you're reading at a third-grade level, which we know is a key indicator of whether a child will continue to succeed in school."
Struggling for priority
Rep. Farley-Bouvier stayed late in Boston this past Thursday night to hear Gov. Charlie Baker's "State of the Commonwealth" address before returning home to the Berkshires. Among the things she said she was listening for were any remarks on early childhood, an area which she says has been a priority of the Gateway City legislative caucus, which Pittsfield is a part of.
While the preceding gubernatorial administration under Deval Patrick advocated for universal pre-kindergarten program, the Baker administration has taken a different stance. Baker's top education officials say they're not adverse to coming up with ways to reduce the waiting list for early childhood and care vouchers, but they have argued that communities should focus on improving the quality of early childhood programs instead of rapidly expanding the number of programs the state offers.
In his address, while the governor mentioned investments in higher education and vocational schools, helping children in families involved with child welfare agencies or battling opioid addiction, and efforts to increase local and education aid, he did not mention "pre-kindergarten" or "early childhood" once.
"I also urge you to be bold on K-12 education," said Baker, before advocating to lift the state's cap on public charter schools.
He concluded that portion of his speech by saying that "a state that places such high value on education should not place arbitrary limits on high-quality schools. And it should not sit idly by while so many parents feel the pain of missed opportunity for their children."
Under the Baker administration, in addition to the Preschool Partnership Initiative, the state did receive last year nearly $15 million in federal preschool expansion grant funds to provide more than 800 pre-kindergarten slots over the next two years in Holyoke, Boston, Lawrence, Lowell and Springfield.
As for the thousands of other children currently waiting in the Berkshires and other Massachusetts municipalities, they might outgrow their opportunity to get any kind of early education at all.
The lead agencies for the cities of North Adams and Pittsfield, both grant recipients in the commonwealth's Preschool Partnership Initiative, are the public school districts. Here's a look at other partners the districts are collaborating with.
Pittsfield Public Schools will lead its preschool planning project under the direction of Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, who will chair the steering committee. Collaborating partners are: Berkshire Children and Families; Berkshire Community College; Berkshire County Head Start; Berkshire United Way; Boys & Girls Club Children's Center; Child Care of the Berkshires; City of Pittsfield; Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts; Pediatric Development Center; and the Preschool Enrichment Team.
North Adams Public Schools will lead its preschool planning project under the direction of Superintendent James Montepare, who will chair the steering committee. Collaborating partners are: Child Care of the Berkshires; Berkshire County Head Start; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts; The Family Center of Northern Berkshire County, a Coordinated Family and Community Engagement (CFCE) program; the Northern Berkshire branch of the Berkshire Family YMCA; Northern Berkshire Early Intervention Program of United Cerebral Palsy of Berkshire County; and the Preschool Enrichment Team.
By the numbers
December 2015 income eligible children on the state voucher waitlist
School age: 188
Total: 486 children not enrolled
School age: 18
Total: 54 children not enrolled
School age: 118
Total: 254 children not enrolled
Source: Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care