Major gaps in coverage exist with early childhood education in Centre County, experts say

A tune from the pre-K class at Discovery

Students in the pre-kindergarten class at Discovery Child Development Center sing sections of songs from their end of the year program.
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Students in the pre-kindergarten class at Discovery Child Development Center sing sections of songs from their end of the year program.

Research indicates that early childhood education and high quality child care are vital to a child’s development between the ages of 0 and 4, yet major gaps in coverage exist in Centre County and Pennsylvania as a whole.

There are 1,246 children ages 3-4 in Centre County who are eligible for high-quality, publicly funded pre-kindergarten, but 59% of them don’t have access, according to data compiled by the Pre-K for PA initiative. There are 34 pre-K locations eligible to serve children needing publicly-funded programs — but 37 additional pre-K classrooms are needed to close the gap, says Pre-K for PA.

At the Central Intermediate Unit #10 in College Township, which represents school districts in Centre, Clearfield and Clinton counties, a panel of local and regional advocates and experts in early childhood education came together Thursday for an event hosted by the Centre County United Way. Panelists discussed the region’s early childhood learning needs, obstacles to meeting those needs and solutions.

“It takes a team to support children. We need family, strong family support, we need a community that supports early childhood development,” said Amy Wible, child development and disabilities coordinator at CenClear Child Services in Philipsburg.

Getting a child into a pre-K program can mean the difference between a child’s special needs getting identified and a child entering kindergarten with no diagnosis and lots of hardship, said Megan Evans, communications director for the Centre County United Way.

“I have a very spirited and delayed granddaughter. She’s 4, she’ll be 5 in June,” said Evans. “... There’s been no issues with her going to school ... but she started having problems at school. And it was the staff at her school that said to (her) mom, ‘you know, I think there’s more going on here.’ “

After many evaluations and observations, Evans’ granddaughter was given a delayed language diagnosis. Her acting out in class could have been frustration at not being able to communicate effectively, she said. Through meetings and observations, school district officials determined she wasn’t ready for kindergarten in the fall, and recommended two early childhood education programs for the interim. The only problem? They were both full.

Evans said her granddaughter, Eva, will be attending kindergarten in the fall at Corl Street Elementary School, but she has a team of educators, therapists and administrators helping guide her to the next step.

“Thank goodness she started at 3, when we were able to identify these things early on, so that she can be better prepared for kindergarten,” said Evans.

But for the 106,200 eligible children in Pennsylvania who don’t have access to early childhood education, problems may go unidentified.

“Children are coming to us with a multitude of challenges to work through,” Wible said. And those challenges are not endemic to low-income children and families — they exist across the board, underscoring the importance of high quality child care and early childhood education for all children, she said.

Without a combination of birth to 3 and pre-K programs, she said, many children enter kindergarten with behavioral issues and learning disabilities that can sometimes disrupt their and others’ learning environment.

Income eligibility requirements also restrict parents’ access unintentionally, said Wible, who often sees parents making just above the income cutoff who can’t afford child care expenses or are struggling to find a high quality program at an affordable price.

Income guidelines are tricky, said Nichol Sheridan, Early Learning Resource Center Child Care Works director, because they often leave parents in limbo where accepting a higher-paying job makes them lose their subsidized child care.

“There is what we call a cliff effect,” she said, where families either decide it’s better to stop working and continue receiving child care benefits, or accept a higher-paying job and pay nearly 80% of their income to child care, versus 15-20% on subsidized care.

A coalition of early childhood education organizations, including Childhood Begins at Home, Start Strong PA and Pre-K for PA, say in order to close the child care gap in Pennsylvania, state lawmakers need to commit an additional $105 million in funding to expand services.

That $105 million, the organizations say, will break down to $50 million to provide an additional 5,500 young children pre-K, $50 million to support the healthy development of 10,000 infants and toddlers by paying child care providers in high-quality programs more and $5 million to community-based family centers to serve 800 additional eligible families with home visiting services.

Lawmakers should also support $101 million in federal funds to serve another 970 infants and toddlers in high quality early childhood development programs, the groups say.

In Pennsylvania alone, 5,310 additional pre-K classrooms are needed to meet the need for children ages 3-4 who meet income guidelines for publicly-funded programs, according to data from Kids Count: Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.

But barriers to funding these changes remain for Pennsylvania. Matt Wise, a field representative for State Sen. Jake Corman, said the best thing advocates for early childhood educational funding can do is make lawmakers an argument they absolutely can’t refuse.