Centre County kids are benefiting from increased pre-K funding, but statewide gaps still exist

With help from a boost in state funding, what used to be empty space at the Learning Station is now home to a classroom for 3- and 4-year-olds who receive what director Lynda Mussi calls an “authentic” and high-quality early educational experience.

The increase in pre-K funding in the 2019-20 state budget — a total of $30 million in additional funding for Pre-K Counts and Head Start Supplemental Assistance programs — led to the 3035 Enterprise Drive school receiving a $157,000 grant to create a classroom for up to 20 additional 3- and 4-year-olds.

But while Learning Station has seen a direct benefit from the increased state funding, statewide gaps in pre-K education still exist. In Pennsylvania, 56% of eligible children — 97,702 — do not have access to high-quality pre-K programs, according to Pre-K for PA. Out of the 3,019 pre-K locations eligible to participate, an additional 4,885 pre-K classrooms are still needed to reach Pre-K for PA’s 2022 goal.

“Affordable, accessible high-quality child care is important to the health of Pennsylvania’s economy and to the development of young children, so we are also advocating for more state and federal investments to increase subsidized child care opportunities and to develop the professional workforce needed to drive those programs,” said Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania.

A family-owned business, the Learning Station has been operating since the early 1980s. Wanting to provide kids with high-quality education from the baby room through kindergarten, Mussi said kids are encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings verbally as they move through the program developmentally.

“We really want them to have an authentic experience,” Mussi said — noting that 95% of learning occurs between ages 0-5. “And we try to be natural in our supplies ... the clocks are hung lower, and the tables and chairs are shorter, so the kids can really see everything from their view.”

Mason, 4, runs under the parachute as he and his classmates in the Pre-K Counts class do an activity on Thursday at the Learning Station. Abby Drey

Kids participate in farm-to-table gardening where they learn how to grow food and have the hands-on experience of cooking for themselves. With indoor and outdoor facilities, children learn how to ride bikes and use public transportation to go on regular field trips to area farms, parks and libraries.

“The earlier you expose them to different experiences, the earlier they know things,” Mussi said.

Penn State graduate and former Learning Station attendee Natalie Kerr is a certified pre-K-4 teacher who works in the new classroom. As a teacher, Kerr said Learning Station staff members “set each of the kids up for success” — “while still having fun,” Mussi added.

In addition to the Learning Station, Tyrone Area School District, Penn State, the Child Development and Family Council of Centre County and CenClear Child Services were also awarded Pre-K Counts grants from the state to enhance their services. Despite the increased funding, some Centre County kids are still without access to high-quality prekindergarten programs.

According to a 2019 report, compiled by Pre-K for PA, 1,405 children ages 3-4 were eligible for high-quality, publicly funded pre-kindergarden, but 860 kids were still without access in Centre County. The same data reports that there are 36 pre-K locations eligible to participate — but 43 additional pre-K classrooms are needed to close the gap in Centre County, according to Pre-K for PA.

Pre-K for PA wants to provide every at-risk child with access to high-quality, affordable prekindergarten by 2022. An initiative supported by United Way, Rotz said the Pre-K Counts program receives more than $200 million in state funding, providing more than 23,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds in Pennsylvania with high-quality early education this past year. In addition to Pre-K Counts, Rotz said Head Start served more than 6,000 children last year, but there is still work to be done.

Students in the Pre-K Counts class laugh as they play outside on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019 at the Learning Station. Abby Drey

“There are many more at-risk children in Pennsylvania who need pre-K and Head Start,” Rotz said. “So, we continue to advocate for more state investment, which will result in future cost savings to taxpayers. We also know that high-quality child care for children from birth to age 3 is critical for many households where both parents must work to provide for their family.”

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, is scheduled to visit the Learning Station next month to learn more about its programming initiatives, its use of funding and hear about ways to further pre-K expansion locally and statewide.

“Early childhood education is something that has received broad support from both Republicans and Democrats,” Corman said, adding that studies and data have helped garner support and additional funding.

Corman, whose kids received high-quality early childhood education, said he was able to see “firsthand” how they developed and were prepared to move onto more advanced forms of schooling.

“When you have those programs, you want to see how the funds are being used,” Corman said. “I always look forward to (visiting), and it’s their chance to advocate firsthand for themselves.”

Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.