Lancaster Online: Op-ed: We need to invest in high-quality pre-K in Lancaster County
April 26, 2017 by Randy Patterson and Sue Suter

Lancaster County today is bursting with opportunities.

In one aspect, however, opportunities fall short. Too few children have the opportunity to attend high-quality prekindergarten, which helps prepare kids for success in school and in life. When they lack this essential opportunity, later opportunities for achievement may be out of reach, and our entire community suffers from their absence as productive citizens.

High-quality pre-K coincides with the critical years before age 5, when 90 percent of brain development occurs. By building strong neurological pathways and connectors, the brain prepares the foundation for a lifetime of learning, critical thinking and even socialization.

There’s a hitch, though. Proper brain development requires careful guidance. Carefully crafted, scientifically proven activities such as play and exposure to books help the brain grow healthy and strong. A lack of enrichment discourages the brain from growing to its full potential.

High-quality pre-K provides that enriching atmosphere, and research shows that it’s especially effective for children from lower-income families. Given nurturing experiences, these children enter kindergarten ready to learn, on par with their peers.

By investing in high-quality pre-K, we give kids a strong start, yielding returns that are both immediate and long lasting:

— High-quality pre-K reduces grade repetition and special education placements in later grades, saving resources that schools can spend on other, equally pressing needs.

— Children who benefit from high-quality pre-K are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to graduate and receive post-secondary education. This powerful combination boosts their employment opportunities and earning power, while also reducing the costs to society for social services.

— Every $1 spent in Pennsylvania on early learning such as high-quality pre-K generates an additional 79 cents in other sectors of the economy. Viewed from another perspective, every dollar invested in high-quality pre-K returns up to $17 in long-term savings and benefits.

Despite these proven returns, Pennsylvania’s investment in early learning is lagging. More than 112,900 eligible preschool children aren’t served by high-quality, publicly funded pre-K, even though they qualify.

That’s 64 percent of children ages 3 to 5 who probably aren’t getting the enrichment that boosts their prospects for lifetime success. Chances are, we will never benefit from their future contributions to our businesses and neighborhoods.

Throughout Pennsylvania, the unmet need is felt sharply in every community, whether rural, urban or suburban.

In Lancaster County alone, more than 78 percent of all eligible children in low-income families aren’t afforded the opportunity to attend publicly funded, high-quality pre-K classrooms. Consider the numbers within some local County school districts:

— Penn Manor School District, suburban: 84 percent, an estimated 494 kids.

— Solanco School District, rural: 95 percent, an estimated 768 kids.

— Elizabethtown Area School District, suburban: 90 percent, an estimated 278 kids.

— School District of Lancaster, urban: 55 percent, an estimated 1,015 kids.

These numbers are not unusual. More information about regional school district results can be found in Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children’s recent report, “A Path Forward,” at papartnerships.org/prekinpa.

The United Way of Lancaster County has established a “bold goal” that all children will enter kindergarten ready to learn by 2025. We are funding eight community impact partnerships striving toward that goal through increased access to quality early care, helping teen parents receive post-secondary education credentials, coordinating other wraparound services with early education, increasing the quality of home-based child care, and developing interactive activities that help parents understand their children’s brain development.

By investing in the critical need for high-quality pre-K education, United Way and our partners will create systems in our community to ensure that all Lancaster County children enter kindergarten ready to learn by 2025. However, there is much more work to be done to make this possible.

Public investments are needed to ensure a strong and well-financed child care system that serves as the foundation of effective pre-K delivery. By supporting substantial investments in high-quality pre-K, including the $75 million funding increase proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf in this year’s state budget, we give more children the chance to become productive citizens, ready to deploy their talents for the good of our community and businesses.

For more information, please visit LiveUnitedLancaster.org

Randy Patterson chairs the United Way of Lancaster County board. Sue Suter is the organization’s president and CEO.

See the op-ed here.

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