Reading Eagle: Berks County Sees a Boost for Pre-k Education
October 1, 2016 by David Mekeel

Seventeen sets of tiny hands grasped a long, blue ribbon, a bow at its center, and stretched it across their classroom.

The 3- and 4-year-olds were flanked by a group of grown-ups, smiling as pictures were snapped. At the count of three, four of the small children who had been given red and black safety scissors snipped away, making the opening of their new pre-kindergarten classroom official.

The Berks County Intermediate Unit on Friday celebrated the addition of seven new pre-k classrooms that have opened up across Berks County this school year with a special event at the BCIU Education Center along Centre Avenue. The new classrooms are the result of a $30 million increase in this year’s state budget for early childhood education.

Before the ribbon-cutting – and before state Sen. Judy Schwank sat down to read the kids a couple of stories – local and state officials gathered for a roundtable discussion about pre-k funding.

The discussion was led by Bruce Clash, state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Pennsylvania. The group, which is made up of 160 district attorneys, police chiefs and sheriffs, pushes for increased funding for early childhood education.

The goal of the group, according to Clash, is to make sure every child in the state has access to high-quality pre-kindergarten.”We’re here today to celebrate that we’re taking a chip out of that need,” he said.

Clash said the $30 million increase in state funding this year opened up pre-k opportunities for 4,000 kids across the commonwealth. But, he added, the need hasn’t gone away.

In Berks County alone, more than 4,800 children living 300 percent below the poverty line still don’t have access to pre-k. That number represents 76 percent of the children in the county currently living at that poverty level.

The fight to change the situation is a long, often frustrating one, Clash said.

“We all have flat spots on the side of our heads from beating them against the wall,” he told the group gathered around the table.

The funding increase, however, is at least a start.”

There are real little ones here,” Cheri Woyurka, BCIU director of early childhood and student services, said with a smile. “We have lots of little bodies in this building.

“Woyurka said the new state money allowed the BCIU to more than double its number of Pre-K Counts classrooms, going from six to 13. This year they’re serving 283 children at sites throughout the county.

And that’s a big deal.

As Al Ottinger, president of QIC Inc., a precision castings manufacturer in Blandon, explained, early childhood education opportunities lead to a better prepared workforce.

Ottinger attended Friday’s event as a representative of the business community. And, he said, that community is willing and eager to help get kids off on the right foot.

“The most compelling number is that you get a $17 return for every dollar you invest in pre-k,” he said.

Ottinger said today’s workforce is facing a shortage of skilled workers, especially in technology fields. To change that, he said, will require bolstering education.

Early childhood education also has an impact on the criminal justice system, Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams said.”This is sort of a crime prevention tool for us,” he said.

“Just exposing kids to a good start goes a long way to investing in their future.

“Adams said many of the criminals he comes across share a common shortcoming – namely, education.

Clash added that about half of all inmates in state prisons in Pennsylvania don’t have a high school diploma. Early education could help keep many students from following that path.

“All those things that lead to productive citizenship begin right here,” Clash said.

Schwank agreed, saying it’s hearing from people like Adams and Ottinger – along with visiting classrooms – that help make it so easy for her to support early education funding.

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