Lancaster Online: Study: Thousands of Lancaster County children eligible for free preschool aren’t getting it
December 15, 2016 by Heather Stauffer

Thousands of Lancaster County children eligible for publicly-funded preschool are not enrolled in any programs because of insufficient state funding and dearth of quality pre-K programs, a new study says.

The statewide study by the nonprofit Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children found that nearly 113,000 three- and four-year-olds across the state are eligible for publicly-funded preschool education but are missing out.

Quality pre-K education, the study said, can reduce grade repetition, special education placements, and dropout rates. Calling for greater state funding for preschool, researchers said that every $1 invested saves about $17 in the long run.

“The need is great everywhere,” said Joan Benso, CEO of the Harrisburg-based advocacy organization.

The partnership is asking Pennsylvania legislators for an additional $85 million for preschools in next year’s budget, rising to $340 million by 2020.

By contrast, this year’s budget raised preschool funding by $30 million.

In Columbia Borough School District, only 56 percent of preschoolers who qualified for high-quality publicly funded preschool received it, the report said.

In School District of Lancaster, it was only 45 percent.

In four districts — Donegal, Hempfield, Manheim Township and Ephrata — it was less than 40 percent.

And in the rest of the county’s 16 districts, it was less than 20 percent, with Elanco, where only 2 percent of eligible children received preschool education.

Local superintendents said they have been making efforts to reach children who can’t get into preschools, ranging from free videos containing educational tips to special workshops.

Brian Bliss, superintendent of Solanco School District, said it goes as far as mailing all families of three-year-olds a list of all preschool and daycare programs in the area each year.

“We have long desired to increase the number of students who access quality preschools in our area,” he said.

However, he noted the situation may be rosier than the report indicates, because the partnership counted only preschools that have gone through the state’s assessment process.

“We have a number of preschools that are excellent, but they have not gone through the steps required for the ‘high quality’ designation,” he said.

Bob Hollister, who’s serving as superintendent for both Columbia and Elanco districts this year, said this year Elanco is introducing six-week pre-K sessions at each of its elementary schools.

“It’s difficult to argue against pre-K preparation,” he said.

Andrea Heberlein is lead director of community impact for United Way of Lancaster County, which has made school readiness one of its four big goals for this decade.

“It is critical for the well-being of our children, and the entire community, to rally behind the efforts to provide quality pre-K education and ensure that by 2025 all children in Lancaster County will enter kindergarten ready to learn,” she said.

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