Sharon Herald: Pre-K Counts classroom helps meet community’s education needs

October 13, 2022
By: David L. Dye

HERMITAGE — Gathered in the Pre-K Counts Classroom, a group of young children listened intently Tuesday moprning as state Rep. Mark Longietti read a story about a witch.

Upon completing each page, Longietti, D-7, Hermitage, turned the book toward the children, who excitedly pointed out different characters as they followed along.

But while the children seemed to enjoy the special visit Longietti paid to the classroom — located at the Building Blocks Child Center in Hermitage — the classroom itself represented a special opportunity for the preschoolers, center Senior Director Carrie Brown said.

According to a press release, 1,690 eligible children 3 and 4 years old live in Mercer County, but 1,090 of them lack access to high-quality, publicly-funded pre-kindergarten classes.

To help meet that need, the Building Blocks Child Center’s Pre-K Counts Classroom, which features slots for eight children, gives eligible-income students the opportunity to receive that education at no cost to families.

When parents learn about the Pre-K Counts program, Brown said their response is always positive – often intermixed with excitement, joy and even surprise that the program exists.

“I think Pre-K Counts is something where the community is just getting to know it better,” Brown said.

United Way of Mercer County CEO and President Carla Regginello said in the press release that access to high-quality pre-K is an important part of a child’s opportunity to lead a prosperous life.

A study by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill showed that kids enrolled in Pre-K Counts outperformed kindergarten peers who did not have access to pre-K. That advantage is equal to four or five months of learning gains, the release states.

“These outcomes are significant because language and math skills have been shown to be the school readiness skills that most strongly predict later academic achievement,” Regginello said.

Regginello added that recent polling data showed 90 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania agreed that early care and education are important investments that help set kids on a path to leading healthy and productive lives.

Longietti, Democratic chair of the state House Education Committee and the co-chair of the General Assembly’s Early Childhood Education Caucus, said there has been “tremendous” bipartisan support for early learning in Pennsylvania.

“When you look at budget line items, we’ve steadily increased that line item by a greater percentage than any other budget line item,” Longietti said.

Although Longietti said there is still work to be done since about half of Mercer County’s children are still unserved in pre-K, the statewide average on unserved children is closer to 64 percent.

Brown credited Longietti with his work in securing the funding for Pre-K Counts, both in terms of the grant for Building Blocks Child Center and the statewide funding toward serving three- and four-year-olds.

Pennsylvania’s 2022-23 budget included a $60 million increase for the Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts Program and a $19 million increase for the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program.

As Longietti enters his final days in the state House — he announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election — he said the visit to Building Blocks Child Center was also a reflective moment. His first state budget as a legislator, in 2007, marked establishment of the Pre-K Counts program at the end of a “long, hard-fought budget” process.

Seeing the expansion and effects of the program 16 years later was very gratifying, he said.

“The wonderful thing is when you see these beautiful kids and their smiling faces, they’re so excited to learn and have this opportunity to learn those social skills and have that foundational learning that they need to succeed when they arrive in kindergarten,” Longietti said.

The Building Blocks Child Center opened in 2009, and serves children 6 weeks to 12 years old, Brown said. The center has received a grant of $80,000 for the 2022-23 period, according to the state Department of Education.

Brown said that grant made the Pre-K Counts Classroom possible, and she plans to reapply for another grant in 2023 to expand the classroom and allow an additional 10 students.

“Following that, honestly, the sky is the limit,” Brown said.

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