Sharon Herald: Rep. Longietti Named a Pre-K Champion
April 22, 2017 by Joe Pinchot

SHARON – The numbers are stark.

In West Middlesex Area School District, 145 children are eligible for pre-kindergarten programs, but only 17 are enrolled, according to Pre-K for PA, a nonpartisan coalition lobbying for increased attention and funding for early childhood education.

In Mercer County, West Middlesex’s numbers are the norm. Other than the Hermitage and Farrell school districts, where all eligible students are enrolled in programs, more than half the 3- and 4-year-olds in every other county school district do not have access to an early education program.

As Pre-K for PA pushes to make Gov. Tom Wolf and state legislators make early education a priority, it has found a friend in state Rep. Mark Longietti, who serves the western portion of Mercer County.

Pre-K for PA honored Longietti on Friday with the Pre-K Champion Award, one of a handful of legislators so designated. These champions have “made this a priority issue,” said spokesman Kate Phillips.

“We need guys like Mark to push this forward,” she said.

Longietti is “the guy that (is) carrying the torch in Harrisburg on this issue,” said Ron DiNicola, co-chairman of the Northwest PA Leadership Council for Pre-K Counts, who presented the award to the Hermitage lawmaker.

“As I go around talking about pre-K myself, I’m always amazed at how impactful his contribution has been,” DiNicola said.

The award was handed out at Zion Education Center, the Sharon organization that has 30 children enrolled in its pre-kindergarten program, their enrollment fees paid totally or partly by a government organization.

“The parents in this community can’t afford to pay,” said Dr. April L. Torrence, who founded and operates the center, with Sharon school Superintendent Michael Calla adding that up to 70 percent of Sharon families are considered impoverished.

The lack of new funding is “very frustrating,” Torrence said.

“It is even more frustrating to know that we had a five-year gap before receiving grant funding to expand our classroom again,” she said. “It’s even more frustrating to know there are some parents that still have a portion of services that they have to pay for through co-payments, and they struggle with that. One of the hardest things that I have to do is cut off services because the parent has gotten behind in their co-payments.”

Children need to know their numbers and letters before they enter kindergarten, making pre-kindergarten programs critical to the long-term success of children in schools, said Jim Micsky, executive director of United Way of Mercer County, which runs the pre-kindergarten Success by Six program in the summer in 11 school districts.

“That’s where we set the groundwork for the future,” Micsky said of pre-kindergarten education.

 The benefits of early childhood education are legion, speakers said. Students who are exposed to structured educational activities at ages 3 and 4 have more success in school and college, have higher earning potential, are less reliant on public assistance and have fewer problems with drug and alcohol abuse and crime.

Randy Seitz, president of Penn-Northwest Development Corp., said there’s no better way to lift a family out of poverty than to give an individual a job, and Penn-Northwest has pushed for school districts to become more active in economic development efforts. With “mass retirements” expected in the next 10 to 15 years, today’s young people need to be properly trained to step into those jobs, Seitz said.

Longietti said the importance of education was taught to him by his father, Al, and his mother, Pearl Knott, who went back to college in her 30s and got an education degree. She taught elementary school in Sharpsville for 22 years.

“She was very good as a student, very hard-working and it just ingrained in us the importance of education and then her role as an elementary teacher really spoke to how important it is to touch kids early,” he said.

“I think, if there’s any investment we can make in state government, that this is the most important investment because children are our future, number one,” Longietti said. “Number two, all the peer-reviewed studies show that for every dollar that we put into early childhood ed, that we save between $7 and $17” in future services provided to individuals.

But, it’s hard to shake free new funding for early education programs.

“It’s always the same thing,” Longietti said. “We’re always piecing these budgets together, trying to scrape together the funds to get through another year. Too often, we don’t make the investment in our future that pays dividends down the road because we’re just trying to get by. This is an investment we can’t afford not to make. Other states are doing it, other countries are doing it, we need to do it here in Pennsylvania.”

Longietti said he accepted the Pre-K Champion award on behalf of “the kids that we have reached and made a difference for”; “the kids that we need to reach”; and “perhaps, most importantly, because my mother was an early educator, I accept it on behalf of the teachers, the folks that come here every day and teach and form young minds.”

See the full article here.