Preschool isn’t early enough
Imagine if all children in Lancaster County had meaningful early childhood experiences, families who were empowered to be their child’s first teacher, and connections to school, community, and necessary programming and services early. Then, imagine our community rallying behind efforts to align systems and services prenatally through third grade. The result would be resilient family units, a reduction in child abuse and trauma, improved school readiness, strong relationships between families and schools, and improved 3rd grade social-emotional and academic proficiencies.
This dream of a coordinated, collaborative local approach to early childhood education is coming true. With its most recent round of collective impact funding, the United Way of Lancaster County is stewarding a P-3 movement in our local school district communities, aligning systems serving children and families prenatally through third grade to put children on a forward trajectory to long-term success. The local collective impact partnership – P-3 Partnership Pathways – is led by Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County and includes COBYS Family Services, Ephrata Area School District, Lancaster County Early Intervention, Lancaster-Lebanon IU13, Manheim Central School District, Penn Manor School District, Pequea Valley School District, and the School District of Lancaster’s George Washington Elementary. This group’s work focuses on providing equitable opportunities so all children can learn and thrive while contributing to countywide efforts to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. At the end of the three- year grant cycle, this partnership will have improved collaboration and communication between early learning and K-12 systems, increased the number of children ages birth to five accessing early learning programming, improved transition practices, and created opportunities for schools to build relationships with children and families prior to Kindergarten. The findings from this pilot group of districts will be shared so this work can be replicated across the county. This early evidence of change will pave the way to moving the needle on increasing Kindergarten readiness.
Washington Elementary is striving to be the first P-3 Hub in Lancaster County. As a Community School, Washington already partners to provide comprehensive services on site to families and children; this P-3 lens broadens their scope to supporting children before they even walk through the school doors. State Representative P. Michael Sturla visited Washington Elementary in January for an event to celebrate the state’s recent 25 million dollar budget increase to support early learning. The event was part of the Pre-K for PA Campaign which fights for every at-risk child to have access to a high-quality pre-k program and more affordable offerings for middle-income families. The event highlighted the pre-K and Head Start partnerships within the school as well as the school’s prenatal to third grade focus.
As an early childhood professional, I remember years of advocacy efforts to prove the importance of high-quality preschool and pre-k. The recent budget increase plus the Governor’s “Ready to Start” task force and the new statewide campaign “Childhood Begins at home” show that officials at the state level agree that we need to be focused on supporting children and families prenatally with a focus on a holistic approach, considering health, education, and strengthening families.
But given the 7,003 eligible three- and four-year-old Lancaster County children without access to publically-funded, high-quality pre-k, we know there is still work to be done.
There is evidence that the full achievement gap is present in kindergarten, confirming that preschool isn’t early enough to begin working with these children and families. Schools with a P-3 focus, like Washington Elementary, recognize children are not coming to kindergarten prepared to learn due to many external factors that children have no control over. Children who face adversity in their lives, including living in poverty, show greater risk of delays in cognitive, language, and social-emotional development. What if we could connect families to services earlier? What if we identified development delays sooner? What if, what if? Our children deserve more than “what ifs.” They deserve to be the why in this work. The first five years are the most formative years in a child’s life. When 90% of a child’s brain is developed by age 5, preschool isn’t early enough.
P-3 Coordinator, P-3 Partnership Pathways, CAP