Preschool program off to a good start

The Seattle Preschool Program is doing well in its first year, according to a report presented to the Education and Governance Committee this morning. The Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning noted that the program’s first year (doors opened in September) has slightly exceeded projections, with 288 students enrolled in 15 classrooms. 78% of the students come from families with incomes under 300% of the federal poverty level — 29% under 110% of the poverty level. The preschool program is free for these students, and discounted for families between 300% and 760% of the poverty level. This is really important: below 110% is the qualification for the federal Head Start program, so all the families between 110% and 300% in the SPP qualify for free preschool when otherwise they wouldn’t.

The students are from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds:  roughly one quarter white, one quarter black, 15% asian, and 9% multi-ethnic. Only one of the 15 sites (Creative Kids in Maple Leaf) serves a majority white population; all the rest of the classrooms have strongly mixed ethnicity.  Committee chair Burgess noted that having both mixed ethnicity and mixed socioeconomic levels within classrooms was an important goal of the program. Council member Gonzalez pointed out that even though Creative Kids preschool lacks ethnic diversity, it has wide economic diversity within its population.

Currently the sites are concentrated in the southern regions of the city; in future years they will be focusing on adding sites in the northern areas.

They had to work around some logistical issues, in part because the program was launched in the summer — past the time that many parents lock in their preschool choice for the following school year. And because many of the preschool sites had pre-existing programs, children who were already enrolled in a program at one of those sites were “grandfathered” in to the new program to guarantee continuity of care for the children. Of the 288 children enrolled this year, 131 were grandfathered in. They also had a challenge with enrollment packets this year which were to long and onerous for parents; they will be streamlined for next year. They are also rolling out a new early learning management system that will allow parents to apply online — though Council member Gonzalez raised the concern that an online system could end up being a barrier to low-income and non-English-speaking families and needs to be made accessible.  Burgess noted that they are really glad they decided to launch the program in phases rather than go city-wide at first, so they could solve these problems at a smaller scale first.

The program is planning to expand to 780 children next year, 1400 in 2017-2018, and 2000 in 2018-2019.  Burgess noted in closing that after this four year demonstration program completes they aspire to cover all Seattle preschool-age children — around 12,000 — which would make an enormous difference for the children and the city.