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Education reformers have touted New Orleans as a national model since Katrina largely because of the growth in charter schools and student test scores. But despite its reputation as a mecca for change, city charter schools still struggle to offer even the most basic of pre-kindergarten programs. That’s largely because state spending on Louisiana’s major program for four-year-olds, known as LA-4, has dropped fairly steadily in recent years. Schools that offer pre-kindergarten receive only half of the standard per-pupil amount, but are still expected to meet a set of rigorous “quality standards” pertaining to teacher to student ratios and teacher training, for instance. That means charter schools that want to offer pre-kindergarten often have to pull from other funding sources, whether public or private, to subsidize the cost.

Eve Abrams, a reporter for the local NPR station, WWNO, recently examined one first-year charter school’s struggle to afford pre-kindergarten. Homer Plessy Community School, located in the city’s Upper Ninth Ward, is still awaiting word on whether it will receive any state funding for pre-kindergarten this year. For the time being, the school charges tuition of $500 per month from the few students whose families are above the poverty line, and pulls money from other parts of the school budget to pay for pre-k. “We’re dedicated to pre-k, but pre-k is killing us,” said Sara Leikin, the head of school.

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Transcript:

Homer Plessy Community School is a brand new charter school tucked into what was once Douglass High School, on St. Claude Avenue. Homer Plessy school says its mission is to develop students who think critically and act responsibly.  This year, the school offers Pre-kindergarden through 2nd grade, and they aim to grow to 8th grade.  Reporter Eve Abrams is chronicling the first year of Homer Plessy Community School for WWNO. This week, Eve Abrams reports on the school’s first major stumbling block: finding a way to pay for the Pre-kindergarden program.

Ayana Elvis: We did decorations over here.  I think mine’s right there.

Ayana Elvis gave me a tour of the artwork hanging in the hallway outside her classroom.

Ayana Elvis: See this one?  Not mine?  See this one?  Nope.  See this one? Yeah!  This… yeah… this my name.

Recognizing her name is a big deal for a kindergartener like Ayana, but there’s so much about being in school she already knows.  For instance, in school, you do work, like drawing pictures. Also, you answer questions — mostly from your teachers but also from nosy reporters.

Down the hall, in Homer Plessy’s office, pre-kindergardener, Aakhiraah Jack gets some help form her mom,  Trinese Jack, when I ask who her teacher is.

Aakhiraah: Ms. Harrison

Eve: do you like her? Can you say it in words?

Trinese: I like Ms. Harrsion

Aakhiraah: I like Ms. Harrsion

For Aakhiraah, like many 4 years olds, pre K is her first experience in school. And spending the day with people who aren’t her family is hard.  Aakhiraah’s mom Trinese is helping her daughter ease into the 10 hour day by picking her daughter up around noon, before nap-time.  Aakhiraah does not like to nap.

Trinese: So we just going to see how it goes.  The longer she’s good, we’ll extend the time and see if she can do a full day.  But staying from 7:30 in the morning to 5:30 during after care?  Um-um.  That wasn’t happening.

Trinese says Aakhiraah likes pre-kindergarden, she has fun there, she just has to get into the habit of staying all day.

Children who attend a quality preschool do better for years to come – in school, and in life. That’s according to several long-term studies, including one conducted by HighScope. The independent nonprofit research foundation started following 3 and 4 year olds in (Ipsalanti) Ypsilanti, Michigan back in the early 60’s.  HighScope’s Perry Preschool Study took these 3 and 4 year olds from similar backgrounds and placed them into two groups: half attended a high quality preschool, and half did not.  Over the next 4 decades, the Perry Preschool Study followed both groups, and found that the students who attended preschool were more likely to graduate high school, earn more money, and commit fewer crimes.

Sara Leikin, head of school at Homer Plessy, says an age-appropriate, play-based Pre-K curriculum fosters social and emotional readiness for school. It was a no-brainer to offer it.

Sara Lieken: We have a Pre K; we have 54 Pre K children.  But my Pre K is completely unfunded.  We have not received any state funding for Pre K.

Homer Plessy hoped to get full funding for their Pre K through the state’s LA 4 Program, which allots four thousand dollars for each Pre K student. About a month before classes started in early August, the school found out they wouldn’t receive any Pre K funding, yet they never thought of canceling it. Lieken says quality Pre K is the cornerstone of academic success. So in order to pay to educate their 54 pre-kindergardeners, Homer Plessy is stretching funds for the students in grades K through 2.

Sara Lieken: I’m trying to fund 54 children with money that’s only meant for the children I have in grades K – 2.  So effectively I’m almost paying — using one per pupil to pay for two children.

There is some funding for Pre-K at Plessy. About a dozen of their Pre K students are above the poverty line. Those families pay tuition — about 500 dollars a month. The school is hoping to receive some money from the state mid-year, and they’ve applied for a grant from Baptist Community Ministry to ease the budget problem.

Kathleen Padian is the Deputy Superintendent for the Orleans Parish School Board, which oversees 14 charter schools, including Homer Plessy.  Padian says OPSB can’t do much to ease Plessy’s budget woes because most of the money for pre-K flows from the State.

Padian: We would serve many, many more 4 year old children if we had more funding.  And also to be clear, even when they are funded, it’s only about half the amount of money that you receive as a 5 year old.

Five year olds — kindergardeners — are each allotted 8 thousand dollars from the state for their education, compared to the 4 thousand given to 4 year olds, in Pre K.

Padian: The unfortunate thing is that the state isn’t fully funding pre-k. 

Eve: Why isn’t the state fully funding? 

Padian: (laughs) you’d have to ask the state legislature.  I don’t know.

State Senator Conrad Appel is Chairman of the Louisiana Senate Education Committee, and he says quality Pre-K programs are grossly underfunded.  But he also says the entire state budget is underfunded — by billions of dollars — and everyone is begging for money.  Senator Appel says the programs that scream the loudest, get the most, and supporters of Pre K are just beginning to find their voice.

Back at Homer Plessy, head of school Sara Leiken has no problem vocalizing how this lack of Pre K funding is crippling her school.

Leiken: We’re dedicated to pre-k but pre-k is killing us.

Homer Plessy has stripped its budget of everything it can, including eliminating one Pre K teacher, and combining three Pre K classes into two larger classes. The school won’t ask parents to pay more tuition, but they are talking to people in other parts of the country with deep pockets and an interest in Plessy’s education model.

Leiken says Homer Plessy is communicating with families about their budget challenges. She says families expect their children to go to a school that’s happy and healthy, where they can thrive.  And that’s what they’re trying to do, on the leanest of budgets.

For WWNO, I’m Eve Abrams.

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