Political leaders are pledging to make pre-K accessible to all families and nearly three in four Americans support major investment in early childhood learning — we are a long way, though, from acting on what we say we value.
Early childhood education is still woefully underfunded and seats are in critically short supply. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, at current levels of public funding, it would take about 75 years for states to reach 50 percent enrollment for four year olds, and 150 years to reach 70 percent enrollment. The need is particularly great in low-income neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, where only 17 percent of preschool-age kids have access to quality, affordable education.
But envisioning a place for every child is not enough; the right kind of space is crucial. To be effective, early childhood centers need good lighting, sinks and windows at child height, bathrooms that teachers can supervise without leaving the class and a design that invites exploration and independence while maintaining safety.
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The reality is that pre-K facilities, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods, are too often housed in makeshift spaces, from the ubiquitous church basement to such anomalous settings as a converted hair salon and a repurposed bar.
The Children’s Investment Fund found that many Massachusetts early childhood education centers serving low-income families were not up to code or poorly equipped, and all but one were inaccessible to children with disabilities. Twenty-two percent had high levels of carbon dioxide and one in five did not even have windows. One program that took up residence in a former turkey coop was so cold in the winter that an outdoor hose was kept running to keep pipes from freezing.
Pre-K professionals, however poorly paid, are famous for their ability to create great learning experiences with paltry resources. But inadequate conditions take their toll on teachers, too, and the most experienced are often driven away.
When Khadija Lewis Khan opened the Beautiful Beginnings Child Care Center in Providence, Rhode Island, to serve low-income families, she used the only available space she could afford — a former clothing store in a strip mall. Four-foot-high shelving units were all that separated classrooms in the cavernous room. Bathrooms were a long walk from learning areas. The open plan magnified sound and visual distractions.
Behavior issues were chronic. Bathroom trips and the quirky layout resulted in lost class time; the center failed accreditation. Teachers suffered from headaches and stiff necks. Khan measured the stress of the day by how quickly the aspirin bottle ran out.
In 2005, with help from Local Initiatives Support Corporation and government funds, Beautiful Beginnings re-opened in a light-drenched building with thoughtfully designed classroom space and a place for parents and teachers to meet. (Disclosure: Local Initiatives Support Corporation was founded by the Ford Foundation, which has funded The Hechinger Report.) The very same group of kids went without a behavior problem for almost a year. Now, with similar help, the center is expanding to accommodate a long waiting list of working families.
Beautiful Beginnings speaks to what a quality environment can do. Abundant research backs that up: Carnegie Mellon University found young kids were more likely to be off-task when exposed to excessive visual stimulation. A study of schools in Finland suggests children’s cortisol levels, a stress barometer, were lower in schools designed with age in mind.
New revenue streams
So how do we get there? By employing proven financial models that enable states and localities to build quality centers with input from early education professionals. States like Connecticut, which used a tax-exempt revenue bond program that helped finance 29 state-of-the-art early learning facilities.
Brick and mortar are only part of the picture. Quality directors, teachers, materials and parent involvement are a must. But even the best efforts will fall short in a building that ignores the needs of its littlest learners.
From President Obama, to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, there’s strong support across the political spectrum for pre-K access. However, if we truly hold a vision for our children’s futures, if we hope to grow our economy and narrow the income gap for the next generation, that vision must be reflected in today’s preschool classrooms.
Amy Gillman is a national program director for health and early childhood facilities at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.