After long wait for Pa. budget resolution, Philly pre-K opens its doors

A preschool classroom at FELS Paley Center in North Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY

A preschool classroom at FELS Paley Center in North Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY

Pennsylvania’s protracted budget negotiations stalled the expansion of new pre-kindergarten seats across the state this year.

On Tuesday, one high-quality center in Far Northeast Philadelphia finally celebrated its delayed opening.

State funds earmarked for pre-K expansion were released in late December, but logistics delayed the highly rated provider SPIN from opening a new 80-seat school in Parkwood until this month.

“Because we had a late start in the year, families had to find programs elsewhere. They might not be a free, high-quality preschool such as what we have here,” said Kathy Brown McHale, SPIN’s president and CEO.

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Based on the midyear start, the school currently has 26 vacant seats. It hopes to get state approval to grow to serve 120 children by next school year.

Providing free, quality pre-K to all families in need is a top priority of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. He proposes adding 16,000 new city seats by 2020 with some proceeds of a 3-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks.

Even if that boost comes through, top pre-K providers say systemic concerns still will have to be addressed.

To earn a top state rating, operators must hire teachers who are fully credentialed and certified in early childhood education, which makes them eligible to teach grades pre-K to 4.

But then pre-K centers can’t afford to pay them competitively.

“It’s very challenging to keep the teachers,” said Brown McHale. “They love working here. They love working for us. But they can make so much more money if they work for the school district.”

At SPIN, which provides better pay and benefits than many preschool centers, teacher salaries start at $36,000 — nearly $10,000 less than the beginning wage for teachers in the School District of Philadelphia.

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