Is this early education center the future of Philly pre-K?

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 Caring Center executive director Justin Bell says the center has educated private-pay students, Head Start students, and Pre-K Counts students in common classrooms. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Caring Center executive director Justin Bell says the center has educated private-pay students, Head Start students, and Pre-K Counts students in common classrooms. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

At first glance, it’s impossible to tell a big experiment is happening inside the preschool program at FitzPatrick Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia.

Because, as administrator James Cupit says, everything here looks almost exactly the same as it did last school year.

“I don’t think there’s lots of evident differences,” Cupit said as a group of students nibbled on wheat crackers and yogurt cups. “Kids are happy. They’re having their snacks. Everybody enjoying their snack?”

Cupit strolled over to a nearby desk and pulled out a “meal and snack form” with each student’s name and a number listed in corresponding columns. Students whose families live at the poverty line or below are coded with a “6.” Students from slightly wealthier families have a “7” or “8” next to their names.

It’s a boring, bureaucratic document intended, as Cupit put it, to tell “the person paying for those meals this is who’s having the meals and this is how much.” The sheet is also, in this rare case, a window into the potentially groundbreaking changes happening at the FitzPatrick public school.

Wealth management — in the classroom

For years, here in Philadelphia and across much of the pre-K landscape, children have been slotted into different programs based on their relative wealth. In many cases, those proverbial “6’s” have spent their days sequestered together, while their peers in the “7” and “8” range learn in other classrooms.

This system exists not to disadvantage the poorest families, but to better serve them. It is the result of many well-intentioned government programs overlapping in such a tangled way that they’ve created an unintended side effect: segregation.

“Pre-K is probably one of the last areas where children are actually economically segregated from their peers,” said Diane Castelbuono, who heads the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Early Childhood Education. “And when you say it that way, people are always like, ‘Wow, I never thought of it that way!’ But that’s exactly what happens.”

The small, previously unpublicized experiment at FitzPatrick represents an early attempt to change this.

Last year, FitzPatrick’s four preschool classrooms were divided based on the government program subsidizing each student’s education. One class consisted of students funded by the state-run Pre-K Counts program. Students in the other classrooms belonged to the federal Head Start program.

This year, all students are mixed together.

Of the 65 pre-K centers run directly by the School District of Philadelphia, FitzPatrick is the only one where Head Start kids and Pre-K Counts learn in the same classrooms.

To be eligible for Head Start in Philadelphia, a student’s family income cannot exceed the federal poverty limit — that’s $24,600 for a family of four. Pre-K Counts admits children whose families make up to 300 percent of the poverty line, or $73,800 for a family of four. For years, the income caps have ensured limited government funding for pre-K goes to students whose families would otherwise struggle to afford quality care.

This taxpayer money also comes with strings attached — pages of rules aimed at maintaining high academic standards and safe environs. Head Start’s are the most comprehensive, as evidenced by the 118-page booklet of regulations that govern the program’s administration.

It’s the combination of income limits and government oversight that creates the conditions for economic segregation. Different government programs serve children of varying wealth. And combining programs is difficult because doing so requires detailed tracking. Head Start wants to know its dollars are going to the children qualified for its program — and that each of those children is getting the suite of services required.

(At FitzPatrick administrators have developed pages of checklists to determine whether all of their employees — teachers, social workers, special-education coordinators, family-service field representatives, nutritional-field representatives — are complying with both Head Start and Pre-K Counts regulations.)

Separating children becomes, for many early-education centers, the path of least resistance.

Meanwhile, at the Caring Center …

When NewsWorks/WHYY surveyed private centers that receive both Head Start and Pre-K Counts funding, the vast majority of respondents said they sorted children based on the funding source. In many low-income parts of the city, this approach likely doesn’t contribute to any further economic segregation since many of the children in a Pre-K Counts classroom are likely poor enough to qualify for Head Start, as well. Received wisdom suggests residential segregation drives much of the segregation found in pre-K classrooms, just as it does in K-12.

“But we certainly don’t have to reinforce it in ways that don’t need to be reinforced,” said Castelbuono. “And, frankly, there are many more economically integrated neighborhoods than we think.”

In one of those neighborhoods, you’ll find the rare private program where students subsidized by various government programs mix imperceptibly with each other and students whose families pay tuition.

The Caring Center sits at edge of West Philadelphia, just across the Schuylkill River from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It opened in 1993 and today serves roughly 150 students.

For as long as executive director Justin Bell can recall, the Caring Center has educated private-pay students, Head Start students, and Pre-K Counts students in common classrooms. Only about 20 or 30 percent of pre-K-eligible students are funded through Head Start or Pre-K Counts, Bell said, but in order to remain compliant, all students are educated to the highest standard articulated in either program’s regulations.

So on the topic of, say, dental hygiene, the Caring Center must ensure that all students hit the most stringent benchmark spelled out in either Pre-K Counts or Head Start requirements.

As it happens, Head Start does require all students to brush their teeth once a day. After lunch — which Head Start mandates must be served family style — two teachers skillfully ferry a herd of 3- and 4-year-olds through their daily tooth-brushing. It is a complicated dance, and it provides a handy, real-world representation of the hoop-jumping centers must undergo to make a blended funding model like this work.

Behind the scenes, Bell and other administrators have to do their own version of the tooth-brushing pageant. The Caring Center hires a part-time controller and auditor to make sure all government money is being spent properly. The center also has a finance manager and a budgeting tool that Bell describes as an Excel spreadsheet with “many, many tabs.”

“I have an MBA and people to help me with this, and it’s hard for me,” Bell said.

Conceivably, the Caring Center could have a separate Head Start classroom and buy toothbrushes only for those children.

“But, for me, the bottom line is we want to provide a high-quality early-childhood education,” said Bell. “We want to meet the highest bar we can for our children. And we know that having a diverse learning community sets that bar a little bit higher.”

There is no majority race among students at the Caring Center, according to state data. About 45 percent are white; 30 percent are African-American; and the remaining quarter are a blend of other ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the center sits in the catchment area of an elementary that is over 90 percent black. Bell believes the center’s ability to blend government-funded students with full-pay students contributes to his program’s diversity.

Calculating the cost

He also acknowledged the center pays a premium — a sort of diversity tax — to make its blended funding model work. Bell said he can’t isolate the exact cost, but from extra toothbrushes to extra administrative costs, there are bills the Caring Center likely wouldn’t have to pay if it sorted children by funding stream.

It’s fair to ask whether that cost is worth paying, at least from a system perspective.

There is some evidence that pre-K classrooms are more racially segregated than kindergarten classrooms, and that funding mechanisms may be partly to blame.

A classroom-by-classroom analysis of New York City’s pre-K classrooms published in 2016 by the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, found racially isolated classrooms were more common in pre-K than they were in kindergarten. About 18 percent of pre-K classrooms were considered highly homogenous, meaning 90 percent of students belonged to the same race. In public kindergartens, 13 percent of classrooms met the same criteria.

In New York, some early-educations sites are funded through the city’s new universal pre-K initiative, which has no associated income limits. Others, however, accept money from the Administration for Children’s Services and, typically, limit attendance to low-income children. Sites that accepted ACS money were the most likely to be highly homogenous. They were also by far the least likely to have no majority racial group.

Halley Potter, a Century Foundation fellow and the report’s author, believes that the difficulty associated with blended funding is partly to blame for this trend.

“It’s amazing how much comes down to money and paperwork,” she said. “And, right now, that’s a big barrier for a lot of children in New York City.”

A look at the numbers

Is it a big barrier for children in Philadelphia?

Without a similarly detailed analysis, it’s difficult to know. But an attempt to replicate parts of Potter’s work with Philadelphia data didn’t initially show similar trends.

NewsWorks/WHYY received demographic data from all sites either run by the school district directly and private centers that receive Head Start or Pre-K Counts money through district grants. The data covers 166 sites and almost 9,800 children who receive some form of government-subsidized care.

NewsWorks/WHYY took those 166 sites and then matched their racial demographics to those of the nearest elementary school to see if there were any glaring patterns.

Of the 166 pre-k sites, 32 (19.3 percent) fit the criteria for highly homogenous, meaning more than 90 percent of students belonged to the same race. Another 47 (28.3 percent) were fairly homogenous, indicating that 71 to 90 percent of students belong to the same race.

Those 166 pre-K sites corresponded to 110 neighborhood elementary schools. Of those 110 elementary schools, 35 were highly homogenous (31.8 percent) and 21 (19.1 percent) were fairly homogenous.

In other words, there were more racially isolated elementary schools in the set than there were racially isolated pre-K programs.

In all, a similar number of pre-K programs and elementary school were either fairly or highly racially homogenous.

Highly Homogenous (>90%) Fairly Homogenous (71-90%) Fairly Diverse (51-70%) Highly Diverse (<50%)
Pre-K 19.3% 28.3% 25.3% 27.1%
District Schools 31.8% 19.1% 23.6% 25.5%

 

This analysis doesn’t drill down to the classroom level, and it doesn’t compare pre-K sites to kindergartens, a more obviously pertinent comparison.

At the very least, though, it doesn’t point to any major trends.

Laying the foundations

On the whole, Philadelphia pre-K programs run through or by the school district are noticeably more likely to serve minority students than the district’s K-12 schools. Overall, 86.2 percent of K-12 students in Philly’s public system are multiracial or belong to a minority group. Among the roughly 10,000 3- and 4-year-olds in district-funded pre-K programs, 92 percent are either multiracial or minority students

While most agree greater integration in pre-K classrooms is a worthwhile goal, it’s hard to know whether more blended funding would significantly change the demographics of Philadelphia’s pre-K classrooms. It’s also worth asking whether those changes — however significant — are worth the effort and money they require.

Clearly, though, the school district and others in Philadelphia’s pre-K community want to see a more financially integrated system where a child’s classroom isn’t determined by her or his funding source.

“I was kind of excited that we came to this decision to at least try this in our shop,” said Michelle Linder-Coate, executive director for partnership development and support for the district’s Pre-K Counts efforts.

(One result of segregated funding is that the district had two totally separate administrative apparatuses, one for Head Start and another for Pre-K Counts. Teachers in each program reported to different people, received different professional development, and generally worked in separate worlds.)

When the city’s commission on universal pre-K released its recommendations last April, it committed a section to “layered funding” and said Philadelphia should help private centers manage the administrative complexities that accompany a blended funding model.

Part of this push is to prepare Philadelphia for a future where government-funded pre-K is universally accessible as it is in New York and Washington, D.C.

When Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney rallied support for a soda tax to fund pre-K expansion, he moved the city close to that goal. Tellingly, his administration fought to ensure there was no income tax on the city’s pre-K money, making it more flexible and easier to blend with other forms of government-subsidized care.

Through its pilot at FitzPatrick, the district wants to stress-test itself so it can be ready for a future where Philadelphia’s pre-K landscape is less fragmented. It’s a future where families don’t sign up for individual programs through individual sites, but rather enroll in a universal pre-K program that is open to all.

“We would like to position ourselves so that we can offer flexible options for families,” said Linder-Coates. “So it doesn’t matter what your income levels are, we would like to be able to have a seat for, at least have you have an opportunity to have a space in your neighborhood classroom, if, in fact, that’s what you choose to do.”

In that future, a pre-K program at a public elementary school might no longer be a Head Start program. It might simply be a pre-K program with no income requirements and a handful of unidentified children funded by the federal government.

The near-term goal at FitzPatrick isn’t to create that exact model, but simply to be better prepared for the possibility. Eventually, the district believes it can create a blended funding model that costs little to administer because expenses will be spread over the entire system.

In the meantime, officials want to chip away at the notion of separate classrooms based on ability to pay.

“If we’re going to say we don’t believe in segregation for K-12 in any way shape or form, and we know it’s bad for outcomes,” said Castelbuono, “why are we doing it in pre-K?”

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