It’s official: Expanded Philly pre-K has arrived

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Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney sits in on a preschool class at Little Learners Literacy Academy in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney sits in on a preschool class at Little Learners Literacy Academy in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s long-awaited, much-debated pre-K expansion has officially begun.

At a Thursday press conference, city leaders announced the creation of 2,000 new high-quality pre-K seats funded with money from Philly’s sweetened beverage tax.

Dubbed PHLpreK, the city-funded system is expected to have 6,500 seats by 2021. All city families can apply regardless of income, but new seats are purposefully concentrated in high-poverty areas where quality pre-K is in short supply. 

As of this moment, families can now call and apply for free, quality pre-k and I believe that’s just an awesome change in our environment,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who made pre-K expansion a signature campaign issue and battled for a sweetened beverage tax to fund it.

The city plans to place the 2,000 new seats at 78 sites run by 61 different providers. Most of those sites are run by private pre-K providers. Lamberton Elementary School is the only expansion site run by the school district. Another 12 sites are supervised by the school district, but managed privately. In all, the school district received 340 of the 2,000 new seats.

In all, 85 providers,  representing 168 distinct childcare sites, applied to be part of the expansion. The average site will receive 20-30 seats, said city pre-K director Anne Gemmell. The city will subsidize these seats at a cost of $8,500 per school year. The total cost of the pre-K initiative will be around $23 million in year one.

When the pre-K initiative was announced, officials said some of the new high-quality slots wouldn’t be genuinely new, but rather would be slots that transitioned from low quality to high quality. That largely hasn’t been the case so far. Of the 2,000 slots to be added in January, about 90 percent are seats that did not exist before, said Gemmell.

An early childhood education advocate before she became director of Kenney’s pre-K push, Gemmell called Thursday’s announcement a triumph for students, providers, and the city itself.

“It’s a huge deal for the city,” she said. “This proves to so many of us, Philadelphians, that Philadelphia can imagine big things and do big things.”

The slots won’t open until January, but parents can start enrolling today by calling 1-844-PHL-PREK (1-844-745-7735). Children must be 3 or 4 years old to be eligible. Families can learn more by visiting the city’s website: www.phlprek.org.

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