Kenney engages pre-K stakeholders during school tour in Northeast Philly

 Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney meets with students at Kinder Academy – a top-rated preschool option in Northeast Philadelphia. (Kevin McCorry)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney meets with students at Kinder Academy – a top-rated preschool option in Northeast Philadelphia. (Kevin McCorry)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has pledged to provide free preschool to all city 3- and 4-year-olds lacking access to quality options by the end of his first term.

On Tuesday, the mayor gathered with students and stakeholders at Kinder Academy’s Castor campus — the newest of a highly rated chain of preschools in the Northeast — to read stories and learn how to best implement his $60 million vision.

Kenney and his staff met with about a dozen people who operate some of the city’s top-rated preschools — picking their brains about how to expand quality options in areas of need without duplicating service.

It was the first such formal meeting between the Kenney administration and quality pre-K providers.

“We’re not here to supplant you, or to tell you what to do, or to change your operations,” Kenney told them. “You know, better than I would ever know, how to do what you do.”

Kenney aims to help quality providers expand, boost the performance of those who want to do better, and draw students from low-quality providers that, the administration says, don’t have the best interests of children at heart.

“The first step is really effective coordination, a spirit of cooperation and recognition of the difference between quality providers, and the folks that are just in it to make as much money as possible, and those folks are out there,” said Anne Gemmell, the mayor’s new pre-K chief.

The city estimates about 40,000 3- and 4-year-olds reside in the city. About 10,000 of them don’t quality for pre-K subsidies based on family income.

Current enrollment in top-rated preschools is about 13,700 — leaving up to 16,000 kids in less desirable options.

Last month, a 10-month-old died while under the supervision of a poorly rated child-care center in Germantown — which has since been shuttered by the state.

“That place was low quality. They had over 20 state regulatory violations. It was a safety and health hazard,” said Gemmell. “They were not interested in quality.”

A recent study of the Philadelphia area found that providers have little fiscal incentive to provide top-tier early childhood education.

Kenney aims to reverse that logic and increase access to quality options by 3,000 to 4,000 children per year through his first term.

But the mayor hasn’t yet specified how he’ll fund his plan, except to say some combination of city, state, philanthropic and corporate contributions.

With the passage of a partial state budget in December, 1,500 additional Philadelphia students gained access to quality preschools.

In addition to his larger demands for K-12 public education, Gov. Tom Wolf hopes a full budget resolution will double that allotment.

To be considered a “quality” school by the Kenney administration, preK providers must receive a 3 or 4 on the state’s Keystone STARS rating scale; participate in government-subsidized programs, such as Head Start/Early Head Start, Pennsylvania Pre-K counts, or Bright Futures; or have accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Kinder Academy’s Castor campus was highly rated. The new location has not yet been officially reviewed by the state.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.