State lands federal funds to move toward universal preschool

Connecticut has landed federal funding to offer high-quality preschool to hundreds of additional children from low-income families, with an emphasis on those who are homeless or in foster care.

State leaders this fall asked the U.S. Department of Education for $47.6 million over the next four years to send 428 more students every year to preschool and to improve the quality of preschools that enroll 284 students.

On Tuesday, the state was informed it will receive $12.5 million for the first year. Funding for the remaining three years is dependent on the federal government providing funding for the grants.

“We want to partner with states,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters during a conference call Tuesday. Duncan said the added funding is aimed at diminishing a “huge unmet need.”

In Bridgeport, the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood put the “unmet need” for preschool at 1,070 spaces. This grant ensures that 18 high-quality classrooms serving 270 children will open next school year. Ninety of those seats will be in existing classrooms that will have higher standards.

Other towns that will benefit include Derby, East Haven, Griswold, Groton, Hamden, Hebron, Killingly, Manchester, Naugatuck, Seymour, Torrington, Vernon and Wolcott. (See details of where the expansions will take place in each city and town here.)

“I’m thrilled about this announcement. Currently, more than one in four kids that are eligible for pre-K in Bridgeport do not have access. That’s unacceptable,” said Fran Rabinowitz, Bridgeport’s superintendent. “But thanks to these new seats, we’re moving one step closer to achieving the goal of universal pre-K for kids.”

To ensure the programs are high-quality, the state has promised that every teacher will have a bachelor’s degree, each class will have one instructional staff member for every nine students, and most of the new seats will be in 10-hour, year-round preschools. The teachers also will be paid the same as local public school teachers.

Though children from all families in poverty will be eligible for the expanded preschool program, the state in its application said it will give priority to children who are homeless or in foster care.

“Particular focus will be on ensuring that these children have access to high-quality preschool,” the application states.

“The impact of homelessness on a child’s success in school and in life may be devastating,” the request reads. “By providing high-quality preschool education to children, we establish a consistent place to learn and thrive and help support the child and their family in preschool and through the transition to kindergarten through third grade.”

More than half of preschool-aged children in foster homes – 220 children — were not enrolled in preschool at the start of the 2013-14 school year, according to the Department of Children and Families. At some point during that same year, 1,113 children age 5 and younger lived in an emergency homeless shelter or in a transitional housing program.

This is the third time the state has asked the federal government for money to improve the state’s early childcare system. The state’s previous requests were denied – with judges giving Connecticut’s plans a C last fall. Connecticut was one of the 27 states competing for the available funds and one of 13 states awarded funding this week.

Despite being rejected previously, the Malloy administration and lawmakers have pushed forward with efforts to expand and improve early childcare programs.

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a plan that will enroll 6,000 additional students in quality preschools over the next four years. The legislature also passed a law that requires the state Department of Children and Families to adopt policies and procedures to maximize the enrollment of foster children in preschool and to report back to legislators by Jan. 1.

While praising the state’s efforts to increase access, the reviewers’ comments on Connecticut’s application point out much work remains before universal access to preschool is achieved.

“A large proportion of eligible children will remain unserved,” they wrote in the score sheet released Wednesday. “Despite several new initiative and expanded funding, 43 percent of eligible children remain unserved in 2014.”

Preschool need and homeless children in Connecticut towns awarded more federal funding.
Community 4-year-olds in public schools Pct in publicly funded preschools Preschool spaces (ages 3 & 4) Unmet need (2014) Homeless kids in public schools (%) High-quality spaces to be added
Bridgeport 1603 71% 1629 1070 0.40% 180
Derby 75 56% 58 103 0% 17
East Haven 41 14% 39 209 0% 18
Griswold 37 31% 47 44 0.40% 12
Groton 77 13% 86 133 0.30% 0
Hamden 206 32% 82 327 0.10% 18
Hebron 10 21% 18 88 0% 9
Killingly 77 41% 79 73 1.80% 18
Manchester 128 15% 80 178 0% 36
Naugatuck 128 34% 76 193 0% 43
Seymour 14 9% 13 137 0.20% 5
Torrington 202 58% 81 204 0.90% 42
Vernon 126 37% 108 163 0.50% 21
Wolcott 12 13% 20 90 0% 9
Source: Connecticut Office of Early Childhood

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