More than a fifth of Pittsburgh’s three- and four-year-olds are not in high quality preschool programs.
In 2016 Mayor Bill Peduto’s office hired Tiffini Simoneaux who is tasked with increasing access to high-quality early learning experiences.
90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider talked to Simoneaux to get an update on the administration’s push for universal pre-kindergarten in Pittsburgh.
Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
SARAH SCHNEIDER: One of Mayor Peduto's goals is to increase access to high quality pre-kindergarten. What happens when kids in Pittsburgh don't have access to that early education?
TIFFINI SIMONEAUX: Children that don't have access, they may enter kindergarten without the social, emotional and cognitive skills that they need to be successful. All the studies show that kids who are in a high quality program are entering school with a much higher proficiency. If they do have some sort of learning delay or cognitive issue ... if they get those services early a lot of times they don't need them later on in life. So it's really about making sure that kids have the skills that they need to be successful and that everybody's entering school on an even footing.
SCHNEIDER: Research also shows that birth is when the academic achievement gap begins, so that starts with pre-kindergarten.
SIMONEAUX: It does, yes, it starts with pre-kindergarten, it starts with infants and toddlers. So when we look at it we definitely see a universal pre-K being an ultimate goal for our administration. But, definitely looking at infants and toddlers as part of that equation because we want to make sure that our youngest kids who, all the studies show that 80 percent of their brain is formed between zero to 3. we want to make sure that young children have all of the skills that they need.
SCHNEIDER: What are the challenges in making universal pre-K happen in Pittsburgh?
SIMONEAUX: Right now one of the issues that we have, in terms of community-based childcare facilities, only about 20 percent of those facilities in the city of Pittsburgh that are considered "high quality." That means that their staff have adequate amounts of training, so people have degrees in early childhood and child development. Professional development is also available there. There are also correct amounts of different types of learning materials available to the children. And it's not because they don't want to provide high quality services to children, but there are a lot of barriers there. It's very expensive and costly, especially if you're serving low-income families and you're depending on the state subsidy.
SCHNEIDER: What does high quality actually mean when we're talking about pre-kindergarten? What are you looking for in those classrooms?
SIMONEAUX: When you go into a high quality site, you're going to notice staff that are very attentive to the children. There's a lot of conversation that is very play-based. A lot of times, people will think, "oh they're just playing." But, no, kids learn through play. So you're going to see them at a sand table, maybe they're measuring things so they have a measuring cup and they're putting sand in it and they're saying, "oh this is a cup." There is dramatic play.
There are literacy materials. You're going to see child assessments. So high quality sites assess children throughout the year, so they're able to see if there's some sort of developmental delay, they're able to be on top of that right away. And when you walk into a high quality environment, you get the feeling where kids are happy and there's laughter and there's conversation, and it really gets kids ready for that next step when they enter into kindergarten.
SCHNEIDER: As far as universal preschool, what does the timeline look like for implementing that?
SIMONEAUX: We don't necessarily have a timeline yet. We do now have a quality improvement fund that City Council has recently passed that will be a $2 million fund that childcare providers can apply to. So it's going to enable programs to be more financially self-sufficient. We wouldn't want to have universal preschool and not have it be high quality.
We definitely need to first focus on those facilities that want to move up in the quality system and help them to get there with funding, and then we'll have to move to that next step and figure out how we actually fund additional slots. We have a lot of children here in the city that do have a child care subsidy, so their tuition is already paid for by the state. But they're not located in a high quality facility. So I think that's kind of step one is increasing access and then we'll look at how do we actually fund those slots.