Pamplin Media Group – ‘Preschool for All’ underway

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Free-for-all preschool has won the polls – but rolling out the scheme will take time

Nearly 690 Multnomah County children are attending free preschool under the inaugural “Preschool For All” program that voters passed in 2020 by approving a 1.5% tax on residents with incomes over 125 $000, or joint filers who earn more than $200,000, to pay this. The measure imposes a 1.5% supplement on those earning more than $250,000 or households with a combined income above $400,000.

So, the money is there, but the capacity to provide preschool education to all is far from sufficient. September marked the first month of the new program; ahead of its launch, county leaders said they hoped to serve between 500 and 1,000 children in this first round. For Leslee Barnes, who leads Multnomah County’s pre-K program, landing roughly in the middle of that goal should be considered a success.

“We really leaned into the fact that we were going to be around 500, 600 kids this round, and so I think we actually exceeded that target, Barnes said in late August. “We knew there would be a lot more interest than slots available. That just speaks offshore [needs].”

The program aims to address a years-long lack of available and affordable preschools, while bolstering wages and resources for child care providers. Historically, the cost of childcare has been one of the main factors explaining the departure or absence of women from the labor market.

Multnomah County’s focus on preschool has long had academic support. A 2017 report, “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on the Effects of Pre-Kindergarten,” was authored by educators from – among others – Georgetown University, Vanderbilt, Duke and the Brookings Institution, according to a National Public Radio article. The study showed that “While all children benefit from early childhood education, poor and disadvantaged children often make the most gains,” according to NPR.

Additionally, a retired Portland State University economics professor recently highlighted the case for universal early childhood education, citing research from the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Universal early childhood education is a two-generation anti-poverty strategy that also benefits the middle class,” Mary King wrote in an opinion column published by BEE’s sister newspaper, Portland Tribune, earlier this year.

“Decades of research have shown it reduces inequalities by gender, race, ethnicity and income. Children from low-income families earn the most, but all children earn,” he said. she stated.

Who is served

The new free preschool program is exclusively for 3- and 4-year-olds. There are no income eligibility requirements, but the county has prioritized low-income families and other groups with the highest needs. Of the first families accepted into the program, 34% are at or below the federal poverty line, and 91% are at or below 350% of that line, depending on the county.

Other priority groups include families of color, migrant or refugee families, non-English speaking families, military households, children living in foster care, as well as children of teenage parents and those with special needs. Seventy-five percent of the first families accepted are families of color and 36% have students whose primary home language is not English.

Thirty-two percent of preschool slots in grade one are new. The others are existing slots that are financially supported by the program, making them accessible to more families. In total, there are 36 preschool service providers spread over 48 sites this year. All are run by experienced custodial providers. We were unable to determine a supplier in Inner Southeast Portland; but there is one a little east of THE BEE’s service area. It has been run for over 35 years in the 12900 block of SE Powell Boulevard by Shannon Aden; Shannon’s Child Care & Preschool is one of nearly 50 sites currently under contract with Multnomah County. “The [were] great incentives to say, “Well, gosh, I’m going to get paid really well, and I can pay my staff very well, which is the cornerstone of good child care — the staff and our relationship with the children,” Aden said.

The county has set parameters in the contract — all of its staff must be paid at least $19.20 an hour — that allows it to improve the child-to-staff ratio, while offering employees a fair wage. This is something that was missing from the preschool equation, leading to a greater shortage of staff.

So the voter-approved preschool initiative now allows people like Liz Dominguez to pursue employment in early learning. Dominguez, 25, landed babysitting jobs in high school, took early childhood development classes and worked with children with disabilities. Now she can get more training and continue on the path, working at Shannon’s Child Care & Preschool. “It takes patience and loving children as if they were your own children,” Dominguez said of the demands of working in a preschool.

There are other aspects of the county program that Aden likes. Aden said that despite being in business for 36 years, this is the first time she has had access to professional development or additional resources for her play and learning spaces through a partnership. “What was unique about ‘Preschool For All’,” they asked you. “What makes you feel good? What would you like to get from us if we partner with you?”

“I was able to meet the vendors and I felt like it felt collaborative, that we’re partnering with them,” Barnes told us. “We’re not saying, ‘Hey, you know, you have to completely change your business model.’ We go with them to support them, if they need new libraries and new materials in their classroom, this is the first time they have been able to get all this stuff to support children.

So far, free preschool sites are located primarily in North Portland, Outer East Portland and elsewhere in eastern Multnomah County — areas identified as previously having low preschool access. Providers receive between $15,000 and $21,000 per year, per student, under the program.

JAIME VALDEZ - This year, as part of her new deal with Preschool for All, Shannon Aiden has opened eight slots across the county.  This is half of its total capacity.  She said the terms of the contract helped her business. Some sites are in private homes, such as the one in Aden. Others are in schools or daycares. Providers are required to work with a coach and use a curriculum aligned with Oregon’s early learning guidelines.

Barnes says county staff have worked with families to place students in sites that best meet their specific needs, giving families choice in the type of setting and program philosophy or approach. Applicants were able to select their top three vendor preferences. The county has also partnered with community organizations such as Latino Network, Native American Youth & Family Center, Self Enhancement Inc., and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization to identify families in need of free preschool – working with specific cultural groups to identify families who would benefit from the program and assist them through the application process.

Towards universal kindergarten

The county has its work cut out to meet its goal of providing between 11,000 and 12,000 spaces by 2030. There are approximately 19,000 preschoolers in Multnomah County. “We’re looking to achieve universal access in ten years, so we’ll be adding additional slots each year,” Barnes said.

Part of how the Barnes team plans to achieve this goal is through the Pathways program. The program gives providers who want to fill preschool niches access to training and education opportunities, business development, peer networks, and one-on-one coaching tailored to their strengths. It is also available for those interested in starting their own preschool.

So far, the Pathways program has received 100 applicants, 84 of whom have already been matched with a development coach, according to the county.

But if the county is to meet its ten-year goal, it will need to increase the annual number of slots it adds. Next year, the county expects to have 1,100 preschool slots. That’s almost exactly the number of families who applied this year. But that goal is a reduction of 400 slots from his original goal. Officials say they had to adjust the target, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child care providers, which forced many to temporarily close. Many have never reopened. Earlier this year, the county estimated that 300 vendors closed during the pandemic.

The county is working with Boston University’s Center on Early Developmental Ecology to update estimates of the lack of access to local, affordable preschool. Applications for families will reopen in Spring 2023. For more information, go online – www.multco.us/preschool


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