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Not enough seats for Southwest Pa. preschoolers, advocates say

Jamie Martines
| Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, 10:45 a.m.
Joan Benso, president of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children: 'If we get to November and it’s not done, then we’ll get pretty concerned.'
Jamie Martines| Tribune-Review
Joan Benso, president of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children: 'If we get to November and it’s not done, then we’ll get pretty concerned.'

Research shows that attending preschool helps students succeed later in their academic careers. The problem is that the number of students eligible for publicly funded preschool programs continues to outpace the number of available seats, advocates say.

They gathered in Irwin and Pittsburgh Tuesday to discuss the need for more state funding to grow such programs.

"I have spent far too much time telling parents who would like to enroll their children in our program that they cannot, simply because we don't have more public funding," said Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of early childhood programs in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Lawmakers increased funding for preschool by $30 million in the 2017-18 state budget. But advocates argue that more is needed, citing the findings of a report released this month by the Pennsylvania Principal's Association and the statewide coalition Pre-K for PA that shows about two thirds of students eligible for publicly funded programs still do not have access.

Publicly funded programs serve families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or about $72,000 per year for a family of four. Both Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties are designated by the state as areas of high unmet need.

In Allegheny County, about 52.5 percent of preschool-age children eligible for publicly funded programs do not have access.

That share is higher in Westmoreland County, where about 65.5 percent of eligible children do not have access to those programs, according to 2015-16 school year data from the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning.

The regions within the New Kensington-Arnold, Kiski Area and Norwin School Districts are among the most in need of additional preschool opportunities, said Cheryl Werner, manager at Westmoreland Community Action, which manages 19 state and federally funded preschool centers.

The findings of this report detail what many principals already know through personal experience, Paul Healey, executive director of the Pennsylvania Principals Association said.

By the time they reach kindergarten, children who have attended preschool are more likely to exhibit age-appropriate behavior and have a grasp of numbers and letters. They're also less likely to need remediation or extra tutoring services down the line, Healy said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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