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U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan lauds Pittsburgh credentials

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks with Naire Jordan, 5, right, and Rylee McKinley, 4, left, during a visit to Hug Me Tight Childlife Center in the Hill District on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 13, 2014. Mayor William Peduto and the National League of Cities hosted the secretary and other education and community officials on the first of a two day community forum to discuss early childhood education initiatives in the City of Pittsburgh.

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By Megan Harris
Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 10:00 a.m.
 

Pittsburgh should be a strong contender for an $80 million federal grant to help fund preschool for roughly 10,000 children, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Wednesday.

Duncan announced the grant competition flanked by Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane at Hug Me Tight Childlife Center in the Hill District.

“I believe Pittsburgh can become not just a model for early childhood education, but can prove to the rest of the country and to Congress why it's essential and necessary to fund,” Peduto said.

Cities will apply through their states for up to $20 million a year for four years. Duncan said he expects Pittsburgh's application, due in October, to be a strong one. City or county money could match any grants local programs receive, effectively doubling funding, Peduto said.

Carol Barone-Martin, Pittsburgh Public Schools' executive director of early childhood education, estimated the district spends more than $9,000 a year to put a child through preschool. A $20 million grant, though welcome, would pay only about two-thirds of those costs for up to 3,175 more 4- and 5-year-olds — the number the district estimates are lacking any form of early childhood education.

“Twenty million is a great start, but it's still not enough,” she said. “We would need a city match to reach them all.”

Fitzgerald and Peduto were optimistic the city and county could match any federal money.

Lane said the district has in place both the teaching talent and space to expand a program that will serve 2,075 students in 2014-15.

City programs are up about 90 students this year, Barone-Martin said.

“With universal pre-K, we wouldn't be limited by income or neighborhood anymore,” she said. “That's the beauty of this project. It's education for all.”

Pittsburgh should be an enticing choice, Peduto said, citing the city's manageable population and advantages through partnerships with foundations, advocates and city leaders dedicated to upping the standard of early childhood education.

“I want us to get out of the catch-up business,” Duncan said, referencing the domino effect of poor grades in primary school to criminal charges and other trouble later in life. “If our babies can enter kindergarten academically and socially ready to thrive, it's another world of opportunity.”

Grant winners will be chosen and money distributed by mid-December, Duncan said.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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