New Hempfield pre-K center puts spotlight on continuing need
A new full-day pre-kindergarten classroom in Hempfield was cause for celebration Thursday, but the celebration was muted because of the ongoing unmet need in Westmoreland County.
Leaders of Westmoreland Community Action Head Start met with area lawmakers to officially open the classroom and to advocate for more funding for pre-K classrooms in the 2020-21 state budget.
“We are at 38% of eligible children in Westmoreland County who have access to pre-K, so we still have some work to do,” said Cara Ciminillo, executive director of Trying Together, a regional early childhood education organization.
Ciminillo noted that 62% of income- eligible children in Westmoreland County don’t have access to pre-K because of a lack of funds. Pre-K programs such as Head Start (federal) and Pre-K Counts (state) serve low-income children ages 3-5 and prepare them for kindergarten.
The new classroom, one of two at the St. Paul Head Start in Carbon, was made possible as part of a $30 million line item in the 2019-20 state budget and serves 17 children, Ciminillo said. The original classroom, which serves 18 children, moved to St. Paul from Hutchinson Elementary School.
“Head Start and Pre-K Counts serve the most high-risk families in the county in an effort to narrow the gap between low-income kids and their middle-income and higher-income peers,” said Patti Prior, Westmoreland Community Action operations manager.
That gap represents not only academic performance but also social and emotional skills, she said.
“We try to engage parents very early. … Research indicates that when families are engaged early, they’ll be involved later in life,” Prior said.
Westmoreland Community Action operates 25 pre-K classrooms in 14 school districts, and has an enrollment of 491 students. It was the only county Head Start agency to receive funding for a new classroom this year.
“We were lucky to get the 17 slots that we did get,” said Tammy Patterson, vice president for Westmoreland Community Action’s Children & Family Services.
While the funding picture for the new state budget is still unclear, officials estimate it will take $36 million to make a dent in the Head Start waiting list.
Westmoreland Community Action Head Start currently has 26 children on a waiting list for Pre-K Counts and 55 on a waiting list for Head Start, Patterson said.
An additional 121 pre-K classrooms are needed in Westmoreland County to meet the need, according to Pre-K for PA, an early childhood education coalition founded in 2014.
Funding is needed not only for new classrooms but also for teacher salaries. Total annual cost for the new St. Paul classroom and its three staff is about $70,000, Patterson said.
Because of the challenges of early childhood education, Head Start needs to be able to offer competitive salaries in order to retain good teachers, she said.
“Our teachers’ jobs are very difficult,” Prior said. “We get a lot of kids born addicted to heroin or methadone. Their behaviors are beyond out-of-control, and we work with them over and over.
“We have a great staff, and we don’t want them to leave,” she said.
Attending Thursday’s panel discussion were state representatives George Dunbar, R-Penn Township, and Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, and state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield.
Dunbar said Westmoreland County historically has been underserved when it comes to Head Start and other early childhood programs.
“Penn Township actually got a Head Start program a few years ago, and everybody said, ‘Penn Township has one of the lowest poverty rates in Westmoreland County.’ But there’s still a need there,” he said. “You can’t put blinders on any area — there’s needs everywhere and you always have demand.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .