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Inside the Classroom

Rudiak says it's time for Pittsburgh to make investment in early schooling

Bob Bauder
| Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, 7:09 p.m.
Backpacks hang outside a preschool.
Justin Merriman | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Backpacks hang outside a preschool.
Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak

Pittsburgh Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak hopes to boost the quality of preschool in Pittsburgh with a $2 million allocation next year that would go to providers in the city.

Rudiak of Carrick said less than 20 percent of Pittsburgh's 205 preschool facilities have received “high quality” rankings through the state's Keystone STARS system. The money would be granted to public and private facilities to help them boost their performance.

Rudiak said city foundations, which she declined to name, have given her “confident assurance” they would be willing to provide matching funds. She said the city also plans to seek a state grant.

“This is an investment by City Council where we could leverage this money for millions of more dollars,” Rudiak said. “This fund and the leveraging of these funds will significantly improve the quality of childcare facilities in the city of Pittsburgh, which then actually improves educational outcomes for children, and those are lifelong gains.”

Grants could be used for such things as updating buildings and equipment, staff training and education and curriculum improvements.

Council gave unanimous approval to the proposal during a preliminary vote Wednesday, but one member voiced concerns about providing public funds to private companies.

“City funds cannot be used directly to benefit private for-profit businesses,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze. “The city can do it, but the money would have to be given to the (Urban Redevelopment Authority), and the URA would have to create a program to use it for private development.”

Rudiak noted that the city has provided money to the Kingsley Center in Larimer and the Hill House Association in the Hill District, both private nonprofit organizations.

“I know Councilman Burgess is saying use of these funds is illegal,” she said. “We give money to different entities all the time, so I'm confident that this holds muster.”

She added that studies show public investment in early childhood education pays huge dividends.

“It lowers incarceration rates, it lowers dropout rates, it lowers teen pregnancy rates, it lowers drug use rates and it increases college (admission) rates,” Rudiak said.

Tiffini Simoneaux, manager of Mayor Bill Peduto's Early Childhood Office, would administer the program. She said details on how facilities would qualify and apply for the funds have yet to be worked out.

Simoneaux said the city will likely use Philadelphia's Childcare Facility Fund, which provides similar funding to pre-school facilities, as a model.

She described Rudiak's funding program as a first step in Peduto's long-range plans to provide preschool to every child in Pittsburgh. As preschool facilities move up in rankings, she said, they qualify for higher state subsidies, and that permits them to expand.

“Childcare providers need to have materials and facility improvements to move up in that quality system, which then allows them to pull down additional funding if they serve low-income children,” she said.

Simoneaux previously served as director of Providence Family Support Center in the North Side and said the facility was stuck for years in a lower state ranking because it had no funding to make improvements.

“We were able to get a grant from Richard King Mellon Foundation that took us (to a higher state ranking),” she said.

Cara Ciminillo, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, said tuition and state subsidies do not give providers a large enough margin to cover the cost of improvements needed to boost state rankings.

Providers are reluctant to raise tuition rates because families, particularly those in lower income brackets, can't afford it.

“If the cost of providing quality is higher there is a gap, and the provider has no way to close that gap,” she said. “A childcare provider, if they're already short of money, they don't have the capacity to keep up with the improvements they need, let alone expand.”

The Rev. Brenda Gregg, executive director of Project Destiny Learning Center on the North Side, said the facility is working to move up to a quality ranking and intends to open a new preschool at the Community College of Allegheny County.

She said city funding would permit Project Destiny to pay for staff education, among other things, that are necessary for the higher ranking.

“That is one really great thing to hear,” she said of Rudiak's program.

“The earlier you can start to provide education for kids you can stop a whole lot of other things that come down the pike.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, bbauder@tribweb.com or on Twitter @bobbauder.

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