'D.C. really has an opportunity to serve as a national model'
By Dylan Matthews
Despite some of the difficulties with securing funding for pre-K that I've outlined this past week, some cities and states are forging ahead with new programs. Among them is D.C., which is making new "blended" pre-K programs available to every 3- and 4-year-old in the District. Under the new approach, students in pre-K programs at D.C. public schools are put in classrooms with Head Start students, and receive the same comprehensive services. I talked to HyeSook Chung, executive director of D.C. Action for Children and a proponent of the new approach, about its merits.
What did the DCPS preschool picture look like before these blended classrooms were introduced? What non-Head Start preschool options were available?
On one hand, you had pre-K, which as an extension of the K-12 education system was purely an early educational approach to preparing children for school.
On the other hand, you had Head Start classrooms, where children received early education plus additional social services -- nutritional meals in the classroom, health, developmental and dental screenings, and family support services. Research has shown that this kind of comprehensive early care and education approach can give low-income children an important boost as they start school.
So in effect, under one roof we had young children from the same community grouped into separate classrooms, receiving a very different kind of early childhood experience. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, because for the most part the children had the same needs. Most of the children in the regular preschool and pre-K classrooms were actually eligible for Head Start based on their parent’s incomes, but were not enrolled. There were simply not enough Head Start slots -- the number of eligible children far exceeded the federal cap. So across the city, thousands of children who could have really benefited from the comprehensive early care and education of Head Start were missing out. How do the non-DCPS blended classrooms work? Who offers them, who's eligible, etc.?
First, it’s important to note that in 2008, the city passed legislation mandating universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the District. This was called the Pre-K Expansion and Enhancement Act. As a result, DCPS, charter schools and community-based programs are all expanding their pre-K slots in an effort to reach the act’s 2014 deadline. This is really an ambitious goal for the District.
In addition to DCPS, charter schools and community-based organizations offer Head Start and regular pre-K, as well as some blended classrooms. The Head Start programs would be very similar to each other because they must follow guidelines from the federal Head Start bureau, but the pre-K programs might have some variation depending on the center or the school. To enroll their child in Head Start, parents must have an income below a certain level. Pre-K is open to any child.
Speaking with center directors, I have heard that when given a choice, parents sometimes prefer to put their children in pre-K because they believe they will have an academic advantage. Others perceive a kind of stigma attached to Head Start because it may be seen as labeling their children as poor, so they choose not to enroll for that reason.
In low-income communities, most of the children really need comprehensive services. But without the federal funding that comes with the Head Start slots, program directors are left to find other supplemental funding to provide the same services to the children in the regular Pre-K classrooms. As you can imagine, that’s no small task in this economy.
What is the funding mechanism from DCPS for these programs?
It’s called blended funding. DCPS is blending existing local funds with federal funds -- an $11 million grant from the Head Start Bureau, which DCPS applied for and won. More than 4,600 children enrolled in DCPS will receive comprehensive early care and education under this new pre-K program -- that’s more than double the number who are actually enrolled in Head Start. For this dramatic expansion of services, D.C. does not have to shell out any additional funds.
Blended funding provides the best bang for anyone’s buck. In this economy, it’s a huge windfall. Everyone is trying to avoid cuts to critical services for families, and yet, here is a no-cost solution to expanding Head Start services to thousands of children who can really benefit.
Are there other cities that have experimented with this? How much latitude do school chancellors and mayors have for experimenting with Title I funding and non-Head Start pre-K? Have other programs been effective?
D.C. really has an opportunity to serve as a national model for blended pre-K. We are actually only the fourth “state” to get this kind of grant from Head Start, so other states and cities will be watching us closely to see how this works. The Obama administration has been urging states to do more to coordinate funding and services and to innovative in their approach to education. Blended pre-K is the definition of a smart investment.
It’s really too early to say whether other programs have been effective. All are in their infancy. But we have great hopes for it succeeding in the District and eventually being replicated around the country in communities facing similar challenges.
How do you expect this to change if Gray wins the mayoral primary, Rhee leaves and DCPS generally undergoes a shakeup?
The election should have no effect on this particular program at DCPS. The grant from Head Start, like any other grant, has benchmarks that must be met for the funding to continue. So it will be an ongoing challenge for those administering this program at DCPS and at the various schools to remain in compliance. Head Start has a very rigorous training and technical support system, so I’m confident that everyone will work together to make this a success. We can’t fail our children.
Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.