More school districts are offering full-day kindergarten, and last year more Pennsylvania children had access to preschool than ever before, according to a report released Wednesday by the nonprofit Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.
Despite the good news, the report, "School Readiness in Pennsylvania," included some troubling statistics.
"Pennsylvania's clearly on the right path, but we have a long way to go," said Joan Benso, the group's president.
More than a third of Pennsylvania children younger than 5 lived in low-income families last year.
The report showed that the economic downturn has driven more parents to seek government aid for child care and children's health insurance. This year, 16,000 children were on a waiting list for Child Care Works, a subsidized day care program.
"In these lean economic times, people are turning to government more and more," Benso said.
Statewide, full-day kindergarten enrollment grew from 62 percent to nearly 66 percent of students between 2008 and 2009. This year, about half of the districts in Allegheny, Westmoreland and surrounding counties enrolled every kindergartener full time.
"All the education research is showing children have the propensity to learn early," said Donald Lee, superintendent of the Shaler Area School District, which switched to full-day kindergarten for the 2008-09 school year.
In the New Kensington-Arnold School District, 100 percent of kindergarteners were enrolled full time last year, up from three quarters the year before.
"The teachers in first grade have told me they are seeing, behaviorally and academically, that children are readier for first grade," said Lynn Buczynski, principal of the district's Greenwald Memorial School.
Many districts across the state have been able to begin full-day kindergarten programs because of grants from the state Department of Education, Benso said. Over the past six years, this funding has helped to double the number of 5-year-olds enrolled all day. The result has been gains on the math and science Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests for third-graders, she said.
"All-day kindergarten works," Benso said.
Pre-kindergarten is important, she said, but the state has further to go on that front. Statewide, nearly 18 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds had access to publicly funded pre-kindergarten last year, up a fraction of a percentage point from the previous year.
In Allegheny County last school year, more than 21 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in publicly funded preschool, including Head Start and Pre-K Counts. This year, however, hundreds of children are not in preschool because Pennsylvania's ongoing budget crisis has prevented the state from providing its share of the funding.
In the Allegheny County suburbs, nearly 300 children are missing out on preschool, said Sarah McCluan, spokeswoman for Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3, which manages public preschool programs. Sixteen classrooms have closed this year, including those in high-poverty school districts such as Duquesne and Sto-Rox.
"That is a direct result of the budget impasse," said McCluan.
Benso worried that the gains Pennsylvania has made on early child care education could be erased if the governor and General Assembly cannot agree on a budget soon. The delay, she said, has prevented more than 6,500 children across the state from starting pre-kindergarten this year.
"If we don't get a budget done soon, it's hard to imagine how we will maintain the gains we have made and grow further," she said. "Four-year-olds only get to be 4 once. They don't get to be 4 again when the budget passes."