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The plan to make Pre-K available for every 4-year-old

Today, Rhode Island has 60 Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) classrooms in 11 communities that fully meet a series of quality measures. These classes serve 1,080 four- and five-year olds.

By the end of her four-year term, Governor Gina M Raimondo has a plan to bring the number of Pre-K students to an estimated 7,000 – so that every 4-year-old in RI will have the opportunity to attend full-day pre-K if their parents choose to send them.

Governor Gina M Raimondo and Mark Shriver, president of Save the Children Action Network, talk with children at the school after the Governor read a story to the youngsters.

“Everything we do now sets the stage for the future,” Raimondo told a crowd at the Nathaniel Greene Elementary School in Pawtucket, where she announced details of her Pre-K proposal. “It’s all about making sure Rhode Island is resilient … We are governing for the long-haul. The single best thing we can do is invest in education and job training.”

History of Pre-K in Rhode Island

Rhode Island State Pre-K began in the fall of 2009 after the General Assembly directed the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) to start a Pre-K pilot program. The program was stagnant until 2014, only serving about 1% of RI’s population, according to a 2017 report by the National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER).

Since Raimondo was first elected in 2014, her annual budgets and programs, as approved by the State Legislature, has tripled the number of Pre-K classrooms, going from covering 2% of the state’s 4-year-old population in 2014 to covering 9% in 2018, according to the report.

During the same time, the state’s spending per child dropped from $8,647 in 2014 to $5,109 in 2017, according to the NIEER report. (Note this comparison is done in 2017 dollars.)

Much of the expansion was covered by a four-year, $19M federal grant earned by RIDE in 2014, which allowed the state to expand from 17 classrooms for 306 children in 2014 to the 60 classrooms for 1,080 children today. The grant was also used to improve processes and support to ensure the quality implementation of the program.

In the expansion, a “mixed-delivery system” approach was used; with Pre-K classrooms residing in public schools, with federally-funded Head Start programs, and in early childhood centers. Children involved are chosen by lottery due to the limited number of seats. Most Pre-K programs have waiting lists.

Over the past several years, the state has followed a 10-point quality control system designed by NIEER and is one of only three states to meet all 10 of the organization’s benchmark standards. Here is a summary of the benchmarks for Pre-K:

  • Teachers have a bachelor’s degree and teacher assistants are certified.
  • All teachers receive specialized training and professional development in early childhood education.
  • Teacher-child ratios of at least 1:10 and class size of no more than 20.
  • Research-based curriculum aligned with the state’s K-12 standards.
  • At least six hours per day of classroom time.
  • Engaged families
  • A focus on the whole child, with wraparound supports to ensure the health and well-being of the child.

Pre-K programs are also ranked by Brightstars, a “Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System,” which rates early child education programs from one to five stars. For a Pre-K program to be considered meeting standards, it must achieve a five-star rating. The programs must also follow Department of Education rules.

In 2018, US News & World Report ranked Rhode Island’s Pre-K program as the best in the country, according to the Governor’s office.

The Future of Pre-K

Continuing with the mixed-delivery system, the Governor’s proposal would add an additional 540 quality-rated Pre-K seats in Fall 2019 – a 50% increase in Phase I. However, many these seats would not be new – about 340 of them already exist but need to be brought up to the NIEER quality standards.

For existing Pre-K programs that might mean any number of changes:

  • Converting half-day programs to full-day ones.
  • Increasing from 18 to 20 students per class.
  • Adding classrooms to new and existing schools.
  • Renovating classrooms and facilities to be appropriate for younger children.

The Governor’s office expects to add 10 totally new classrooms to serve 200 children. School districts, Head Start, and child care centers will be able to apply to open the new classrooms and will be chosen through a competitive RFP process. RIDE will require a local funding commitment by the winning schools/districts as part of the RFP but plans to offer incentives as well.

To achieve this first phase of the project, which also includes doing assessments for phase II, the Governor has put an extra $10M into her FY20 budget proposal which will go to the state legislature on January 17, 2019.

This $10M covers the $5.7M needed to continue current quality Pre-K programs (due to the previous grant ending) and $4.3M for the expansion.

In addition, RIDE won a $4.2M federal Preschool Development Grant in 2018 which will help cover some of the assessments that the state needs to do – such as assessing facilities, checking the currently available early education workforce and future pipeline, increasing Brightstars monitors, and doing outreach to families to encourage them to choose Pre-K for their children.

Making this plan a reality will require the state to continue to add $10M per year for each of the four years of the Pre-K expansion initiative.

Ultimately, “universal” Pre-K means there will be enough seats for about 70% of 4-year-olds in the state. This is because some number of parents will continue to send their children to private Pre-Ks and some parents will chose not to send their children to the public Pre-K.

According to the Governor’s office, there are several long-term economic benefits to increasing the number of Pre-K classrooms:

  • A reduction in the need for special education services.
  • Improved high school graduation rates.
  • Higher career earnings.
  • Less criminal activity in adulthood.

Mark Shriver, president of Save the Children Action Network, said that studies show the state will achieve nearly $9 in benefits for every $1 invested in Pre-K. “Ninety percent of brain growth is in the first five years of life,” he said. “Yet too many 4-year-olds across Rhode Island lack access to quality Pre-K education.”

“I’d rather put money into Pre-K than truancy programs or the ACI down the road,” said Raimondo. “The real focus is on readiness [for future types of jobs.] If we are going to promise students can get a good job, we have to start in Pre-K.”

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