County considering major preschool expansion

Montgomery County commissioners are expected to vote in the coming weeks on a $2.6 million expansion of their Preschool Promise program, the next step toward making preschool available to every 4-year-old in the county.

The Preschool Promise steering committee — 25 local leaders in education, industry and government — recommended Tuesday that the county launch a “demonstration model” to provide preschool services and tuition assistance for 600 to 800 students next fall.

That effort would build on the lessons of the much smaller Kettering pilot program, and would be studied “with a goal of securing sustainable funding to take the program countywide by 2018 or 2019.”

County Commissioner Deborah Lieberman supports countywide preschool access — which might eventually serve about 4,000 students for $12 million annually — pointing to research linking kindergarten readiness with high school graduation rates.

“We think we can do it,” Lieberman said. “It makes so much sense when you look at these children as our future workforce.”

Lieberman said county officials would consider using human services levy money to fund the $2.6 million model for 2016-17. But she pointed to the 35-student Kettering pilot as a good model, because the city and the school district also shared some of the cost.

“This won’t be all on (the county’s) shoulders,” she said. “This is a community issue. We’ll also ask foundations and the business community for support.”

The steering committee co-chairs, Dayton Children’s Hospital CEO Debbie Feldman and PNC Bank Dayton Regional President Dave Melin, presented a detailed report to commissioners, declaring a goal of doubling the number of local children who attend a high-quality preschool within 10 years.

A big part of that plan is expanding the number of high-quality preschool providers in the county. According to 2015 data cited in the committee’s report, 35 percent of local 4-year-olds are in solid public school preschool programs or three-star and above private programs based on the state’s star-rating system.

Another 41 percent are in one-star, two-star or unrated programs. The last 24 percent are not in any form of preschool.

“The quality of the preschool is a really important distinction,” Feldman said. “That was the biggest ‘a-ha moment’ for a lot of us. Just being in preschool doesn’t do it. It’s being in a preschool that meets these various characteristics.”

Robyn Lightcap, director of the ReadySetSoar early childhood program, said her group is working with local colleges and career tech providers to increase the number of bachelor and associate degree graduates in the early childhood field.

“We’re mostly helping existing providers improve their quality; that’s what we really need to focus on,” Lightcap said. “In general, we don’t have a capacity problem, we have a quality problem.”

Tuition assistance on a sliding scale based on income is a big part of the preschool expansion proposal. But Lightcap mentioned an interesting caveat. She said the committee might recommend more help for lower-middle and middle-income families, since the very lowest-income families already qualify for Head Start, publically funded childcare and certain preschool slots.

“Our middle-income families aren’t eligible for anything, and they’re the ones we’re hearing a loud cry from, saying, ‘We can’t afford this, even if we have both parents working.’ ” Lightcap said.

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