LEWISTOWN - Although the number of young children participating in publicly funded, quality early education programs has grown significantly since 2003, a new report says children in more than two-thirds of Pennsylvania's counties still are at risk of school failure, who would benefit from expanded access to pre-kindergarten and other early education programs.
The report, released by the departments of Education and Public Welfare, compiles information, by county, on the number of children affected by seven risk factors for school failure as well as the number of children served by early childhood programs.
Mifflin County is listed as a high-risk area, while Juniata, Huntingdon and Perry counties pose a moderate-high risk for preschool children, according to the report. Snyder County qualified in the moderate-low category, the report states.
Although Mifflin County is a high-risk area, county schools began steps to change that with the Pre-K Counts program. Now in its second year in Mifflin County, five local schools provide the free prekindergarten to at-risk children in the area. For more information about Pre-K Counts in Mifflin County, visit www.mifflincountyprek.org.
The report's findings are intended to help better target funding for early childhood programs such as Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts and Keystone S.T.A.R.S.
"As we prepare our children for a successful future, we need to be aware of the challenges they face and invest strategically in programs that can help them overcome these challenges," Secretary of Public Welfare Estelle B. Richman said in a press release. "We need to continue working together to ensure that children and families in need are taking full advantage of available programs and services."
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak is participating in an early childhood conference today in Philadelphia, the release states. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Education Commission of the States is sponsoring the statewide conference to discuss the importance of strengthening transitions between early child care programs and elementary school.
"Pennsylvania has done an awful lot of things under the leadership of our governor ... to enhance early childhood education..." Zahorchak said Wednesday. "Other emerging states are calling on Pennsylvania to lead the way."
Since 2003, Pennsylvania has made some of the nation's greatest progress in serving the educational needs of young children. Today, there are approximately 168,000 3- and 4-year-olds in state-funded prekindergarten and high-quality early-care settings, an increase of more than 100,000 preschoolers in the past five years.
However, there still is room for improvement, the release states. Half of Pennsylvania's preschoolers participate in publicly funded, quality early education programs, leaving nearly 150,000 young children without access to quality early childhood learning opportunities, the release states. Many of these children are in counties classified in the report as high-risk.
"One of the strongest arguments for quality early education is that it can help children who would otherwise enter school without the necessary skills to build those skills early and bridge the achievement gap before it even begins," Zahorchak said. "This report shows that Pennsylvania needs to continue to expand its investment in quality early education if we expect all students to succeed in school and in life."
According to the report:
On average, 38 percent of children between birth and age 5 participated in federal and state funded quality early childhood programs;
A little more than half of Pennsylvania's 3- and 4-year-olds participated in publicly funded quality early education programs;
Most children served in Pennsylvania's early childhood continuum are being reached through the Keystone S.T.A.R.S. program, which provides technical assistance and high voluntary standards for community-based providers; and
Public investment, state and federal, in early childhood programs in Pennsylvania is approximately $2,722 per child.