This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
With a final vote on Philadelphia’s sugary-drinks tax slated for Thursday, there is little doubt that Mayor Kenney will get much of the money he requested to expand pre-K in the city.
Now the focus shifts to how the money will be spent, which is part of what brought the mayor to the Little Learners Literacy Academy in South Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Little Learners is a minnow in the child-care ecosystem. Operated out of a one-room storefront on Jackson Street, the center enrolls just 12 students and employs four teachers. And yet it finds itself smack in the middle of the public conversation about pre-K — largely because of the rating it received from the state’s Keystone STARS system.
From two stars to three
Little Learners is one of the 210 child-care programs in the city to receive two out of a possible four stars on the rating scale. Kenney has pledged to add around 10,000 high-quality pre-K seats over the next three years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean 10,000 new seats. In fact, one of the administration’s central expansion strategies will involve helping two-star centers like Little Learners make the improvements necessary to earn at least three stars. The administration considers the 206 city programs with three or four stars to be high quality.
“The ambitious expansion of quality pre-K opportunities for children depends upon more providers to enter and climb the quality rating system,” stated the mayor’s proposal for expanded pre-K.
As early as this week, the mayor’s office plans to release requests for quotations related to its pre-K rollout. One of those RFQs will be aimed at providers, like Little Learners, that are on the verge of a high-quality rating. Little Learners and programs like it will be eligible for 18- to 24-month provisional contracts, said Anne Gemmell, the city’s director for pre-K, that are contingent upon the recipients improving their STAR rating.
“If we don’t invest and make sure they’re at a level that ensures quality, then we’re not going to have an improvement in kindergarten readiness,” said Gemmell. “So it’s all about getting children ready for the next part of their education. That’s the difference between early education and child care.”
There are a litany of differences between a STAR 2 and a STAR 3 child care program, and many involve how teachers are trained and developed. Staff in a STAR 3 facility, for instance, must have certain amounts of annual professional development, must operate under a defined salary scale that acknowledges differing levels of education, and must receive certain employee benefits.