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The city of Springfield, Massachusetts, has had a serendipitous sequence of events supercharge its preschool-expansion efforts. Federal money came in just as local support for early-childhood education crested, and the closure of an early-childhood center created an opening for the school district to buy an existing facility.
The federal money, offered to Springfield and four other Massachusetts communities through the Preschool Expansion Grant program, enabled 195 new seats to go to 4-year-olds without prior experience in formal preschools.
“When we got these 195 slots for 4-year-olds who had never had any preschool experience, we just said we’re going to put these classrooms in this center, and we’re going to start enrolling kids, and we’re going to tell people we’re open for business in September, and they’re going to be breaking down our doors,” Fuller said.
As it turns out, they were wrong.
Fuller estimates half of Springfield’s preschool-aged children are not enrolled in programs, and she admits that number could be off by as much as 10 percentage points—which speaks to a major barrier in preschool-expansion efforts. Communities largely don’t have a handle on the exact size of the population they’re trying to serve.
Communities can ignore the data gaps and jump right into preschool expansion, but they do so at their own peril. Parents make decisions about early childhood based on a variety of factors. Adding new classrooms to buildings that happen to have space, rather than buildings that are in communities with real demand, could lead to unfilled seats. Offering half-day preschool to families that need full-day accommodations likely won’t work. And alternatively, asking families to suddenly go from zero to eight hours of preschool may not be well-received in some circles either.
It’s a lot of work for a district that technically doesn’t have any mandate to serve the youngest learners. But looking at its own kindergarten-readiness and early-assessment data proves it makes a difference. Kuh has found children coming into kindergarten without any preschool experience have weaker social-emotional skills, which contribute to learning, and are less advanced in literacy than those who have had formal education previously.