When Philly might get more pre-K and community schools

That is, if the first-year mayor gets everything he wants to pay for it, including a sugary drinks tax that would be the highest in the nation.

Mayor Jim Kenney talks with staff at Southwark School about expanding community school opportunities.

Mayor Jim Kenney talks with staff at Southwark School about expanding community school opportunities.

Via @PhillyMayor on Twitter

Philadelphia parents could see small changes in how the education system operates by this fall; almost certainly by next January. That is, of course, if Mayor Jim Kenney has his way.

The first-year mayor has laid out an ambitious education plan with two main tenets: Expanding pre-K opportunities in Philadelphia and creating 25 community schools that serve as neighborhood hubs (more on what this means later). There’s a big “if” between those changes and fall, though.

In order to help fund a five-year, $39.5 million plan for community schools and build to $60 million per year for pre-K, Kenney has proposed a 3 cent-per-ounce sugary drinks tax that would be the highest in the nation. Critics say the tax would disproportionately impact the city’s low-income residents.

Assuming the administration beats expected legal challenges to the new tax, by the time the leaves start turning, pre-K seats will be established and the first round of community schools will be chosen.

“The politics of disruption have not worked, so some of the things that have been tried to reform schools have not worked,” said Susan Gobreski, Kenney’s community schools director. “This is the right focus, and I do think that we are in a moment.”

When community schools will be chosen

City Council members held a town hall to discuss potential changes to the education system.

City Council members held a town hall to discuss potential changes to the education system.

Via @PhillyMayor on Twitter

Kenney still had “mayor-elect” in his title when he traveled to Cincinnati to tour “community schools” there. He and Council President Darrell Clarke looked at the model that put health, social and neighborhood services directly into schools so they served more as neighborhood centers than as simply places for traditional learning. The idea is that if schools can become a positive experience for both adults and children, it can foster growth in the entire neighborhood.

When the pols returned, Kenney vowed that he would work with the School District of Philadelphia to establish 25 such community schools. In his proposed budget, he recommended spending $4 million on the plan in fiscal year 2017 and $10 million after. In total, it would be about a $39.5 million investment from the city, or about $1.6 million per school. The administration will also seek state and federal grants, as well as funds from businesses and nonprofits.

Information is beginning to trickle out about how exactly Kenney’s plan will pan out. Gobreski said this week that the first five to seven potential community schools will be chosen by July, after the administration settles on criteria.

Karen Lynch, the schools district’s chief of student services, said 43 of the city’s 200-plus schools want to be considered. All public schools are on the table; however, Gobreski hinted that the administration will likely favor traditional, neighborhood schools over charters.

There’s no formal application process, and those first few schools will be selected on a rolling basis. After they’re chosen, full-time school coordinators will be hired for each school. They’ll work with community and neighborhood organizations and providers to bring community resources into the school.

Gobreski said if all goes right for the administration, those coordinators would begin by the start of the next school year, and will begin creating a plan for their school. By January, the “community school” model could be set up in each of the schools selected in the first round.

Moving forward, the schools would be selected earlier so that coordinators can be placed in the spring of the previous school year, giving them more time to draft a specific plan for the school they’re serving.

But what would these schools actually look like?

Holly Gonzales, deputy director of community schools, came to Philadelphia from Baltimore, which already has programs like this. Those sites’ services range from on-site dental and vision care, asthma screening, immunizations and mental health resources to chances for increased physical activity. There’s also a focus on general wellness and programs like Muffins for Moms, Donuts for Dads and group yoga infused into the day.

Lynch said an example of a school that’s already fulfilling the community schools model is Southwark School in South Philadelphia, where the school has partnerships with dozens of community organizations and has had mobile units on its campus delivering health services. But Lynch said the administration plans investment in schools that have made progress, like Southwark, and others that aren’t as far along.

For now, if you have thoughts on how the administration should go about choosing the schools, look for updates on when it will hold community meetings asking for input in readiness criteria.

How pre-K would be expanded

Mayor Kenney visiting a quality pre-K provider.

Mayor Kenney visiting a quality pre-K provider.

Via @PhillyMayor on Twitter

The exact timeline for expanding pre-K options in Philadelphia is a bit more muddy. The process is complicated, and the funding matrix for how providers can fund seats — through dollars from the city, state or the feds — is in desperate need of streamlining.

Pre-K director Anne Gemmell said the city is looking at a “mixed delivery system,” meaning new money from the city meant to fund 6,500 seats would go directly to private providers in order to hire new staff, improve facilities or otherwise expand their operation.

Of the 14,000 “quality” pre-K seats in Philadelphia currently, some 9,000 are operated by the school district, currently the largest provider of pre-K in the city. Funds won’t go to the district for it to expand its pre-K programming, but instead it will go to private providers — some of which aren’t considered “quality” providers as established by the state but could become viable options with more funding for training or facilities.

In addition to the 6,500 seats the city hopes to fund over the next five years, additional state and federal dollars are expected. The administration is optimistic that nearly 30,000 quality pre-K seats could be in Philadelphia by the end of its five-year plan.

So what’s all this mean for families? Gemmell said the administration is in the process of developing an online marketplace of sorts where parents can log on and “shop” for pre-K options they’re eligible for. This, she said, could streamline the process for families so they don’t have to look in dozens of different places to find out which program makes the most sense for their family and income level.

That marketplace isn’t expected to be ready for another year-and-half or so. But if all goes well with Kenney’s budget plans, Gemmell said kids could start enrolling in city subsidized pre-K as early as late summer. Their seats could be ready by next January.

The funds brought in by the city that will go to providers — who would apply like any other outside contractor might — are based on an estimate of $8,500 per child, per year. The majority of that funding, according to Gemmell, goes directly to payroll. She said it can be a “sensitive subject,” because the city wants to keep costs reasonable for the pre-K program but also fund quality seats with well-trained instructors and provide them with “a living wage.”

“The quality of the people drives the outcomes,” she said. “So if you don’t have really quality instructors that are really great at interacting with a child and have the expertise to set up a great environment in the classroom, then kids aren’t going to leave pre-K ready for kindergarten.”

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