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Ready or Not, Part 2: Ensuring Pre-K Quality

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Mark Carrel
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Our series on early education in Vermont continues with a conversation about ensuring quality of, and access to, pre-K programs.

The majority of children spend time away from their parents each day, and Julie Coffey believes it’s important to make sure that time is well spent.

Coffey is the executive director of Building Bright Futures, a non-profit dedicated to early childhood education. She spoke with VPR about her support of the state's recent decision to offer universal access to 10 hours of pre-K education, and the challenges to – and importance of – providing early education.

Coffey: Quality is a really important aspect of pre-K. And in universal pre-K, public pre-K, every 3 and 4-year-old now has access to high quality public pre-K programming. And unfortunately, as many high quality programs as we have, we have more programs that just aren’t high quality. Many more programs are struggling and just can’t offer quality care. And that’s a real dilemma now that this bill has passed, because it’s only for high quality programs. So state agencies, philanthropists, providers, early learning professionals, we now have to work very concerted to improve the quality and the access to high quality programs.

"Unfortunately, as many high quality programs as we have, we have more programs that just aren't high quality ... And that's a real dilemma now that this bill has passed." - Julie Coffey, Building Bright Futures

Wertlieb: How is that judged though? How do we look at one program and say this is not a high quality program as opposed to one that is?

Coffey: We rely heavily on our state Step Ahead Recognition system, or STARS. This is a program run by the Child Development Division within the Department for Children and Families, Agency of Human Services, and it has a quality rating system which assesses and incentivizes programs to build their quality, starting with one star, all the way up to five stars. So pre-K programming is only eligible for four and five star programs, or those three star programs who are working on attaining their four star status.

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Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
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VPR
Gov. Peter Shumlin signs the universal pre-K bill into law at the Stafford Technology Center in Rutland on May 28, 2014.

Wertlieb: Most schools already offer pre-K, but how do they do it? With programs in the schools or by partnering with child care providers in the community?

Coffey: Vermont took a real leap forward many years ago with passing Act 62, which is the precursor bill to this one in encouraging universal pre-K. It also ... encouraged schools to first look around at the high quality child care providers in the communities and begin there in working in partnership with the programs. Only in those situations where there are no four and five star programs would schools then really look at having to open up new classrooms.

Wertlieb: What about the funding if a school doesn’t have a partner nearby? How do they get the funding to start a pre-K program?

Coffey: Well, of course there is the funding for those 10 hours. But you are right, there are start-up costs, and for the last several years, local philanthropy, the permanent fund, the A.D. Henderson Foundation and the Turrell Fund have worked together and formed a collaborative called the Vermont Preschool Collaborative. And they, as a non-profit, have been working with schools and offering grants that pay for some of these start-up costs which is really been a help in removing those barriers. I think without the Preschool Collaborative we wouldn’t have as many school based programs, or preschool programs period.  

"Ten hours is a great start, and the research ... supports full day pre-K. So you can see where advocates are probably going to begin focusing in the future in increasing the dosage or time offered with pre-K."

Wertlieb: Now not to sound ungrateful about it in a way, but is 10 hours enough, because what about working parents for example? They’re looking at having to maybe pick up a child after only two hours per day if we’re talking about 10 hours for the week. Some folks who are working parents, that might be really tough for them.

Coffey: That’s a great point and though the state Agency of Education reimburses 10 hours, there are some school districts and there are towns that have really been visionary and developed the funding to pay for full day — South Burlington school district for example, Putney for example. And yes it is tough, over 70 percent of parents in Vermont today work. So we have two working parent households in Vermont, and so there’s a lot of need for child care. Ten hours is a great start, and the research — which is compelling, and there’s a lot out there — supports full day pre-K. So you can see where advocates are probably going to begin focusing in the future in increasing the dosage or time offered with pre-K.

Wertlieb: I’m glad you mentioned research because I want to get into some of the issues now for people who may be hearing this and are still skeptical about the value of pre-K. Why do you believe it’s so important in terms of what we know now about the developing brain of a child?

"The public will kind of kicks in ... when kindergarten begins and K-12 is the responsibility of our society. And yet the earliest years of our lives are the most vulnerable, most precarious, and the least coordinated. So the research has really turned communities on their heels."

Coffey: I don’t know if a lot of Vermonters know that by age 3 – this is really incredible – 80 percent of the brain is fully developed. And by age 5, 90 percent of the brain is fully developed. This makes these first years in one’s life the most important and the most vulnerable. The public will kind of kicks in historically when kindergarten begins and K-12 is the responsibility of our society. And yet the earliest years of our lives are the most vulnerable, most precarious, and the least coordinated. So the research has really turned communities on their heels in realizing that this is the very time in one’s life where we should have a system that supports families. And we don’t. And so that’s what I and others are doing and have been doing for the past few years to build a system that really supports children and families and communities.

This interview is the second installment in Ready or Not, a five-part series on expanding early childhood education in Vermont. 

Ready Or Not, Part 1: Kindergarten Is The Big Test

Ready Or Not, Part 2: Ensuring Pre-K Quality

Ready Or Not, Part 3: Reaching For 'Stars'

Ready Or Not, Part 4: Teaching The Teachers

Ready Or Not, Part 5: Doing The Math

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