Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Starting Young: Harrisburg no longer offers pre-K. Several groups are trying to fill the gap.

Screenshot 2015-07-31 09.53.32In Harrisburg, there’s a magic number—1,719.

That’s the number of 3- and 4-year-olds living in the city, according to the 2010 U.S. census. Those pre-school years, educators say, are when the brain reaches peak developmental powers. The neurological foundation for learning, socialization, communications and critical thinking is built from birth to age 5.

Educators also agree that quality pre-kindergarten helps build that foundation, especially among disadvantaged children. So, back to the number of 1,719. There are 546 children enrolled in Capital Area Head Start’s pre-school in the city of Harrisburg. An additional 400-plus are on the waiting list. A handful are in other quality programs.

As for the rest—many might be in good pre-schools, or are being raised by parents and grandparents who excel at instilling the basics of literacy and math and socialization in their little ones.

Or they might not. It’s just not known. What is known is that not all children receive quality early learning experiences, which means that they will enter kindergarten behind their peers academically and socially. If they’re not reading at grade level by third grade, they’re much less likely to graduate from high school, reports the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Currently, the state of pre-kindergarten in Harrisburg is somewhat disjointed, comprising puzzle pieces waiting to form a cohesive picture. Many groups are doing their part. In Allison Hill, Kirk Hallett is founder and director of Joshua Group, whose Joshua Learning Center houses a pre-kindergarten serving about 25 children from the surrounding neighborhood.

“I see how valuable early childhood learning is for the rest of these kids’ lives,” says Hallett. “It gives them a chance they wouldn’t have otherwise to own their future through education, instead of the alternative. You really want to walk in that classroom and say, ‘Guess what, only half of you are gonna graduate?’ You might as well go in there and say, ‘Which half do we pick?’ And that’s what’s actually going on, in a way.”

Family Focus

In the Harrisburg area, the picture starts with Capital Area Head Start, a division of Keystone Human Services, which provides pre-kindergarten and other early learning services for children in Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry counties.

With federal funding, Head Start serves families with incomes up to 100 percent of the poverty line, or $24,250 for a family of four. Additional state funds extend services to families earning three times as much, or about $75,000, but in the city, most families served are “either the working poor, or they fall at 100 percent,” says Jo Pepper, executive director of Capital Area Head Start.

Through Head Start, every child builds educational, social and emotional skills according to a personalized development plan. All parents are assisted with parenting skills and their own personal goals, such as earning a GED or learning new job skills.

“Our vision is to be a state-of-the-art early childhood program that is responsive to the needs of children and family,” Pepper says. “We’re preparing children for school and success in life.”

There was a time when the Harrisburg School District got grant funding to run its own pre-kindergarten classes, but those classes were eliminated when the funding crisis hit. Today, Head Start’s Harrisburg classrooms include seven leased in the school district’s Foose Elementary, and there’s hope for four more.

“Being in school provides opportunities for more interaction between our teachers and kindergarten and first- and second-grade teachers, more opportunities to work on curriculum or programming together,” says Pepper. “I’m not saying we have really attained success, but we’re working on it.”

The district, meanwhile, has convened an Early Childhood Task Force with the goal of turning Foose into an early childhood academy, says Superintendent Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney.

The academy would house pre-kindergarten classrooms and much more—a health center, a “reading library” of books that children can read by themselves or with parents, resources for grandparents raising children, and spaces where parents and grandparents can understand their role “to create safe learning environments, establish routines, do simple games to help children learn colors, write, learn their ABCs—basic things to be ready to go to school,” says Knight-Burney.

“How do we have a building that really focuses on the family and on really helping students try to get up to speed or get up to the grade level where they should be, and help them progress in the right way?” says Knight-Burney. “We know the importance of being in a literacy-rich environment, but what happens if you don’t come to school from a literacy-rich environment?”

The district is also reaching out to other pre-schools, such as church-based programs, because “someone has these kids somewhere, and we’ve been looking for them,” says Knight-Burney.

The intent is to create “external classrooms,” aligned with learning standards and earning state Keystone STARS ratings indicating high quality, she says.

The hitch, as always, is funding. The four additional Head Start classrooms for Foose depend on funding from Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, a state allocation for quality pre-K aligned with school curricula and standards. The external classrooms program is looking for Educational Improvement Tax Credits, a state program that grants businesses tax credits in exchange for educational donations. An early childhood academy would require a wide range of funding sources and community partners.

The Best Kid

Outside the realm of public funding, Joshua Group’s pre-school was founded around 2013 when a retired educator volunteered to start a program. Originally, families were recruited from the St. Francis of Assisi’s soup kitchen. Word of mouth brought in other families.

Teacher Emily Hallett, Kirk’s daughter who has an early childhood degree, says that some children arrive not knowing “colors, letters, shapes.” Their parents don’t understand their roles as teachers “because they weren’t brought up that way.” While she’s teaching children the basics, she’s providing parents tips on such things as counting steps as they walk up the stairs or counting socks as they fold laundry.

As for the children, she is intent on instilling not just academics but a “structural routine.”

“A lot of it’s, ‘Sit still, learn to walk nicely in the hallway, use your manners,’” she says. “I know kids who were kicked out of public school because they have ‘behavior problems.’ No. He’s a boy. He’s 4.”

What the child ate for breakfast—if there was any breakfast—and a troubled home situation can also enter into the classroom, she says. But her students are learning while they play, and they’re finding stability, which is known to counteract the damaging effects of toxic stress, such as drug use or abuse in the home, on the developing brain.

“When they’re here, I hold all my kids to high expectations, even my 4 and 5 year olds,” she says. “You look at me and say, ‘Excuse me.’ When you’re going from Joshua Group, you’re going to be the best kid you can be.”

Harrisburg resident Layton Potter has seen the difference Joshua Group pre-school has made in his twin daughters as they prepare to enter kindergarten. They’re his “miracle children,” born preemies and now living in the inner city, where “there’s not much emphasis on learning and respect.”

Through Joshua Group, they indulge their inquisitiveness and learn manners, while the guidance he received in parenting and life choices helps him “set a path and stick to the foundation they laid.”

“I really needed to buckle down and give my all to my girls,” he says. “It made my life better. I’m making better choices, better decisions. I have to be a role model all the time.”

Wrap Support

Of course, as pre-school operators like to say, parents are their children’s first and most important teachers. To help wrap pre-schoolers 24/7 in the enriching atmosphere that boosts development, the Foundation for Enhancing Communities administers Parents & Partners, through federal funds disbursed by the state.

Parents & Partners targets Harrisburg’s elementary schools, enhancing school readiness, literacy and family engagement. The program reaches families through disparate threads in the community. Head Start and Joshua Group waiting lists, Boys and Girls Club, Salvation Army, soup kitchens, shelters, church programs, Tri-County Community Action—anywhere there’s programming for families, there are parents whose children need school readiness.

“These families have become so disconnected,” says Parents & Partners program manager Leslie Fick. “The generational poverty continues to perpetuate itself, and sometimes, they just don’t know where to go. This program is intended to wrap support around the family through multiple community partners.”

The wide-ranging program includes teacher professional development on engaging families and cultural awareness, family events, providing school supplies and even creating a calendar with parenting tips. All are delivered through community partners, including the Harrisburg school district. Parenting classes have attracted families who attend successive sessions because they’re learning so much.

“I’ve seen a big change in the moms and how they interact with their kids,” says Fick. “The extension of language, asking what color is this. They’ve told us their children are more apt to learn. They notice things they hadn’t noticed before.”

TFEC is seeking expanded involvement and donations from businesspeople, who have a stake because quality early learning instills the foundation for STEM skills and workplace ethics that businesses will continue to demand in coming years.

“There are a lot of wonderful minds in these little children that need to be developed, and who knows?” says TFEC President and CEO Janice R. Black. “We could have geniuses in this group, and we don’t even know it. These kids deserve a chance. They are worthy. The parents are worthy. They just don’t know how to do it, so we’re helping them.”

Solid Platform

Among the pieces waiting to find their place in the puzzle is the pre-kindergarten planned for Education Row, GreenWorks Development’s proposal for a spectrum of learning clustered in Midtown Harrisburg.

Education Row is slated to feature a U-GRO learning center whose early education component starts with child care at age 1 and extends through pre-kindergarten up to age 5. With well-trained staff and a state-of-the-art playground, the center would incorporate high-quality, standards-based programming toward the goal of assuring children “the social and emotional skills that will enable them to succeed in kindergarten,” says U-GRO President and CEO Greg Holsinger.

“Because by the time they are in third grade, they’ve probably been labeled, unfortunately, as a child that will succeed or a child that won’t, so it’s vital that children can start with a real good, solid platform in kindergarten,” he says.

The facility, in the renovated Republican Club in the 1400-block of N. 3rd Street, would initially educate about 105 children, hopefully from a “complete demographic mix” of neighborhood children from low-income families and the kids of Capitol complex staffers, says Holsinger.

He’s seeking state-administered federal funding that would shave the tuition, possibly to average about $200 a week, for working families. Eventually, as many as 250 children could be served. Some would continue to Commonwealth Connections Academy, another Education Row tenant, while others would attend school elsewhere.

“If you’ve given kids the right start in pre-K, they’re gonna tackle whatever’s next,” says GreenWorks CEO Doug Neidich.

GreenWorks is “aggressively pursuing” the state and federal funding that will complete the financing picture, to allow groundbreaking around April 2016 and opening by April 2017, he says.

The funding needed to grow all pre-kindergarten offerings comes in a trickle. Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2015-16 budget proposal included a $120 million increase for pre-K, on top of existing funding.

For pre-K providers in Harrisburg, it can’t come soon enough. Joshua Group’s Hallett calls it a “no-brainer if we want to reduce significantly the levels of poverty and all those things that come with it—the crime, the delinquency, the budget, prisons, everything that drains a civilization.”

Pepper, of Capital Area Head Start, sees a growing need for high-quality early childhood programs.

“And, yes, I continue to believe that as people become more educated about the importance of early childhood and a child’s later success in life, the money’s going to continue.”

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