HARRISBURG, Pa. — The first five years of a child’s life are known as the foundation years. There is overwhelming data that show children enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs are more likely to be academically successful, going into elementary school with stronger foundations in essential language, math and science skills.
However, many families do not have access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, putting most kids at a disadvantage before they even have a chance to start. Early learning in Pennsylvania costs parents anywhere between $15,000 per year and $32,000 per year.
FOX43 Reveals what’s being done to close a growing gap in early childhood education opportunities.
Like any grandparent, Tony Lawson wants the best for his 9-year-old granddaughter Zion and at the core of the best is a proper education. For the past five years, Lawson has been taking Zion to and from school every single day.
“You make it work. You make it work because it’s for the best interest of the child and that’s what we have to look at,” said Lawson.
Zion attends 4th grade at a private school in Harrisburg as a Joshua student thanks to the Joshua Group Scholarship Program. The non-profit organization provides cost-free educational programs to at-risk children in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill neighborhood. Upon receiving a Joshua scholarship, students are required to participate in the academic after-school program at the Joshua Learning Center at least twice a week.
“When she came here, she was just like a sponge. She just wanted to know. It’s built a foundation for her and she had a starting place,” Lawson added.
Unfortunately, most kids do not have a starting place simply because of the hand they were dealt. Kirk Hallett, founder and director of the Joshua Group, believes early learning narrows the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
“It’s the only chance they have. The only chance they have to get out of poverty,” Hallett said.
In October, the Wolf Administration announced a $30 million increase in state funding to expand early childhood learning to more than 3,200 additional children. A $25 million increase will go to Pre-K counts to serve an additional 2,900 children, and the additional $5 million will go towards the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program to serve 300 more children and their families.
However, critics argue the state’s investment isn’t big enough. FOX43 Reveals reviewed a 2021 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research. It found 77 percent of 3-year-olds and 62 percent of 4-year-olds in Pennsylvania are not enrolled in publicly funded early childhood education. The reasons may not be due to lack of demand, but rather a lack of access.
FOX43 Reveals that more than 400 children in Harrisburg on the waiting list for the city’s Head Start center, a federally funded program that provides early learning at no cost to children ages birth to 5-years-old.
To offer some relief, the Joshua Group expanded its services to provide a full-day Preschool Program from Head Start’s waiting list for 3, 4 and 5-year-olds from low-income families living in the city of Harrisburg.
Rachel Yonkunas: Other than Joshua Group, Head Start is the only other center that offers cost-free pre-k in the entire city of Harrisburg?
Kirk Hallett: That I’m aware of, other than a few smaller centers. If they don’t get that kind of training and education until they hit first grade, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. And it is happening every day.
FOX43 Reveals reviewed data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and found Harrisburg High School has one the highest dropout rates in the state. According to the data, 61 percent of students graduate after four years, which puts the high school in the bottom five percent for graduation rates in the Commonwealth.
“Not because the kids are stupid. Uh-uh, no. It’s because we aren’t giving them a chance to get a good start,” Hallett explained.
In November, Milton Hershey School (MHS) held a historic groundbreaking as part of their $350 million initiative to expand early childhood education resources to families and children in need. The Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning (CHS) Hershey will be one of up to six Early Childhood Resource Centers (ECRC) in Pennsylvania.
Construction on CHS Hershey in Derry Township is scheduled to be completed in 2023. A second location planned for Harrisburg’s Midtown neighborhood is set to open in 2024.
Senate Alexander, executive director of CHS, said the schools will be a critical lifeline to children from at-risk backgrounds. They will provide cost-free educational, social and cognitive programs to children from birth to age 5, including transportation, nutritious meals and other needed supplies.
“It’s really about the equity, the funding and those different types of pieces. When we think about the Catherine Hershey Schools and what they are going to be able to do at no cost, this is going to be really life changing,” Alexander said.
The impacts of early childhood education reach far beyond the child. State leaders said data show early learning is tied to crime prevention and reduces the number of people in prison. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said he encouraged MHS to expand its services and invest more resources to educate children in the Commonwealth.
“Pre-k programs cut the number of kids at-risk in half, dramatically improve graduation rates, reduce crime and make our communities safer,” Shapiro said.
For Tony Lawson’s granddaughter Zion, getting a head start on education helped her form stronger bonds with friends, family and peers in the community. She already aspires to open her own business one day and thrives in school—but education is not the only pillar in Zion’s life. Lawson said it takes a village and he has a great supporting cast.
“I have [Zion’s] father. I have her mother. She has two grandmothers. She has uncles. She has aunts. If we work together, anything’s possible,” Lawson explained.
FOX43 Reveals issues that affect you and your family to keep you informed. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send us an email at FOX43reveals@FOX43.com.