With money on the way, pre-K programs look ahead

The mayor visits with tiny pupils at Little Learners Literacy Academy. The school hopes to improve its quality rating.

Tanisha Aiken-Woods, the founder and owner of Little Learners Literacy Academy in South Philadelphia, has a fat binder filled with plans for improving it.

When Mayor Kenney and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson visited her small academy last week, Aiken-Woods opened the binder to show how she intends to boost its quality rating on the state's scale for early childhood programs from a 2 to a 4, the top of the scale.

And now that City Council has approved a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened and diet beverages to fund an expansion of quality pre-K seats, Aiken-Woods hopes the city will be able to help her center eventually qualify for some of those seats.

"I'm so excited," Aiken-Woods said after the tax plan was approved.

The former kindergarten teacher and reading specialist for the Philadelphia School District is thrilled that Kenney plans to add 10,000 quality pre-K slots for 3- and 4-year-olds by 2020. The objective is providing more children with the foundation that will prepare them for success in school.

Aiken-Woods said people often misunderstand the critical importance of pre-K. "We are not just about changing diapers," she said. "We are teaching children. Our program is based on literacy."

Anne Gemmell, the city's pre-K director, said the mayor's plan counts on working with providers such as Aiken-Woods to add quality seats.

"Our goal is to create more opportunities for families to choose quality pre-K," Gemmell said, adding that there are many neighborhoods without that option.

She said the first 2,000 slots will become available in January, when the new tax takes effect.

The city is seeking proposals from city providers that are rated 3 or 4 and are prepared to add seats in January.

It is also seeking proposals from providers with lower ratings that want help to improve or have not been rated at all.

City officials expect the new beverage tax to generate about $91 million per year for prekindergarten, community schools, improving parks and recreation centers and libraries, and a tax-credit program for businesses that sell healthy beverages.

James Engler, deputy mayor for policy and legislation, said the tax is expected to provide a total of $210 million for pre-K alone over five years.

Gemmell said those local dollars are expected to fund 6,500 seats in five years. Increased early education funds from the state and federal governments would help reach the 10,000 mark, she said.

City officials say they still are working on some of the specifics of the program's operations.

The city is seeking proposals from organizations interested in managing the day-to-day operations of the prekindergarten program, and an announcement could come in July.

"Selection is underway," Gemmell said.

With 9,700 prekindergarten slots, the School District currently is the largest provider in the city, according to Diane Castelbuono, the district's deputy for early learning.

She said the district, which contracts with providers, is willing to do all it can to help, but would not seek to run the city's expanded program.

"Some of what the city is proposing to do is work with lower-quality providers to bring them up to higher quality," Castelbuono said. "That's an important component. . . . But the district is not in that business and never has been."

For Aiken-Woods, who already is working with the United Way's Success by Six program to improve her center, facilities have been the major issue.

In its current building, Little Learners has only one bathroom. And although the school is across the street from a park, its rating was lower because it lacked an on-site outdoor play area.

Aiken-Woods knows all about the demand for pre-K.

Although she opened Little Learners only in November 2014, with a dozen children aged 15 months to nearly 4, it is full and has 38 on a waiting list.

martha.woodall@phillynews.com215-854-2789@marwooda