City awards pre-K program money; enrollment opens

ENROLLMENT is officially open for the city's pre-K program.

The Mayor's Office of Education announced Thursday that 61 providers, operating 78 sites across Philadelphia, will receive $10.2 million to enroll more 3- and 4-year-olds in pre-K.

"As of this moment, families can now call and apply for free quality pre-K, and I believe that's just an awesome change," Mayor Kenney said at a North Philadelphia YMCA, one of the sites slated to receive city funds.

Interest in the program, dubbed PHLpreK, was high, with 85 providers, operating in 135 sites, applying over the summer.

On average, each provider will receive 20 to 30 slots, totaling 2,000 new city-funded pre-K seats in the first year.

Criteria included whether a provider was located in a high-need geographic area, the quality of instruction (as measured, in part, by the state certification known as STARS), realistic plans to expand, leadership and staff and a record of service to special populations, including children with special needs and English-language learners.

"We're encouraging parents to check out all these sites to see which are a good fit for their family and their location," said Deana Gamble, director of communications for the Office of Education.

The city's plan is to fund 6,500 new seats within the next five years, paid for by the tax on sugary beverages, which goes into effect in January.

Tanisha Woods, owner of Little Learners Literacy Academy in South Philadelphia, said the city funding and help would allow her to increase student enrollment from 13 to 33. She will also be able to raise staff salaries.

"Quality really is the love and care and safety you provide, so I'm looking forward to expanding our program and also to enhance our business practices," Woods said.

The Public Health Management Corp. (PHMC) and Urban Affairs Coalition will oversee the program and distribution of the funds, the city also announced Thursday. The two groups were awarded a $1.6 million joint contract for the first year.

Classes begin in January, but enrollment, which is first-come, first-serve, starts immediately.

Eligible children must have turned 3 by Sept. 1, 2016, and families must reside in Philadelphia. Gamble said that given that the majority of prequalified centers are in high-need neighborhoods, low-income children are expected to get priority. The office is also working with centers that have waiting lists that include low-income families.

Those interested can call 1-844-PHL-PREK to apply.

The list of qualified centers is preliminary, and the number of seats each receives could change.

Thirteen of the 78 prequalified sites are contracted by the Philadelphia School District, the city's largest provider of pre-K. Three YMCAs in Philadelphia will receive funds for pre-K programs, including Columbia North, where Jasmine Roberts, 31, sends her 4-year-old daughter.

It was a months-long search for Roberts, who is studying to be a medical assistant. After much pestering, she got Mackenzie a spot, and now mother and daughter have the same routine.

"We both wake up early, with our book bags on our backs, and we go to school," Roberts said.

jterruso@phillynews.com