With soda tax, school's now in session

On the first day of pre-K at at SPIN Parkwood (from left) Chief Education Officer of Philadelphia Otis Hackney and SPIN President CEO Kathy Kathy Brown-McHale talk as parent Desiree Tritz watches her daughter Madison Hoffman Green,4, and fellow students Makayla Grant,4 , eat breakfast.

The preschoolers have entered the building.

Wednesday marked the first day of city-funded pre-K for 2,000 new students.

"Are you so excited?" Lisa Martin asked her 3-year-old daughter, Rowan, as she led her down the hallway toward her classroom at SPIN Parkwood early learning center.

"Yeah!" the little girl said, throwing her arms - slightly inhibited by her puffy coat - up and down and doing a little jump.

SPIN was able to add 40 seats to the newly renovated brick building on Dunks Ferry Road, thanks to city money, or more specifically the city's new sweetened-beverage tax.

The nonprofit, which serves people with autism and intellectual disabilities, has inclusive pre-K classrooms set up for kids living with and without disabilities.

The launch of PHL-pre-K, as the city calls its program, is a milestone for the Kenney administration, which has held up pre-K as its banner initiative.

"I can't think of a better way to mark the anniversary of my first day in office than to know Philadelphia families who a year ago were struggling to afford quality child care, now have access to PHLpreK," Mayor Kenney said in a statement. "Quality early childhood education provides a tremendous return on investment for the citizens of Philadelphia, reducing the need for costly special education, improving graduation rates, and creating both immediate and long-term economic growth for our small businesses and the city at large."

This summer, Philadelphia became the first big city to pass a sweetened-beverage levy, which was designed to fund the early childhood program.

The city will pump $12.2 million into pre-K this year, funded through the beverage tax, and hopes to ramp up funding to cover 6,500 children in five years.

While the city has no income cap on the program, most of the families joining SPIN for pre-K are from the Parkwood neighborhood and make around $30,000 a year, said Adam Hymans, director of strategic communication for SPIN.

"It's making pre-K affordable and accessible for parents. . . . There are parents who either didn't get into those original slots or whose income has slightly disqualified them from other spots," Hymans said.

Martin, who also has a 10-month-old daughter and a daughter in college, said most other options were too costly for her family. A private center down the street is $3,000 per year.

She was previously working at Bed Bath & Beyond in order to pay for day care.

"The teachers were really nice, but it's two days a week for a couple hours a day," Martin said. "This is more enriching, I can tell just walking in. I think she's going to be really comfortable here."

As kids walked into classrooms, parents lingered in the hallway, many more nervous and teary-eyed than their children.

Eric Grant dropped off his 3-year-old daughter, Makayla, and stuck in the hallway outside of her classroom making sure she was OK.

"Today's a big day," said Grant, who said it was a priority for him to find a highly rated center with certified teachers. "I'm a big believer in education. It's her time to shine, let her do her own thing."

Nearby, Kimberly Leonardi poked her head in to say goodbye to her daughter, Ellie Mae.

Leonardi said she worried her bright daughter would be held back without a quality start. "She knows her numbers, colors, she's articulate, so she's definitely, like, even kindergarten level. It was just money that was keeping her out of a setting like this," Leonardi said.

Otis Hackney, the Kenney administration's chief education officer, who came to mark the first day, thanked Leonardi and other parents for signing up.

"It means a lot that you're taking a risk on this with us," he said. "I'd be saying that even if the cameras weren't here."

The first day of city-funded pre-K coincided with the implementation of the sweetened-beverage tax created to fund it.

Sticker shock has caused some outrage this week, but Hackney said he hopes people consider what the dollars and cents are funding.

"The cost of beverages, the frustration, we understand," Hackney said. "But we're investing in children, we're investing in our city."

Inside the classroom, the kids started circling up for story time, many of the parents still in earshot.

"Today's book," the teacher said, "is called First Day Jitters."

jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506 @juliaterruso