Mayor Kenney is betting big on the littlest Philadelphians.

The mayor who ran on an education platform says he wants to bring pre-kindergarten to "as many children as we can reach" - an ambitious objective that advocates say could be a game-changer for the city and its beleaguered school system.

Quality pre-K is more than day care, experts explain - it's an early-learning program focused on a 3- or 4-year-old's emotional, social, and cognitive development. If done right, the science says, it's well worth the investment.

But can it be done?

The price tag will be hefty - Kenney's estimate figures $60 million from the city in each of the next three years. There's hope of crucial buy-in from the state, business, and philanthropic communities to cover many millions more.

"The idea is great," said Mary Graham, who is the longtime director of Children's Village, an early-childhood center in Center City, and is an ardent supporter of pre-K for all. "But how do you pay for it?"

About 14,000 Philadelphia children are already enrolled in publicly funded, quality pre-K programs. That leaves roughly 19,000 eligible youngsters who are in programs that don't meet the state's quality standards, or who aren't enrolled at all.

These are the children Kenney is focused on.

The push started well before he was mayor. In May, Philadelphia voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to create a pre-K commission to study and propose recommendations on what a plan might look like.

Since June, that 16-member panel has met monthly in a conference room on the 14th floor of the Municipal Services Building.

On Tuesday, the commission is due to deliver a report of its recommendations to Kenney and City Council.

The report will likely include two models - one that would boost the quality of existing pre-K providers and create 5,000 more pre-K slots by 2019; the other, more focused on expansion, and geared to create almost 10,000 more quality slots by 2019.

Both models assume quality pre-K costs about $13,000 per child for an eight-hour day, 260 days a year.

A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 22.

In recent months, the commission has wrestled with huge math problems - such as how to combine existing state and federal pre-K money with new city funds to come up with enough for a certain number of new pre-K slots per year.

Or, in terms of quality: how to incentivize providers to sign up for the state's complicated quality certification program. How, too, can pre-K providers, typically on shoestring budgets, pay living wages to the many child-care workers who will be needed to make the expansion a reality?

Kenney's own plan

After the report's release, Kenney is expected to present his own pre-K plan - he could adopt or reject the commission's ideas - at his March 3 budget address.

Meanwhile there are questions from parents and providers alike, such as how the plan would affect smaller, family-owned centers dotting the city's poorest communities.

"The fear is whatever they do is going to exclude programs," said Essence Allen, who runs a pre-K center in Delaware County and another in Southwest Philadelphia. "What happens to the small people who can't afford a marketing budget or a grant writer? Are they still going to be included in universal pre-K? Are they going to be knocked out? If there are 10,000 slots, will they be equally distributed?"

What happens in a quality pre-K classroom? At its core is just what the name suggests: a preparation for kindergarten, with emphasis on beginning literacy and math as well as intangibles such as social skills. Building a tower with blocks is a start toward learning geometry; counting the blocks makes arithmetic easier. Building it with other children? A way to learn to work and play cooperatively.

One cold morning this month, Kenney lowered himself onto a tiny chair in a pre-K classroom at Kinder Academy in Rhawnhurst.

The mayor worked the room without a hitch, hamming it up for the 4-year-olds more interested in the book - My Friends - than the guest reading it to them.

"A rooster is a boy chicken," Kenney explained earnestly.

Outside the classroom later, he said that the visit, and the focus on pre-K, was among the most important things he can do as mayor, and that he believes investing now in early-childhood education is a hedge against a bigger spend down the road - on prisons.

"If we give children a good start, a really, really good start, when they get to kindergarten and first grade, our teachers have the ability to make them blossom," Kenney said.

The city buy-in can't just be symbolic, he said.

"I can't just keep on pointing to Harrisburg," said Kenney, adding that the city must "put some skin in the game, if we expect philanthropy and other people to step up."

Like 'birthday cake'

The long-term research is clear: 3- and 4-year-olds who participate in quality pre-K do better academically and have fewer behavioral problems when they get to kindergarten. They cope better with social and emotional issues. And the difference is pronounced for low-income children - it's a way of leveling the playing field.

People generally want to invest in the movement - it helps working families, and its benefits are well-documented. President Obama drew applause when he called for "pre-K for all" in his Jan. 12 State of the Union message.

"Being for pre-K is like being for birthday cake," said Anne Gemmell, Kenney's pre-K director. "Very few people are against it."

And the United States is way behind. "We know now how much of a sponge a little kid is," Gemmell said. "When you look at what other countries are doing, they're teaching 2-year-olds to code with emoticons on an app."

Gemmell said that selling the plan to Council could be a challenge.

"Who knows what the tough tax would be - I don't think $60 million is going to magically appear in the budget," she said. "We have to talk about this in a way that doesn't compete with the School District. They could say, 'The School District is on the ropes - how can we come up with this new thing?' "

'We get it'

The Philadelphia school system is by far the city's largest provider of pre-K seats, responsible for more than 9,000 in all, either via district classrooms or closely monitored subcontracts to qualified community providers.

"That's because as a district, we get it," said Diane Castlebuono, the district's deputy chief for early-childhood education, who also sits on the pre-K commission. "That commitment has been hard to maintain in light of our budget situation, but [Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.] has been really clear - this is one of the best investments we can make."

Castlebuono said she hopes the district gets many more seats, but warns that it's tough to find pre-K providers who meet the state's strict "quality" criteria.

Still, she called Kenney's push "very realistic" and "incredibly important" to children's chances of success down the road.

As Castlebuono put it, pre-K "makes our job easier when kids come in prepared for school."


UPDATE: This article has been updated to correct the report's expected release date.