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Pima County, Ariz. invests in preschool for 1,600 kids

Experts say quality early childhood education contributes to improved social development, health and employment, but it comes at a cost. The Pima County, Arizona Board of Supervisors is investing in the future of its community and providing access to quality early education for children from families who cannot afford the average $800 per month it costs to send a child to kindergarten. There is. county.

The Pima Early Education Program Scholarship (PEEPS) program works through a blended delivery system, providing free district preschool classes, Quality First Scholarships, and Extended Day Head Start programs to low-income and middle-class residents in the county. We offer Nicole Scott, who manages the PEEPS program, said offering multiple early education options through the program is the best way to meet the diverse needs of families across Pima County.

During the 2023-2024 school year, PEEPS will serve more than 1,600 children, one of whom is Mandy Stoffle's 3-year-old son. Flowing Since enrolling in the PEEPS program, Cam, who attends preschool in the Wells School District, has learned the alphabet, is able to write his name, and has made progress in counting and reading.

Stoffle's oldest child did not attend kindergarten because the cost was beyond the family's means, but instead attended an in-home daycare center. Stoffle said the quality of her education through PEEPS “exceeded her expectations” and said Cam was “extraordinarily prepared” for her kindergarten.

“I think most people think, 'My child doesn't need preschool, a babysitter is fine,' but let me tell you, that's not true,” Stoffle said. “This is a very important time and their minds are like little sponges, just soaking everything up.”

Research shows that 90% of a child's brain develops during the first five years of life. Scott said high-quality early education increases executive ability and self-development.

“When children are in a high-quality environment where they can explore, imagine and be creative, it builds confidence,” Scott says. “…They will be more successful in life by problem-solving, taking tests, opening up to friends, and being part of a group or team.”

Stoffle said the socialization fostered by the kindergarten was “unusual” for Cam, who was born during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My son was a so-called 'corona baby,' so he was confined to his house for the next two years,” she said. “So the fact that he has had the opportunity to start socializing and make new friends has been a huge benefit as well…and it's great that there's a flow where he has the option to keep him in the same school district. .”

Mr Scott said high quality early education benefits not only children but also the wider community.

According to a 2013 report published by the Center for American Progress, affordable, high-quality early childhood education and care is “essential to parents' ability to balance career success and family responsibilities.”

“Our whole community is healthier now because our parents are working and our parents are educated,” Scott said. “It's a huge circle. For me, investing in these young learners is really a matter of infrastructure.”

Investing in quality early education is “absolutely critical,” said Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott. Scott's wife, who was a kindergarten teacher, said that on her first day of school, she repeatedly told him that she could see which children benefited from attending kindergarten.

Scott, who himself worked in Arizona schools for nearly 30 years, said PEEPS is “the most important expense in the county budget.”

“And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that,” he said. “Because when you invest in one child, it's hard to put a price tag on what that means to that child and their parents. And when you're investing in 1,600 children, it's hard to put a price tag on what that means for that child and their parents. , you are actually investing in the potential and future of our community.”

The Pima County Board of Supervisors allocated $30.2 million from the American Rescue Plan Act budget to fund this program. Participating school districts, the city of Tucson and the towns of Marana and Oro Valley are also contributing funding, and nonprofits, businesses and individuals can also send donations through United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona.

Even after ARPA funds expire, county contributions to the program will continue through a portion of secondary property taxes that fund library districts, as required by state law enacted in 2021. It recognized. Meanwhile, Pima County is the only county in Arizona, and this type of preschool program could be implemented by law in any county in the state.

Superintendent Scott said the passage of this bill was due to the support of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, a business organization whose members are many educators, business leaders, and communities who make preschool accessible to people. He said he is also participating in Preschool Promise, a coalition of organizations and parents. All the kids in Arizona.

“If we have a vibrant education system from pre-school to higher education, businesses are more likely to stay here and more likely to want to come here,” Scott said. “In doing so, legislators understood that it wasn't just interesting for Pima County, but actually for the private sector as a whole.”

A report by the nonprofit organization ReadyNation finds that the lack of available child care facilities costs Arizona $4.7 billion annually in lost profits, productivity and revenue. did.

Pima County Chairwoman Adelita Grijalva said the county couldn't wait for the state to step in and support early education for young people.

Ms. Grijalva attended Tucson Unified School District and served on the district's board of directors for 20 years. When she was elected to the Pima County Board of Supervisors in 2020, she knew quality education needed to be a priority for the county.

“I said, 'Why not invest in early childhood education?'” Grijalva said. “And another colleague said, 'That's not Pima County's job.'

“Well, Pima County is responsible for prisons, indigent care, and workforce development. A lot of the programs we do help people who are underserved and who haven't had success with other programs. We help young people get a stronger start in childhood, so they are statistically less likely to need these programs. In the long run, this investment will pay off.”

PEEPS has expanded significantly since its founding in 2021, serving nearly double the number of children this school year than its original 856 children.

The number of classes increased as well (from 11 to 30), and income eligibility was changed to make the program available to more “middle class” people. The program was initially available to households up to 200% of the federal poverty level, but has since been expanded to 300%, or up to $90,000 a year for a family of four.

Grijalva said the program's updated income eligibility will provide access to people who don't meet the criteria for the low-income program but can't afford to send their children to kindergarten at their own expense.

Grijalva, a mother of three, said that sending her children to kindergarten was a “huge financial sacrifice” for her family.

Preschool shouldn't be “the first thing off the list” when other expenses arise, she says.

“We're providing that opportunity to more families,” Grijalva said. “And I just hope we can continue to do that.”

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