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Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 26 August 2022

leslee barnes introLeslee Barnes, director of the Department of County Human Services’ Preschool & Early Learning DivisionIn September, the 677 students of the first Preschool for All class will file into 48 classrooms throughout the county.

Those three- and four-year-olds comprise a much smaller group than the 12,000 students the voter-approved program aims to serve by 2030. But Leslee Barnes, director of the Department of County Human Services’ Preschool & Early Learning Division, points out it is well within the year-by-year projection of enrollment for the program, surpassing the first year minimum of 500 students.

It is also a diverse group. Preschool For All (PFA), which offers free, voluntary preschool to Multnomah County residents, prioritizes enrolling families who have the biggest barriers to preschool: families of color, families experiencing homelessness or who are impacted by incarceration, children with disabilities and children in the foster care system.

“Preschool is an opportunity for young children to really learn how to be with others,” Barnes told The Skanner.

“Typically a preschooler is the center of the world at home, this gives them the chance to (socialize), work on fine motor skills, speak and be heard, listen to stories. It’s also an opportunity for children that may be a little bit behind developmentally, to get screenings for hearing, dental, to really get them ready so when they do get in a K-12 setting they're ready to go. And parents build community with a teacher early on.”

The program is funded by a tax on high-income households.

“The return on investment is so rich, too – it’s monetary,” Barnes added. “Every dollar spent has a $7 return. It also prevents some of the things we don’t want to see – the preschool to prison pipeline. This gets children on the right track for the future.”

Of the more than 1,100 applications received for the 2022-2023 school year, PFA reports 28% were Black, African or African American. Eighty-one percent of the applicants’ families were low-income, and 4% were experiencing homelessness.

“(That) children from families that have been historically marginalized should be at the front of the line is still a radical thought for people,” Molly Day, early learning director at Early Learning Multnomah and a member of the PFA advisory committee, said. “Or that investing in young children, even if you can’t unequivocally show that they’re going to be college geniuses or better third grade readers, is still worth it. That the rich should be taxed for social good for children of families they’ve never met. When I think about the world I want to leave behind, I want to leave behind a world where those values are clear and embedded in policy.”

Closing the Gaps

The program aims not only to increase access to early childhood learning, but also to boost the number of preschool sites throughout the county in the wake of a 20% drop in providers.

“The pandemic made shockingly clear how unstable our child care system is,” Brooke Chilton-Timmons, early learning coordinator for the Department of County Human Services, said during an earlier meeting of the Preschool for All advisory committee.

“There are 300 fewer providers operating in Multnomah County now than in February 2020.”

Potential providers are invited to participate in either the PFA Pathways Program, which offers up to two years of coaching and guidance for providers to meet the PFA requirements, or the Pilot Project Sites program, which offers coaching and other support to approved providers.

PFA expects to reimburse providers up to $15,000 per school year for students on a school day schedule, and up to $21,000 for students on a year-round work day schedule.

PFA preschool sites must meet a host of requirements. In-home providers must commit to providing a minimum of four slots, with centers committing to at least 10 slots and school districts to 18. PFA works with families to determine the best placement for each student, with families ranking their top three choices.

To participate, providers must agree not to suspend or expel students – an equity measure that reflects the disproportionate disciplining of Black students. in even early education settings.

“We understand that there are going to be needed supports, and we are interested in having deeper conversations with providers we’re working with to ensure that all children can be successful in their PFA placements,” Leslee Barnes, director of the Department of County Human Services’ Preschool & Early Learning Division, said during a presentation to potential providers. 

To close the pay gap for preschool teachers and staff, PFA sets wage minimums: $19.91 for aides and assistants, and between $21 and $28 an hour for lead teachers, depending on qualification level.

“Our providers have been subsidizing those costs often with low wages,” Barnes said.

Although the list of requirements may seem lofty, much of the program is focused on collaborating with small providers – including inviting the 300 providers who closed during the pandemic – to participate in a program that will provide better financial support.

“We have focused much of our planning on how to ensure that home-based child care providers are able to authentically participate in Preschool for All,” Brooke Chilton-Timmons said. “These small businesses are the most culturally and linguistically diverse group of preschool providers in Multnomah County. They also experience the most barriers when it comes to building and strengthening their businesses.

We are very proud that 68% of the owners and directors of home-based and small center pilot sites identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color.”

Of the 48 PFA pilot sites, 15 are centers, 24 are home-based, and nine are located in school settings. Participating school sites include the Center for African Immigrants and Refugee Organization, which will conduct preschool classes in two classrooms at Vestal Elementary School. KairosPDX will add a preschool classroom to its school.

“We also have some requirements around equality,” Barnes said. “Providers must be using a curriculum that’s aligned to the Oregon Early Learning Guidelines kindergarten standards, be committed to racial equity work, and to providing culturally responsive care for BIPOC families, and use inclusive teaching and learning strategies.”

The advantage to so many preschools collaborating in the program is one of quality assurance, she pointed out.

“Parents make these choices based on relationship, not based on if the teacher has a BA degree,” Barnes said. “They still enroll at a place where they feel seen, their child is being loved on and taught at the same time.”

Provider applications are being accepted throughout the year, and parents can apply to enroll their children next spring. For more information, visit www.multco.us/preschool.

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