In one room at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, adults were kicking off a statewide campaign to seek access to high quality pre-kindergarten education for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state.
In other rooms, 3- and 4-year-olds were living the experience at the JCC's Early Childhood Development Center. They were reading books, playing with blocks, singing, creating art in small groups with a teacher and cleaning up after snack.
"Every child should have access to something like that. It's really going to help them be successful," said Michelle Figlar, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children. The association is the Western Pennsylvania leader in the new campaign called PreK for PA, which was launched Thursday around the state.
According to the campaign, only 20 percent of the state's 3- and 4-year-olds have access to high-quality programs. Some children are eligible for free or subsidized programs, but there is not enough space.
"We're not anywhere near serving the eligible children," said Ms. Figlar, who wants access for all children, not just those eligible for current publicly funded programs. While she said Pennsylvania has made great strides, "We have much more work to do."
Those who do participate in such programs see their academic and social skills soar. From those enrolled in state PreK Counts programs, the percentage of 4-year-olds proficient in academic and social skills grew from 22 percent to 82 percent, according to the campaign.
The campaign plans to engage business and civic leaders, educators and parents to "create the public will" for the state to provide leadership and resources "so that every parent can enroll their child in affordable, high-quality pre-K," according to its news release.
At the news conference announcing the campaign, city Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak spoke about city residents who can't afford to pay for preschool. One is making student loan payments. Another's income increased slightly, triggering a costly fee for preschool.
"Families all over Pittsburgh are struggling to get their children off on the right foot. It really shouldn't be that way," she said.
Curtiss Porter, chief education and neighborhood revitalization officer appointed by Mayor Bill Peduto, noted the mayor last month asked President Barack Obama to consider making Pittsburgh a "living laboratory" for early childhood education initiatives, including universal pre-kindergarten.
Mr. Obama is promoting an early learning initiative that includes high-quality preschool for every child.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Pennsylvania $51.7 million in a Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant.
Ms. Figlar said that grant will improve learning experiences for birth through age 5 and is focused on the most at-risk communities.
At the state level, after some decreases in funding affecting early childhood education, Gov. Tom Corbett increased funding for PreK Counts and Head Start supplemental assistance by $6.4 million in 2013-14. PreK Counts and Head Start serve 3- and 4-year-olds as well as some who are age 5 but not in kindergarten.
Beverly Block, a Squirrel Hill parent of two children, ages 3 and 5, who attend the JCC center, said she has seen them fit in with their peers and teachers and watched them develop patience, respect and a sense of self-worth. "I feel very strongly that all parents should have that as an option. You shouldn't have to choose between paying your electric bill and giving your children that opportunity."
Education writer Eleanor Chute: email@example.com or 412-263-1955.