Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Last December, Massachusetts was awarded a $15 million federal Pre-K Expansion grant for five communities: Boston, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, and Springfield.

Now that six months have passed, we decided to check in with Anita Moeller to see how this grant-funded work is going. Moeller is the director of the expansion grant program at the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC).

It’s a busy season of laying groundwork, Moeller explained. The five communities are working on budgets, identifying teachers, outfitting new spaces, and submitting their final plans to federal authorities.

As EEC Commissioner Tom Weber wrote last fall in the state’s application for this funding, “The Federal Preschool Expansion Grant has inspired Massachusetts to think boldly and to offer a plan that engages and leverages the strengths of the Massachusetts mixed-delivery system to reach more children and advances our goal of achieving a universally-accessible, high-quality system of early education and care.” 

The Grant’s Impact on the Ground

The goal for all five communities is to have expanded programs up and running in September for children with high-needs. The programs will offer full-day, full-year slots to 4-year-olds from families whose earnings are less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The programs are being run by each of the communities’ public schools and local community-based organizations.

Boston Public Schools (BPS) officials are working with ABCD (Action for Boston Community Development), Nurtury, and the YMCA of Greater Boston to increase pre-K quality as well as the time children spend in these programs. There will also be a small increase in the number of children served. This effort builds on Boston K1ds, “a three-year demonstration project to expand the nationally recognized BPS pre-K program to 14 community-based preschool classrooms.” Boston’s plans include raising teacher salaries and providing teachers with coaches as well as increasing family engagement and offering comprehensive services such as mental and physical health services.

Holyoke plans to add 78 new pre-K slots by creating space in city elementary schools. One hope is that welcoming pre-K aged children into school buildings will boost retention of these children as they move into the K-12 system. And building on the work of the Holyoke Early Literacy Initiative, the city will have literacy coaches work with teachers. The two community partners on this project are the Valley Opportunity Council and Holyoke-Chicopee-Springfield Head Start.

In Lawrence, the pre-K grant is being used to create the Learn Early Achievement Partnership, also known as the LEAP program. Its slogan, according to Moeller, is let your child leap into kindergarten readiness. And the logo is a frog with a graduation cap. This project will create 129 new pre-K slots around the city. The partners are the Lawrence Public Schools, the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, and the Community Group.

The Lowell Public Schools system is working with Community Teamwork Inc., a nonprofit community action network, and Little Sprouts, a private provider. This public/private partnership will create 156 new pre-K slots in a single building.

Four partners will work to expand pre-K in Springfield: the city’s public school system, Square One, Holyoke-Chicopee-Springfield Head Start, and the YMCA of Greater Springfield. Springfield will create 195 spots in a building bought by the city that used to be an early education center.

Moving Forward 

As a 2014, U.S. Department of Education news release explained the grant recipients will “serve as models for expanding preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.”

Once Massachusetts launches its program, it will have to meet federal quality requirements to earn what could be a total of four years of expansion grant funds.

A small amount of grant money will pay for research to show the communities’ outcomes. Moeller says these research results should help inform practice in early education settings.

The grant funds could lead to important insights and lasting change. As Weber said in his application letter, “Notwithstanding some of our successes in education and child well-being, Massachusetts is motivated by our recognition that achieving our ideal of providing all children with their full measure of opportunity is a constant pursuit from which we can never retire.”