Mayor Michael A. Nutter. Photo Source: City of Philadelphia Flickr account.
Mayor Michael A. Nutter. Photo Source: City of Philadelphia Flickr account.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter has just released an exciting and sweeping plan to revitalize his city’s early learning programs. It’s a detailed effort that could also serve as a blueprint for other cities.

Called “A Running Start Philadelphia: For Every Child Birth to 5,” the plan is a path toward ensuring that all of the city’s children are ready to succeed in school.

“What happens — or doesn’t happen — from infancy to the time a child enters kindergarten can set the course for his or her whole life,” the plan says. “And what happens — or doesn’t happen — in the first five years of life for Philadelphia’s 110,000 children can set the course for the long-term future of our entire city.”

One daunting obstacle is poverty.

“Two years ago, the City unveiled Shared Prosperity Philadelphia, a comprehensive plan that brings together hundreds of individuals and organizations to address our city’s unacceptable poverty level,” the plan says, adding that early learning is “a critical component of the plan” to avoid “passing on the crippling legacy of poverty to a new generation…”

Philadelphia’s Plans and Strategies

The Running Start Philadelphia plan has five goals and 16 strategies for accomplishing these goals.

Goal 1: Offer all infants, toddlers, and preschoolers the opportunity to participate in high-quality, full-day, full-year early learning programs in formal and informal settings.

One strategy for obtaining this goal is to create a one-stop system where parents and caregivers could see if their children are eligible for publicly funded early learning programs; see which programs have available spaces; and sign their children up to attend.

One example that’s highlighted in the plan is the San Francisco Child Care Connection (SF3C), a web-based system for “families seeking subsidized child care through a single application. The SF3C includes participating infant-toddler, preschool, and after-school programs and serves families with children ages 0 to 13 years.”

Goal 2: Ensure that Philadelphia has “an ample supply of high-quality public, private, and non-profit providers with supports for entering, sustaining, and growing the number of high-quality opportunities.”

Knock down the silos, is the theme that links the strategies for achieving this goal. Philadelphia plans to align the city services that affect young children.

One example is Santa Monica, which has “helped increase the child care supply by eliminating unnecessary regulatory barriers for providers who are looking to build or renovate facilities.”

Free up the funding, is the theme for Philadelphia’s plan to “align and grow” two of its child care funding streams. The first is a city-funded initiative that “provides $500,000 annually for capital improvement and deferred maintenance to help eligible child care providers maintain or improve” their quality ratings. And the second is a private source, “The Fund for Quality,” that provides “business planning and facilities financing” for high-quality child care providers that want to reach more low-income families.

The plan also calls for creating a local fund to close the gap “between the cost of providing high-quality services — including improving workforce compensation — and resources available.” The plan adds: “Santa Monica, Seattle, and San Francisco have specific early learning tax levies or special revenue streams.”

Goal 3: Build a “sufficient, stable, and diverse high-quality early learning workforce” that is well paid and has access to professional development opportunities.

Pointing to Boston and San Francisco’s work on pre-K teachers’ wages, Philadelphia’s plan calls for developing “a recommended salary scale and implementation strategy commensurate with Pennsylvania’s educational requirements for the early childhood workforce.”

This is crucial because “most early learning programs cannot, on their own, provide adequate compensation to retain experienced, competent staff.”

“Addressing this issue requires the best thinking of a broad group of stakeholders. Initial efforts will include joint planning and greater collaboration with the Commonwealth to strengthen its current efforts, as well as developing a local model to ensure that more early learning programs in Philadelphia can provide salaries and benefits consistent with educational requirements and comparable to teachers of older children.”

Goal 4: Provide children and families with the on-going support of “birth-to-age-five and K–3 systems and services.”

A key strategy for achieving this goal is “joint delivery of birth-to-grade-3 professional development” programs. The plan notes:

“Establishing continuous and well-aligned curriculum standards and instructional practices from preschool through third grade is imperative for improving student achievement and setting children on a path to success.”

Another strategy is to create Kindergarten Readiness Networks: “linguistically and culturally appropriate school readiness and transition networks” launched in selected neighborhoods that would “actively engage families, children, early childhood providers, and community outreach and service organizations.”

Goal 5: Build the infrastructure and funding it takes to sustain a “high-quality, robust early learning system.”

To do this, Nutter calls for creating a public-private entity to coordinate the implementation of the city’s early learning plans. Two examples are Thrive in Five in Boston and the Seattle Early Education Collaborative.

Nutter is also calling for the creation of a “local early childhood funders collaborative to develop an action plan” to support the city’s early learning efforts.

“Throughout the country, local philanthropic groups are forming with the intent of ensuring funding for early childhood initiatives. No single group has the capacity to transform the early childhood landscape. But the existence of a funders collaborative maximizes investment impact.”

“In San Francisco, the Bay Area [Early Childhood] Funders group is focused on improving grant-making effectiveness in the early childhood field… Members meet three to four times a year to broaden their knowledge of the early childhood field, share information, engage in dialogue, and participate in joint funding initiatives to improve the lives of young children and their families.”

Putting Philadelphia’s Plan in Action

“With this plan, Philadelphia has developed a strategy to support its children and families by building stronger schools to create a more competitive workforce,” Mayor Nutter said in a statement. “High quality early learning is a proven way to help people overcome poverty, which is why we need to make it part of every child’s birthright as Philadelphians, as Pennsylvanians and as Americans.”

Despite these impressive intentions, Philadelphia faces challenges: chief among them is finding the money to pay for the plan.

“It does come with a cost. We’ve started to do that work but don’t have that number yet. It’s not going to be cheap,” Eva Gladstein, told NewsWorks, the online home of WHYY News. Gladstein is the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity.

In addition, Philadelphia will have a new mayor next year since Nutter is not running for re-election.

Nonetheless, Philadelphia is taking a bold step by setting its sights so high. And any progress that the city makes — or inspires others to make — will be an important victory for children and for the future.