Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

If we build it, they will come.

That was the attitude in Springfield, Mass., when the city received a federal preschool expansion grant to fund 196 new slots.

Only it turned out that finding children to fill those slots was much harder than expected.

An article in the Atlantic – “Where Are All the Preschoolers?” — tells the story of how tough it can be to find children because there isn’t enough solid data.

“Sally Fuller, the project director of Reading Success by 4th Grade at the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation… estimates half of Springfield’s preschool-aged children are not enrolled in programs, and she admits that number could be off by as much as 10 percentage points—which speaks to a major barrier in preschool-expansion efforts. Communities largely don’t have a handle on the exact size of the population they’re trying to serve,” the article says.

Also featured is our own Amy O’Leary, director of our Early Education for All Campaign. 

Amy, the article explains, “has seen this issue play out in community after community across Massachusetts. Nobody at the local level is in charge of collecting the data, leaving cities like Springfield struggling to cobble together as accurate a picture as possible.”

What about census data?

“Decennial data from the U.S. census provides the most accurate population counts, but local organizations can only learn so much from something already seven years out of date.”

That forces cities to take a do-it-yourself approach.

Springfield uses census data – and it calls each local child care center to get counts of enrolled children.

“These sources provide only a snapshot of the service gaps, but one that can at least give Fuller and others a place to start. From there, it’s a matter of actually reaching those families to find out how best to serve them.”

In the city of Somerville:

“Short of knocking on doors, which we don’t have the capacity to do, we’re working with city hall now to figure out how to get data from families about babies,” according to Lisa Kuh Somerville Public Schools’ director of early education. “The district has collected birth records from 2013 to populate a mailing list for families who still live in town.”

“It’s a lot of work for a district that technically doesn’t have any mandate to serve the youngest learners,” the article says. “But looking at its own kindergarten-readiness and early-assessment data proves it makes a difference. Kuh has found children coming into kindergarten without any preschool experience have weaker social-emotional skills, which contribute to learning, and are less advanced in literacy than those who have had formal education previously.”

The article adds:

“Communities can ignore the data gaps and jump right into preschool expansion, but they do so at their own peril… Adding new classrooms to buildings that happen to have space, rather than buildings that are in communities with real demand, could lead to unfilled seats. Offering half-day preschool to families that need full-day accommodations likely won’t work. And alternatively, asking families to suddenly go from zero to eight hours of preschool may not be well-received in some circles either.”

“O’Leary has encouraged communities planning for preschool expansion—both with federal dollars as well as state grants—to start with a true needs assessment. And that means identifying the target population.”

“But without real money on the table to tackle planning, let alone preschool expansion, the gaps remained.”

“No one is clamoring at the state House for good data about pre-k for the landscape,” Amy says in the article.

That’s too bad, because better data could help cities and towns expand preschool and build a birth-to-5 system that meets the real-time needs of children and families.