Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children


Early education is making local news thanks to Backyard Cambridge, a podcast launched last year by two Cambridge residents “to strengthen local news and civic engagement.”

This month the podcast covers universal pre-K.

As the story points out, finding the right pre-K program can be like walking into an overcrowded mall with no directory. There are private programs and public programs; vouchers and full-pay options; and child care centers, family child care, and school-based programs.

Money also matters. Parents who can spend more of their income on child care can also afford to hire nannies. Cambridge’s public schools offer “junior kindergarten,” for 4-year-olds, but only for half of the ones who live in the city.

Why should anyone care?

Because it’s during early childhood that children’s brains experience dramatic growth — and it’s when children learn social and emotional skills that will help them as older students and later in life. Children who don’t have this opportunity can struggle to catch up with their peers.

Cambridge knows how important high-quality programs are. In 2015, the city released its Early Childhood Task Force Report.

Then why, the podcast asks, doesn’t Cambridge go ahead and offer universal pre-K?

There are two key reasons, and one big one. Cost is an issue, and so is finding enough space. But the real challenge is balancing access and equity. Should Cambridge create universal access even for wealthier parents? Or, should the city focus on equity by developing programs for families who can’t afford private options?

“For now, the city is doing the latter: making early education more accessible to low income families.”

“City staffers working on this problem are juggling price, space, and balancing quality with access every day. While these are difficult challenges, there is some movement happening in the short term.

“Lei-Ann Ellis of the Birth to Third Grade Partnership is working on a pilot program to better understand what types of programs can most reliably be scaled while keeping quality high.” Ellis also hopes to expand scholarships for low-income, raising the number from 23 to 40.

The result should be a mosaic of options.

“We have to provide for parental choice; and if you’re only using the school system, then that’s not going to provide for all the parents,” Ellis says. “So you put together Head Start, you put together the Cambridge public schools, you put together DHSP [the Department of Human Service Programs], you put together the 60 preschools that exist in Cambridge… and parents can choose.”

Be sure to check out the podcast. Reported by Libby Gormley, it’s a good example of a journalist who gets the early education story right. You can also read the podcast story here as a google document and add your own comments or questions.

If you live in Cambridge, take the podcast’s advice and “reach out to the City Council and School Committee. Or talk to the city staffers who are thinking hard about these issues: reach out to Ellen Semenoff, the Assistant City Manager for Human Services, or Lei Ann Ellis of the Birth to Third Grade Partnership.”

If you don’t live in Cambridge, consider doing your own podcast. Backyard Cambridge is a unique model that other communities could follow, creating a multi-media, civic-engagement opportunity to raise awareness about early education and the needs of young children and families.