Universal School Readiness Program being considered for children in Center City Allentown

The Lehigh Valley’s leading economic and research expert, Kamran Afshar, Ph.D., has teamed up with Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley to design a program model that guarantees every child living in Allentown Promise Neighborhood will have access to one year of high quality, School Readiness experiences before they enter Kindergarten.

The program will address costs, accessibility, and other barriers that have kept the youngest residents in Allentown Promise Neighborhood’s nine-square-block area of the Old Allentown Historic District from entering Kindergarten, at Allentown schools, ready to learn. At present 21% of the nearly 450 children under age 5 living in Allentown Promise Neighborhood are participating in School Readiness programs of varying quality. Participation is much higher for the rest of the Lehigh Valley where 33% of the region’s children are actively enrolled in a School Readiness center, site, or program.

The Allentown Promise Neighborhood program design is timely as it is in line with the goals of Pennsylvania Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr.’s “Prepare All Kids Act of 2013,” which was introduced to the U.S. Senate in March of this year. The bill provides broad outlines for a voluntary high-quality universal prekindergarten program that is similar to the $75 Billion program described during President Barack Obama’s education budget briefing last week.

“Children who have high quality school readiness experiences do much better when they arrive at school in Kindergarten,” said Ernest Perry, Executive Director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley. “For children growing up in economically distressed neighborhoods, access to these experiences can be the difference between success and failure in their lives as students and as adult members of our communities. For the past year, we have convened an Early Learning Network that works collectively to impact the level of Kindergarten Readiness for children living in Allentown Promise Neighborhood. Having Dr. Afshar on our team gives our neighborhood efforts a data-driven quality that is not typically seen beyond state or federal programs.”

The completed model will provide Promise Neighborhoods with a powerful tool that demonstrates how focused investments in the right mix of high-quality school readiness experiences can improve the trajectory of an entire neighborhood. Feedback from focus groups of parents living in Allentown Promise Neighborhood, members of the Allentown Promise Neighborhood Early Learning Network, and other community stakeholders is being gathered as a part of the program’s design process. These focus groups are being conducted by Dr. Afshar at various locations around the Lehigh Valley and at the Promise Neighborhoods office at 347 N. 8th Street.

The program design is being funded by a grant from The Century Fund, which also supports the activities of the Promise Neighborhoods Early Learning Network. A final program model is expected by late summer, with a full report and public discussion of the design anticipated in early fall.

“The numerous benefits of early childhood education for the community are well researched and documented,” said Dr. Afshar. “Here at KAA, Inc. we feel privileged to have the opportunity to work on this important project. We hope that our work contributes to improving the quality of education for children and ultimately builds a better community for us all.”

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