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Universal Pre-K: Something Baltimore's Mayoral Candidates Agree On

Jonna McKone

If there’s one thing all the Democrats running to be Baltimore’s next mayor agree on, it’s universal pre-k.

At a recent mayoral forum candidate Calvin Young called it one of the things that “are critical for anybody to be successful in in today’s economy.”

DeRay McKesson, the Black Lives Matter leader, called for “a citywide strategy around pre-k.

And state Senator Catherine Pugh, said her parents had her reading “at the age of three.” So, she was ready for school when she got there.

They all say they would work to expand the reach of the 225 pre-K classrooms city schools have added since 2008.   

Some of that growth has been through Judy Centers, year-round programs at elementary schools that provide services like GEDs for parents and nutrition classes.

Parents of preschoolers have praised the program. Shatayra Harrington said her daughter was “really shy and clingy” before she started a pre-k program at Arlington Elementary School in Park Heights. But now, she’s “opening up to people more.”

“And the amount of stuff that she’s learned in these few months is amazing,” Harrington said. “The things she tells me and the words … I was like wow, when I was in pre-K always all we did was shapes and play.”

The city’s curriculum follows state guidelines, and Judy Centers offer services on top of that.

For example, Keisha Wizzart, the Judy Center’s family services coordinator, pointed to a community board that lists events. This month’s board had ideas for every day, enjoyable play and ways to engage male figures.

Selfie with dad “is a contest, that we have,” she explained. “So we might say take a picture of you and your child having dinner together and send a selfie to us.”

And if a child doesn’t have a father involved in the family, he or she should find another positive male role model. “I don’t care if it’s a next door neighbor.”

The Judy Centers also offer play groups for kids from birth to 4, family exercise classes, even funds for families that get behind on their electricity bills. The goal is for children and families to be ready to learn once kindergarten starts.

Wizzart said that often means reaching into the neighborhoods to get youngsters who aren’t in head start or other programs.

“So we grab them and bring them in. And also teach the mom how to interact,” she said.

Perry Gorgen, director of early learning programs at City Schools, says two thirds of the incoming 7,000 kindergarteners are enrolled in pre-k, while 1000 come to kindergarten without any formal programming. He says the range of options can be overwhelming.

“You have early head start and head start, you’ve got child cares; some are full day, some are part of the day,” he said. “You’ve got city schools but that’s 4 years old by September 1st. We have the income eligibility priority that they have to navigate.”

The city now has pre-K spots for low income families available in almost every elementary school and Gorgen said the school system hopes to “really focus on providing kids experiences that are going to build their fundamental skills.”

And pre-K is most beneficial to poor children whose parents tend to be less well educated and have fewer resources to spend time engaging in conversation and supporting cognitive and social skills.

Jonna is a radio producer, documentarian, and media artist. Her feature stories and audio documentaries have aired on WAMU, Marketplace, The World, Living on Earth, and Virginia Public Radio, among others. She also produces nonfiction films and installations using ethnography, archival research, and collaboration as part of her process. A Maryland native, Jonna is a graduate of Bowdoin College and holds an MFA from Duke University.