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Why We Need Pre-K Construction In the Stimulus

As policy makers pore over stimulus proposals, it's time to talk about building projects -- about putting people to work as soon as possible constructing new facilities and renovating crumbling ones. So far, the House Appropriations Committee has suggested spending $14 billion on K-12 school construction. We've argued that it makes good sense to spend stimulus money on building facilities -- and we want to stress that early childhood facilities must be included in the mix.

For too long preschools and early childhood centers have had to scrounge for space, putting off development of better facilities until they can find a way to afford them - or until a philanthropist arrives like a knight on a white horse. If and when additional revenue does arrive, many preschools use it to make needed quality improvements -- hiring an additional teacher to reduce class sizes or offering professional development workshops to improve interactions with the children.

There are plenty of children to occupy new classrooms, if they could be built. Reports of early education's benefits has led to a crush of demand from parents and waiting lists for subsidized and unsubsidized programs throughout the country.

Constructing or improving spaces for pre-K programs can take many forms. Community-based providers should be, and want to be, part of the solution. Public schools can do more. And public-private partnerships should be encouraged. Here are at least four options:

  • Attach pre-K centers to public schools or place them on school property
  • Retrofit public school classrooms and create new early learning wings
  • Build stand-alone early learning centers that incorporate private-public partnerships with community-based centers, local non-profits and aftercare programs.
  • Create PK-3 academies that allow for more seamless interaction between pre-K teachers, kindergarten teachers and teachers in first through third grades. (Read more about PK-3 academies in this report on ideas for NCLB re-authorization.)

But without an infusion of money and more flexible thinking, barriers abound. Costs can run between $10,000 and $30,000 per child, according to "Building Early Childhood Facilities," a 2007 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Many pre-K programs are run by small non-profits that don't have the capital to embark on large projects. They have trouble obtaining construction or real estate loans. Some public schools are already too overcrowded or restricted from using their facilities for anything but K-12 activities.

Maneuvering through multiple federal, state and local agencies to drum up money for pre-K capital projects slows the process further. The Building Child Care Collaborative released a report a few years ago pointing out all the barriers to building better early childhood centers in California; the problems will sound familiar to providers in other states as well.

Much more can be done. "Most states have made only modest efforts to address the physical infrastructure needs of this expanding system," wrote Carl Sussman and Amy Gillman, the authors of the 2007 NIEER report.

It's important to remember that pre-K construction isn't just about putting up a few more walls and building a parking lot. Children need high-quality spaces that account for their developmental needs. Well-designed buildings can decrease behavior problems, improve teacher-child interactions, give children more room to play and send the message to staff members their work is important and respected.

Playgrounds for young children, for example, should include climbing structures that are low to the ground, with no gaps to fall through. Building entrances need to accommodate parents coming to drop off and pick up their children without having to navigate around massive school buses. Acoustics must be managed to allow for relatively quiet environments, where young children can pick up the nuances of speech and language. Rooms should be designed according to the latest green-building standards, letting in natural sunlight and clean air.

Many states require preschools to provide at least 35 square feet of space for each child. Most experts consider that much too small, aiming for more like 45 to 50 feet per child. We agree. (For a great review of research on this point, see "The 35 Square Foot Myth" by the White Hutchinson consulting company.)

Classroom spaces need to be big enough for building block towers (and for storage of the blocks so they are easily accessible to little hands), for laying down train tracks and for playing house and restocking "pretend" kitchens. When rooms are too small, teachers spend too much time shuffling students around instead of interacting with them, moving them from one spot to another while they move furniture for circle time or snack.

Some construction projects can be as simple as equipping pre-K classrooms with bathrooms that enable children to reach the sink and toilets by themselves. That way, when children have to go, teachers and assistants can stay in the classroom instead of having to take children down a hallway or to another part of the building.

Consider these striking results from the re-construction of an early childhood facility in West Hartford, Conn: In the old facility, teachers were interacting with children on average only 3 percent of the time. "After the program relocated to a new facility -- where each classroom had a utility sink, storage, telephone, and most importantly, a bathroom for children -- adult-child interactions increased to 22 percent.," according to "Child Care Facilities: Quality by Design," a 2004 report by the national non-profit Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

Constructing well-designed preschools and early learning spaces will not only give a short-term shot in the arm to the economy. It will be a long term investment that can return dividends in school achievement many years down the road. We need to be open-minded to new ways to help with construction for community-based providers as well as programs based in the public schools. Whatever form the stimulus package takes, it must make these investments possible.