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Decades of research point to the importance of high-quality pre-K, but St. Louis children and families struggle to access high-quality early childhood education (ECE). A recent report, First Step to Equity: Building a Better Future Through Early Childhood Education in St. Louis, confirms widespread service gaps across the St. Louis metropolitan region, disproportionately affecting children and families living in poverty. Access to ECE programs will be especially strained – and central to economic recovery – in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The State of Missouri has taken an initial step to expand access by providing a limited amount of funding through the state school funding formula for pre-K. However, schools often face capacity challenges in opening pre-K programs, leaving millions of dollars unused for pre-K services for children in the St. Louis region.

In a notable show of collaboration, public schools, ECE programs, and philanthropy have come together to create the STL Pre-K Cooperative to draw down state pre-K funding to open 100 new seats this fall. Together, the founding partners will deploy some $700,000 in state pre-K funding that would not otherwise be utilized this year, providing 500 new seats over the next five years and accessing more than $3 million in unused state funding. The STL Pre-K Cooperative is inspired by the work of the KC Pre-K Cooperative, which launched in 2019. Two ECE partners bring their expertise to this innovative model – Beginning Futures and SouthSide Early Childhood Center. Confluence Academies, KIPP St. Louis, Lafayette Preparatory Academy, Lift for Life Academy, and St. Louis Language Immersion School are the founding school partners. Classrooms will be located at Beginning Futures in North St. Louis, KIPP Wonder Academy in the Marine Villa neighborhood, and St. Louis Language Immersion School in Downtown.

“Joining the STL Pre-K Cooperative creates an exciting opportunity for our community to begin our students’ academic journey with an even stronger foundation. We are thrilled that our 40 pre-K seats were filled in just two weeks – and we have a waitlist,” said Chris Frills, the founding elementary school leader at KIPP Wonder Academy. “SouthSide Early Childhood Center, which will operate two classrooms in our building, brings a proven track record of serving our community and a commitment to fostering students’ holistic growth and wellbeing. They offer expertise that would take us significant time and resources to grow,” said Frills. SouthSide Early Childhood Center has been in operation since 1886 and currently serves 140 children. In just one year, SouthSide will be able to expand to serve 80 additional students – expansion made possible through cooperation with its school partners.

The Opportunity Trust provided seed funding and committed a $150,000 matching grant to support start-up costs for the STL Pre-K Cooperative; partners will be seeking additional investment to ensure a successful launch and continued expansion.

As noted in this St. Louis Public Radio piece, this is just the beginning of what is envisioned to be a reimagined ECE landscape for the region. To learn more about burgeoning ECE efforts:

To learn more about the STL Pre-K Cooperative’s plans for the future and how you can help, visit the STL Pre-K Cooperative online, check out their Facebook page, or contact Anne Miller.