Ensuring Strong Starts

In a pivotal move for early childhood education, the recent passage of new legislation (SB727) increases funding for preschool seats offered in traditional and charter public schools – if they are able to put the funds to use.

The challenge, however, is that many schools lack the capacity to utilize those funds.  

In St. Louis County alone, $8 million in state funding for preschool goes unutilized each year because school districts lack the space, teachers, or capabilities to offer preschool. At the same, there are many community-based preschool providers with space and capacity that could offer additional seats if they had funding and support for expansion. The St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative was launched in 2020 to solve this dilemma by matching schools with available funding to community-based providers with capacity and to provide instructional and operational support to ensure all preschool centers achieved essential Kindergarten readiness measures.

In just four years, the Cooperative put $10 million in previously unutilized state dollars in the City of St. Louis to work, creating over 400 new, free, quality preschool seats. Today, the Cooperative serves more than 1,000 children across 30+ community and school-based preschool providers who, on average, ensure that 70% of their toddlers arrive at Kindergarten prepared and ready to learn.

Due to the success of this effort and to help our region capitalize on the historic increase in available state funding, the Berges Family Foundation has made a catalytic $750,000 commitment over the next three years to help enable the St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative to more than double the number of students and partners it serves, including expanding into St. Louis County. 

The Berges Family Foundation investment builds upon the foundational $250,000 investment from the Saigh Foundation that enabled the launch of the Cooperative.

A Dire Need

The state of Missouri has been named a “childcare desert,” according to research and reporting by the Missouri Independent.  According to their report,  “Almost half of all children ages 5 and under live in areas where there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot or, in some cases, no licensed slots at all.” This is evident in the St. Louis region, which has 12 zip codes designated as a desert or extreme child care desert, with more than 10 children needing care for each open slot.

An Urgent Response

The St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative, under the leadership of Dr. Samantha March, is working to meet the challenge of providing quality preschool options for St. Louis families. “With both public and private investments, our partners are expanding partnerships between school-based and community based centers, which are accelerating impact,” says Dr. March.

The expansion efforts are expected to not only provide a right-now solution for families but also to positively impact kindergarten enrollment. “These partnerships are designed to ensure a strong start from the beginning and to help build continuity as children progress from high quality preschool into high quality elementary schools,” Dr. March explained. 

In the next three years, the St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative aims to more than double the number of children accessing free preschool from 1,000 to 2,500 while ensuring that 85% achieve Kindergarten readiness. This includes adding an additional 600 new preschool seats utilizing new state funding. 

In anticipation of new funding coming available, the Cooperative has been working to support schools to prepare to immediately take advantage of the opportunity and will grow by 25% in this next year. New preschools seats are slated to open this fall at Atlas Public Schools, Lift for Life Academy, and St. Louis Voices Academy.

To foster quality in programs, the St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative has worked with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to approve a new, high-quality curriculum resource from renowned early education organization,  AppleTree, which has now hired a full-time staff member in St. Louis who is dedicated to providing technical assistance and ongoing professional development to members of the Cooperative. 

Keeping Momentum Going

A strong start is vital, but the momentum must continue into Kindergarten and beyond. A partnership with Navigate STL Schools, a school enrollment organization incubated by The Opportunity Trust, is playing a crucial role in ensuring a smooth transition from preschool to kindergarten. “We are working in partnership with the St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative to help families make informed decisions and to be better equipped to navigate the various enrollment processes at this early stage in their child’s learning journey,” says Anna-Stacia Allen, NavigateSTL Executive Director.

While the expansion plans and pathways being forged from preschool to elementary school are promising, they come with their own set of challenges, particularly regarding funding. “The funding for these programs, while increased, is not guaranteed annually, creating uncertainties in long-term planning,” Dr. March explained. “We are advocating for more stable and predictable funding to ensure sustained growth and support for early childhood education.”

Get Involved

The St . Louis Pre-K Cooperative calls on legislators to consider multi-year funding policies to provide stability and predictability. Additionally, the push for universal pre-K remains a critical priority for ensuring that all children have access to educational opportunities – urge your local elected official to support our city and state in funding universal preschool for all children.

The expansion of pre-K programs through the passage of SB727 represents a significant advancement in addressing educational disparities and supporting working families. By leveraging new partnerships and strategic planning, the Pre-K Cooperative aims to create a sustainable and high-quality early education system that benefits the entire community.

For more information on the St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative’s initiatives and how you can get involved, visit us online or contact Dr. Samantha March at smarch@theopportunitytrust.org.