Guest writer: Anne Miller
The beginning of the school year is always a time for celebration. For the members of the STL Pre-K Cooperative, this August marked not only the beginning of another school year, but also was a proof point that cooperation can be a powerful tool to transform the early childhood landscape. The STL Pre-K Cooperative is an innovative model that inspires collaboration between public schools and community-based early childhood centers. The Cooperative is laser-focused on ensuring kindergarten readiness for students from underserved communities in St. Louis.
Decades of research demonstrates the powerful impact pre-K has on student success. Recent analysis by the STL Pre-K Cooperative found, however, that just 35 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds in St. Louis have access to free pre-K seats and these seats are unevenly distributed geographically. These disparities have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Going forward, the Cooperative will strengthen its commitment to expanding access to quality pre-K in the most underserved areas of the city.
The STL Pre-K Cooperative coalesced in 2019 around the opportunity to tap an existing but underutilized source of state pre-K funding. Despite significant challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, classrooms opened in August 2020. Working alone, the ability of public schools to access this funding was limited by their capacity. However, by working in close partnership with early childhood centers, members overcame barriers to serve 100 pre-K students during the Cooperative’s first year. The hard work and dedication of teachers and administrators in this pilot year paid off. Due to parent demand and expansion, the Cooperative more than doubled enrollment this fall to 260 students.
With a mix of early childhood partners and school partners, the STL Pre-K Cooperative has classrooms in four sites across St. Louis. Beginning Futures, one of the Cooperative’s key early childhood partners and the Cooperative’s leader in North St. Louis, aims to break ground on their new expanded facility this winter. Because of Beginning Futures’s longevity in the community, the learning center is outgrowing its location on Thrush Avenue in the Walnut Park community.
Now is an important moment for early childhood policy and practice. The STL Pre-K Cooperative builds on the confluence of local, state, and federal momentum behind early childhood education. While the pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated challenges that the sector faces, the Cooperative is proud to be part of the effort to meet those challenges and transform the early childhood landscape for St. Louis children and families.
Anne Miller coordinates the system-level work and partnerships of the STL Pre-K Cooperative.