Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.

Threes please

As 4-year-old preschool programs become the norm, Denver looks to reach 3-year-olds next

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

The Denver Preschool Program, most well-known for providing millions of dollars to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool, is expanding its scope.

Starting this month, the nonprofit will put a share of its funding from a citywide sales tax toward improving preschool classrooms for 3-year-olds — something it has long done in 4-year-old classrooms. Those improvements could take the form of teacher training or coaching, teacher scholarships for educational programs, or new blocks and playground equipment.

The $700,000 initiative pales in comparison to the $15 million that the Denver Preschool Program will spend on tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds this year. Still, it’s another sign of growing recognition that investments in younger children help amplify the benefits of widespread and politically popular 4-year-old prekindergarten programs.

The push to serve more 3-year-olds can be seen around the state and nation. Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — both plan to add new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if tax measures for education pass in November.

Last year, New York City school leaders began phasing in free universal preschool for the city’s 3-year-olds, an expansion of the city’s ambitious Pre-K for All program, which served about 70,000 4-year-olds in 2017-18. In 2008, Washington, D.C., passed a major preschool overhaul law, which helped make it one of the few places in the country where a large majority of 3-year-olds attend free preschool.

Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, said when city voters first passed a sales tax in 2006 to fund the program, the ballot language specifically earmarked the proceeds for 4-year-olds. But in 2014, when voters approved a 10-year extension of the sales tax, they also OK’d language that allowed spending on 3-year-olds.

The expanded age range fit with the shifting national policy conversation at the time, which increasingly emphasized the importance of starting with children younger than 4, said Landrum.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

That’s part of the reason the Denver Preschool Program will focus its new 3-year-old funding on boosting quality.

“It’s such a logical next step when you can see the gains 4-year-olds can make in that one year of high-quality preschool,” said Landrum. “It just makes sense.”

The improvement efforts will focus on the preschool classrooms of about 3,400 Denver 3-year-olds.

Unlike the city’s 4-year-olds, those 3-year-olds will not get tuition help from the Denver Preschool Program. There’s not enough money for that, said Landrum.

In Colorado, a fraction of 3-year-olds attend publicly funded preschool through Head Start or the Colorado Preschool Program, a statewide program that pays for preschool for young children with certain risk factors. Some 3-year-olds also qualify for free preschool because they have disabilities.

Denver district officials say they hope to add 500 new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if the statewide ballot measure, Amendment 73, passes in November. Right now, there are long waitlists for that age group.

In Jeffco, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds together in the same classrooms, expansion plans also hinge on the outcome of November’s election. A proposed district bond measure would help renovate 70 classrooms for the preschool set, for a total of about 1,100 additional seats. Currently, the district serves about 3,500 preschoolers — about half of them 3-year olds.

And if Amendment 73 or the district’s mill levy override  — or both — pass, district officials say it would allow them to convert more half-day preschool slots to full-day slots, hike teacher pay, and improve the qualifications of early childhood staff.

Back to school

Emanuel touts pre-kindergarten, but will his envisioned $175 million initiative survive him?

PHOTO: Photo: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Brownell Elementary teacher Jane Godina addresses her pre-K class Wednesday, Sept.5, 2018, after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited it on the second day of school.

The morning after making a surprise announcement that he won’t seek reelection, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel scheduled a public appearance at a pre-kindergarten at Brownell Elementary, a predominantly black school located just east of Englewood on the South Side.

Wednesday’s visit served as a show of support for one of his signature initiatives—universal pre-K, which is only in its first year of rollout and could be vulnerable if the city’s next mayor does not share Emanuel’s enthusiasm.

Speaking briefly, Emanuel said he believes that the program will proceed fully without him, pointing to leadership from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and also Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, whose namesake foundation helped underwrite an innovative social impact bond program in 2014 that funded an initial wave of pre-K seats in low-income schools.  

Emanuel’s plan offers 3,700 more free pre-kindergarten slots to low-income families this year at a cost of $20 million, then ramps up the number of available seats across the next three years. Ultimately, the district aims to offer free, full-day pre-K to every 4-year-old in the city for the 2021-22 school year at an all-in cost of $175 million.

The district did not respond to requests for the number of pre-K seats it has filled. Some schools have reported that their programs are full, with families on waitlists, while other schools have reported vacant seats. Parents complained at board meetings this summer that they found the application process confusing and chaotic.

At Brownell, the full-day offering is a hit, according to pre-K teacher Jane Godina, speaking after Emanuel had come and gone.

“We were always struggling with enrollment with our half-day program, and this year we were just slammed,” said Godina, whose class consists of 20 students. “Full-day is really what this neighborhood needs.”

Parent Lovlis Jordan agrees. She has two kids enrolled in the class, and walks seven blocks from home to drop them off before heading downtown, where she works as an office-tower security guard. Full-day pre-kindergarten means she can avoid complicated childcare arrangements, and she likes the feel of Godina’s class.

“It’s hands on, and it’s small—not too chaotic,” Jordan said.  

The importance of full-day, pre-K classes doesn’t just reflect parental needs or Emanuel’s political will: A powerful contingent of civic and philanthropic leaders support the idea here, too. “Early childhood education enjoys widespread support for many leaders at the state and local level,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy at the Ounce of Prevention. “We’re confident that this will be an important issue for a new mayor.”

Now advocates are armed with some telling data. Three out of four Illinois kids are unprepared when they begin kindergarten, according to first-of-its-kind data released last month by the Illinois State Board of Education. Godina said pre-K classes help kids acclimate to routines and pick up social-emotional skills, not to mention some ABCs.

“It gets them to work on all those things so that when they’re in kindergarten, they’re far more prepared than their peers,” she said.

As for pulling the plug on the universal pre-K initiative, Brownell’s principal, Richard Morgan, said that would be a big mistake.

“Any person in their right mind, if they know what the research says and they understand what’s good for children, would never pull the mat out from under them,” said Morgan, who has led Brownell for 14 years. “Once you become full-day, people begin to knock the doors down because that’s what everybody wants.”

Last year, when only a half-day pre-K was offered, some parents skipped Brownell, which had 216 students on the 20th day of the 2017-18 school year and is considered “underutilized” by the district. This year, Morgan said of his pre-K, “everyone is trying to get in.”