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Free Pre-K program enrolling more students, but Pima officials keeping goals modest after pandemic

Free Pre-K program enrolling more students, but Pima officials keeping goals modest after pandemic

PEEPS 'successful,' but need for early childhood education 'still substantial'

  • Pima County

The first year of publicly funded free preschool in Pima County was “successful,” with almost 900 children from low-income families enrolled at more than 100 high-quality Pre-K locations, officials said. Pima Early Education Program Scholarships is entering its second year as a pilot program but is set to receive $30 million from remaining COVID relief funds through 2024.

By funding high-quality preschool programs at least in part, PEEPS has also helped almost 4,700 kids from low-income families in Pima County, but the need for free pre-K for those families in the county is “still substantial,” according to an end of the year report for the 2021-2022 school year, which ended in May.

The PEEPS program of underwriting preschool classes started during the first year of schools reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, Nicole Scott, the program manager said, struggled to meet its goal of enrolling 1,200 students in its first year. The 856 kids enrolled in PEEPS classrooms were only 75 percent of the target, but the program will stick to the 1,200 goal for new school year as Scott expects the program and preschools to still be recovering from the pandemic, she said. 

About 78 percent of the 856 students whose enrollment was covered entirely through PEEPS were students of color, and 69 percent were Hispanic, according to a survey of 330 PEEPS families surveyed for the end of year report. 21 percent of those surveyed were bilingual.

More than 6,000 children from low-income families in Pima County were in need of high-quality preschool when the program started, according to the report, and the program was able to serve about 78 percent by working with preschools or covering their enrollment entirely.

Heading into the new school year, the number of kids in need of high-quality preschool has increased to more than 10,000, a 60 percent “uptick,” according to the report, with about 5,300 not yet served by the PEEPS program.

“High-quality” is a rating given to preschools by the Arizona Department of Education based on what and how children are taught. Over the past year, or the first year of PEEPS, the number of “high-quality” early education programs in Pima County has increased by 28 from 199 to 237 though the county only worked with about 120 preschools.

Funds for PEEPS also go towards partnership with public and private early education providers to bring them up to the “high-quality” rating to open more pre-K classrooms.

Piloting in a pandemic

The biggest impact the pandemic has had is in hampering the opening of more preschool classes, though that’s also been caused by a shortage of early education workers and teachers.

“Opening during a national pandemic, where there’s fear about people being in large group situations and classrooms, I think this was a very successful first year,” Scott told the Tucson Sentinel. “With all those challenges we faced, I would say I’m very proud of the number enrolled.”

Overall, 176 preschools had the potential of participating in the PEEPs program in Year 1, but “due to the pandemic and teacher/staffing shortages, only 116 of those preschools actually served PEEPs children,” according to the report.

Many preschools that were awarded PEEP scholarships to open classes “were unable to use them because of staffing shortages that limited their capacity to re-open classes, they were already at capacity when the scholarships were allocated, or they did not have families that met the income eligibility requirements,” according to the report.

Six school districts in the county offer 11 “high-quality” preschool classes with enrollment covered entirely by PEEPS — the Amphitheater, Flowing Wells, Marana, Sahuarita, Sunnyside and Tucson Unified School Districts. Another nine such pre-K classes in school districts are expected to be added during the current school year, Scott said.

TUSD failed to open another five contracted classes due to an “inability to hire teachers for those classes,” the report reads, and “the Baboquivari Unified School District on the Tohono O’odham Nation was virtual for most of the year and did not open their class.”

PEEPS expects “full usage (of their scholarships) this next year based on a variety of changes in the program, including increased reimbursement rates, increased income eligibility, as well as less class closures due to COVID-19,” according to the report.

Most of the preschools covered with PEEPs were private providers. “In year one, 57 percent of PEEPs participating preschools were private childcare centers, 31 percent were operated by public school districts, and 12 percent were private family home-based childcare providers,” according to the report.

Across Pima County, 153 preschools are enrolled in the state’s Quality First program, which works with schools to improve their preschools to hire ratings. PEEPS only pays students to attend preschools with the high-quality rating though occasionally it has awarded scholarships for students to go to schools just under the rating.

More families, more needs

PEEPS is now in its second year as a pilot program after Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott convinced enough of the county board to vote along with him to start the program last summer. The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 last year to start PEEPS, but Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Steve Christy opposed it for lack of support from private partners and jurisdictions such as the city of Tucson and Oro Valley.

However, the program paid the way for almost 900 children to enroll in free pre-K from families making less than 200 percent the federal poverty level in 2021, which was $43,000 a year for a family of the three.

Federal poverty threshold are updated annually by the Department of Human and Health Services, but the Pima County Board of Supervisors increased the threshold for PEEPS eligibility in June to include families making 300 percent the poverty level.

Now, families of three making $80,370 or less in 2022 — or $174,870 or less for families of eight — can enroll their children in free pre-K in Pima County. Another 600 children are expected to be able to enroll in free pre-K as a result of the threshold increase.

PEEPS is set to receive $30 million through the summer of 2024, which will cover its last year as a pilot program and first year of continuation. The funding came from $102 million that the county had left over in American Rescue Plan funds from the pandemic along with contributions by Tucson, Marana and others.

The program is expected to use all of the $30 million over the next three years, Nicole Scott told the Sentinel, including additional contributions. Most of that money will come towards opening more pre-K classes in school districts. PEEPS is still in need of a long-term source of funding, however, she said.

The budget for PEEPS in its first year was $7.2 million, but the program reported less than $3.8 million in actual expenses, according to the report.

A new year

PEEPS is “funding more scholarships at a higher rate (more often)” this school year, Scott said. The school year has already been underway since early August.

“That’ll be much more effective for providers and families,” Scott said about the increased scholarships. Funding will also be needed to enroll students in the 28 new “high-quality” providers that got their new rating last year as well as to keep students who enrolled in free pre-K last year if they have yet to graduate to kindergarten.

Even though PEEPS has its funding set and has more recognition, the goal for the program will remain to enroll 1,200 kids in Pima County into free, high-quality pre-K as Scott expects that some challenges from the pandemic will linger.

“For our second fiscal year, for now, we’re keeping it at 1,200, and we’re hoping to see the maximum,” she said. “We’re hopeful for more than 1,200, but with the amount of providers that shut their doors during the pandemic, it outweighs the number that have come back into that high-quality status.”

The repeated goal of 1,200 kids for the second year “takes into account the 60 percent uptick” in need, the program manager said, and if they manage to enroll 1,200 before the year ends, they’ll continue to enroll students. The maximum isn’t a limit, Scott said, it’s just a goal.

“We just really want to provide as much access and participation as we can,” Scott said.

Bennito L. Kelty is’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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