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Early Childhood Hubs Part Of Efforts To Improve Preschool Access In Missouri

Children wait in line to grab their backpacks and find their classrooms during the first day of school at the Affton preschool center on Aug. 13, 2019.
File Photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Several efforts and funds are trying to increase access to early childhood education programming around St. Louis.

A hub model for early childhood education will work to get more Missouri children into preschool and guide parents to other educational support programs.

It’s another part of a long string of recent efforts in the state and St. Louis to improve funding and access for early childhood education, which is increasingly seen by researchers and advocates as a critical development period in learning.

Missouri’s education agency has named 16 regional hubs so far with plans to add more. In St. Louis, the hub will be run by the nonprofit United 4 Children. The organization will identify an area school district to partner with.

“When families don't really know where to go and they keep struggling, they don't know what questions to ask or where to go to ask those questions. This hub will actually serve as that kind of one-stop shop where they can go,” said Deanna Finch, United 4 Childen’s executive director.

The hubs are funded through a $6.5 million federal grant the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education received in 2019. The state legislature has also increased early childhood funding.

Preschool enrollment in Missouri lags behind national averages but was on the upswing in 2019, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s most recent State of Preschool report. But advocates worry that the recession brought on by the pandemic could slow or reverse progress.

STL Pre-K Cooperative launched last year, pooling the recent increase in state funding to open up more spots across several charter schools and early childhood centers. Prior to the cooperative’s launch, about half the children in the city were not in a free prekindergarten program, according to recent reviews of services.

And city voters approved a property tax increase in November that will pump $2.3 million a year into an early childhood fund. A campaign to raise funding is underway in St. Louis County.

“St. Louis has historically struggled, I think, to coordinate,” said Linda Rallo, vice president of Aligned, an education advocacy organization. “So sometimes, like the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. And so I think the regional hub will be really helpful to that, we have a better idea of what we offer.”

Affordable and quality child care centers often have long waiting lists and while the newly formed regional hubs won’t directly fund more seats in those centers, United 4 Children’s Finch said that they want to make finding spots simpler.

“Many times, families just don't know where to go to find out what is quality, who is available, who has slots, that is going to meet the needs of my child,” she said.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson created an Office of Childhood in January to bring different efforts under the education and health departments under one office. It will officially open this summer.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.