“Hi, Miss Damicka!” the little girl chirped.
Welcome to Educare, a state-of-the-art $16 million preschool that education officials consider a model for the nation. It is part of a national network of high-quality early education facilities aimed at low-income children and funded with private and public money.
Located in the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood in Northeast Washington, Educare is marking its first anniversary Wednesday with a visit from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who are promoting the Obama administration’s proposal to dramatically expand early childhood education.
The president wants Congress to double the federal tobacco tax — hoping to raise $75 billion in 10 years — to double the number of 4-year-olds in preschool from 1.1 million to 2.2 million. And he is seeking an additional $15 billion to educate babies and toddlers.
“We’re getting close to significant improvements in early childhood learning and particularly to the country recognizing it as an important period of life,” said J.B. Pritzker, a Chicago venture capitalist and one of Educare’s primary funders.
As with other Educare facilities across the country, architects designed the District location with an emphasis on creating space for very young children. The building is filled with floor-to-ceiling windows and light wood floors and walls, and it is painted in blues and greens. Along the halls, windows are set at children’s eye levels. The facility forms a ring around an outdoor atrium with artfully arranged plantings. Two sparkling multipurpose rooms with raised ceilings provide space for children to ride tricycles, play with hula hoops, tumble on mats.
There are three adult staff members for every eight children, and the lead teacher must have a bachelor’s degree.
Currently, 116 children from 6 weeks old to age 5 are enrolled in the free, full-day, year-round program. The facility is expected to reach full capacity of 171 children when its next session begins in July, said Mary Jane Chainski, a senior manager for Educare. Funding comes from a combination of private, local and federal dollars, money aimed at giving low-income youths access to the kind of education that might otherwise be available only to children from wealthier families.
Kenilworth-Parkside is an isolated pocket of high poverty in Ward 7 surrounded by the Anacostia River, Interstate 295 and a decommissioned Pepco electrical plant. About half of the residents live below the poverty line, nearly 90 percent of the families are headed by single mothers and the neighborhood has some of the highest teenage birth rates in the country.
Collins, mother of 2-year-old Danae, learned about Educare from an advertisement on a bus. “I called and applied that day,” said Collins, who also enrolled her 1-year-old son, Derek. Collins, who is unemployed, said it would be impossible for her to look for work while caring full time for Danae and Derek.
But Educare is not just free child care, she said.
“People say, ‘Oh, Danae’s in day care,’ and I’m like, this is so much more than day care,” Collins said. “They actually teach them something. My daughter can say her ABCs and count to 30.”
Researchers at the University of North Carolina who have evaluated Educare found that children who participate in the program for at least two years begin kindergarten with the same skills as their middle-income peers. Children in Educare also had stronger vocabulary and social skills compared with low-income children who did not attend, researchers found.
That’s significant because the country has been struggling with a stubborn achievement gap between poor and privileged children. By age 3, children of white-collar parents have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words. Children in working-class families know 749 words and children whose families rely on welfare know only 525 words, according to a frequently cited 2003 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.
Since she enrolled in Educare, Danae’s verbal abilities have soared, her mother said. “She used to talk mainly gibberish, but now she’s talking in sentences.”
Based in Chicago, Educare is an outgrowth of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early childhood advocacy group. Educare operates 18 facilities from Maine to Arizona and is planning to open two more in coming months.
Diana Rauner, president of Ounce of Prevention, said the organization doesn’t intend to create Educare facilities on a mass scale.
“The long-run vision is not to have an Educare on every street corner but to take the practices that we’ve been field-testing and use them to support great early childhood education in any number of settings, using state funding streams, Head Start, both as a laboratory and as a showroom for quality,” Rauner said.