A countywide push to enhance access to early childhood education in Montgomery County came to fruition Thursday with the grand opening of the first regional pre-kindergarten facility implemented by Montgomery County Public Schools.
MacDonald Knolls Early Childcare Center in Silver Spring is the first county facility to combine general and special education programming in a single location and provides full-day pre-k services to nearly 100 3- and 4-year-olds. MacDonald Knolls also provides half-day classes.
Located at 10611 Tenbrook Drive, MacDonald Knolls is fully enrolled, offering four classes of 15 4-year-old students and two half-day sessions for 3-year-olds.
MacDonald Knolls is located on the same site as The Arc Montgomery County Karasik and Family, Infant & Child Care Center and is a technical partnership with MCPS to make pre-k programming accessible to income-eligible families.
“This is a real testament to our commitment that every child start kindergarten ready to learn,” Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer said at the ribbon-cutting and grand opening ceremony. “We have so much work to do to get there and we’re seeing there’s a path forward.”
The opening of the facility highlights a years-long effort led by MCPS, the council and the county Department of Health and Human Services to expand the reach of pre-k services in the county.
Approximately 1,300 4-year-olds attend full-day programs and 1,900 attend half-day public programs, according to information presented at Tuesday’s council meeting.
The county’s effort has focused specifically on expanding the availability of full-day programs for preschoolers, and officials said this week the number of full-day slots at publicly-funded programs has increased by nearly 1,000 in the past year.
Additionally, the report given to the council said the number of 4-year-olds in “high quality, publicly funded full-day programs” has jumped from 585 to 1,283 in the past two years.
“I think the report does highlight our success … and the incremental steps we’re making are getting results,” Riemer said during Tuesday’s council session. “When we, as a council, say, ‘Let’s work with the school system all together and do what we can,’ we get real results. These kids are hopefully going to have more success all through their academic careers.”
But to provide services to the county’s remaining approximately 10,000 4-year-olds who could be in pre-k programs, the county and its partners would have to allocate $32 million to the project, a tall task that can’t be accomplished in one budget cycle, council members said.
“The real question is whether or not the governor is going to put forth the resources as part of his budget to really fund childhood education,” said Craig Rice, chair of the council’s education committee. “If the governor isn’t committed to raising taxes for this, all of this is for naught. Individual resources aren’t going to be able to do it—it’s impossible without state assistance.”
A good starting point, council Vice President Nancy Navarro said, is targeting low-income and English language learners because reports show those groups have a lower percentage of students who enter kindergarten “fully ready.”
While 47 percent of MCPS students enter kindergarten fully ready, only 25 percent of children from low-income households and 21 percent of English language learners are as prepared.
“For me, this really is what triggers my belief in why we need to use a targeted focus, because it also has to do with resources,” said Navarro, who will begin her term as council president in December. “It’s right here in black and white where we need to start.”
Despite the county’s progress in providing early childhood education, council member Marc Elrich said it’s not enough.
Elrich, who is running as the Democratic nominee for county executive in Tuesday’s general election, suggested officials take a different approach, and instead of touting success, advocate for how far is left to go.
“If it’s not clear with everybody the road we’ve got to go down, and the consequences of not going down it, it makes it harder to marshal resources to accomplish what we need to,” Elrich said.
Fellow council member Sidney Katz agreed, but went a step further, looking 12-plus years into the future when today’s 4-year-olds are ready to enter the workforce. If those children aren’t able to get a top-quality education, he said, it could hinder economic development throughout the county.
“This is an investment that if we make it right, not only do we make it easier for students to remain in school, but also for employers to want to come here to employ our children,” Katz said. “We can’t afford not to do it.”
At MacDonald Knolls on Thursday, a parent spoke to attendees, touting the improvements her son has made in the first month of school.
Before classes began, Nelsy Marmol said her son had trouble holding a pencil correctly and couldn’t spell his name. But now, he’s doing all of that and more, she said.
“He knows things that I know I haven’t taught him,” Marmol said. “I ask him where he’s learning this and he says … people at school.”
MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said the improvement Marmol has seen in her son is a clear, tangible indicator that providing pre-k will lead to successful outcomes for students.
The progress and successes that MCPS and county officials are seeing will translate into future cost savings because MCPS won’t need to provide resources later to help students who are behind catch up, which is more costly than implementing universal pre-k services, Smith said.
“We cannot step back from this. We must continue to move forward because … what happens between 0 and 5 is amazing in the human brain,” Smith said. “Access, then opportunity—that leads to higher levels of learning for every child.”