D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser addresses participants at a table while D.C. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (standing right) looks on. (Courtesy Photo-OSSE)

On June 9, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gathered 36 people – leaders of early childhood and pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) centers, members of her administration, educators and scholars – to participate in the “Mayor’s Convening on Early Childhood” that took place at the Shannon Place Center in Ward 8. “Every person in Washington, D.C. deserves a fair shot of making it in the town,” Bowser said. “That is why we are here today, to lay out a pathway forward to help young children and this is not just a one-time meeting.”

Pre-K students can participate in programs at public or charter schools, or federally or locally funded programs. Bowser said that pre-K programs will become more important as the city continues to prosper. “The population of Washington, D.C. is about 700,000,” the mayor said. “In 20 years, if present trends continue, it will be 1,000,000.”

Bowser said that newer residents want quality public schools and that starts with pre-K. She noted that pre-K concerns “cut across economic status and income.”

“Whether you are rich or poor, you are struggling with child care,” she said.

There was a panel discussion on accessing and providing quality early care and education that was moderated by Elizabeth Groginsky, the assistant superintendent of the Division of Early Learning for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. The panelists consisted of parent Danielle Creek, with children attend Big Mammas Child Development Center; Lynita Law-Reid, the director of Kids Are Us Learning Centers; and Hyesook Chung, executive director, DC Action for Children.

One of the topics acknowledged the frustration parents, who received government support for their children to attend the child care facilities, faced. Creek said she has problems processing her subsidy to send her child to Big Mammas, a child care center in D.C. “The processing of the subsidy is monotonous and robotic,” Creek said. “The paperwork is stringent and many times I am treated like someone who is trying to take advantage of the system and not like a person.”

Creek, just two classes short of finishing at the University of the District of Columbia’s law school, said using the subsidy is “temporary” and she is looking forward to putting her child into a different educational environment as soon as she can afford it. “The parents don’t need to just drop their kids off but they should know what is going on in the school and participate in field trips if they can,” she said. “If the parents are involved it makes a big difference in the behavior of the kids.”

Law-Reid agreed with Creek on the point of whether paid pre-K education is better than publicly-funded instruction. “When it comes to quality, do I pay or not pay?” she asked rhetorically. “Quality also comes from having great teachers and staff and that is an ongoing challenge to retain high-quality individuals.”

Chung said that the District’s school system should provide more professional education opportunities for pre-K teachers and “try to get more professionals in this space.”

The participants broke up into tables where they discussed moving the pre-K process forward. One of the livelier tables had Lauren Stillwater Patterson, director of programs at the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, Ward 7 early education activist Carrie Thornhill, Ward 7 D.C. State Board of Education member Karen Williams, and Angela Trice, who works with Matthews Memorial Baptist Church’s youth programs.

The table participants agreed that keeping great teachers is a priority, but there was a discussion on what to do with the subsidy, which, according to an 2014 post from D.C. Action for Children, a nonprofit organization that provides data-based analysis and policy leadership on issues facing D.C. youth, depends on family size, income and the number of children in care.

“I think we need to increase the rate of the subsidy,” Patterson said.

Thornhill agreed to a point, diverging on the thrust of the increase. “We should increase the subsidy on a geographic nature,” Thornhill said. “The larger subsidies should be available to people who live in communities of need.”