NEW BEDFORD — A new partnership between New Bedford Public Schools and an early education collaborative will seek to turn the city, a noted child care desert, into a leader for early education — starting with a plan to purchase and operate a new, centralized preschool facility.
Andrew O’Leary, interim superintendent in New Bedford, told The Light that the district has identified the former Holy Family Holy Name school, located on Summer Street just outside of downtown, as a likely location for a new, full-service preschool facility that could come online as early as fall 2025. Its operation will expand the number of seats in public preschools, serve families from across New Bedford, and provide public health and economic development benefits by following guidance from the Coalition for Health Equity and Early Development (HEED).
“It’s really a public health strategy for whole communities to support vibrant learning and early brain development,” said Kelly Rebeiro-Oliveira, HEED’s executive director. She said her organization, a nonprofit which focuses on bringing together health and education leaders, believes that the South Coast — and New Bedford in particular — could flourish with smart intervention in early education.
“Things need to change,” Rebeiro-Oliveira said.
New Bedford hopes to catch up with other mid-size cities, like Fall River, that already have dedicated buildings for preschool on top of programs in neighborhood schools. O’Leary said he is confident that the district can find funding options, citing MassDevelopment as a potential partner, to quickly upgrade the Holy Family Holy Name facility, which a Catholic school left vacant in 2021.
If the district can’t quickly execute a funding strategy, which would likely include a mix of municipal bonds and grant dollars, O’Leary said, the project could take as long as five years.
Meanwhile, some 50,000 kids on the South Coast are the right age for pre-Kindergarten programs, but only 20,000 spots exist to serve them — that’s less availability than the rest of the state, according to the South Coast Community Foundation.
Not only will early education programs improve academic outcomes (due to 80% of brain development happening by 3 years old), but the CDC has found that health and general well-being improve across a child’s lifetime after attending. In New Bedford, where almost one-in-five people live below the poverty line, early education could be an antidote to rising costs of healthcare, advocates say.
“We can really impact positive change here,” said Zoe Hansen-DiBello, chairperson for HEED. “It won’t be a silver bullet, but early ed is a ripe opportunity that science tells us matters most.”
A partnership with HEED will provide the district with advice and community connections, including through its BASICS framework, which prioritizes public health, parent involvement, and arts-based learning.
An already struggling child care system has entered a crisis since the pandemic. Even the state’s own Department of Early Education and Care wrote that “current market pressures … are driving an already unstable business model further out of balance,” in a report from the end of last year.
This crisis is having ripple effects far beyond families with young children, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. In total, Massachusetts loses $2.7 billion of earnings every year because of parents who cannot find adequate child care, the MTF found.
That workforce shortage disproportionately affects women, as shown by a roughly 20 percentage-point gap between mothers out of the workforce (27%) and fathers (7%), according to a new MTF study.
Still, the most direct benefit of more early education will flow to schools, as research shows that attending preschool improves learning outcomes — and even attendance — later on. Currently, the schools of Massachusetts see 60% of fourth graders not fully meeting state expectations in English; 62% of eighth graders miss the mark in math.
In New Bedford, even more students are behind.
O’Leary has described a “drop off” in third grade reading scores in New Bedford this year, but says that recent investments into early education are an antidote: “A consistent, higher dosage model of pre-K … is a recovery strategy for the pandemic,” he said while touring preschool classrooms recently.
Hansen-DiBello, of HEED, said that her group can help the district with wraparound services and family engagement, which can have tremendous benefits for families. These are strategies that New Bedford already employs for K-12 public schools, and it hopes to innovate these services for children a few years younger.
It’s also innovative to deliver these services through the public education system, the advocates say. A mix of private daycare services and public preschools currently make up the landscape of Commonwealth preschools. And out-of-pocket costs for private care is expensive — more expensive than the average cost of college or housing in Massachusetts, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Child care alone can cost almost 80% of a full-time minimum wage salary.
Beacon Hill has started to respond to rising costs, including with historic increases in this year’s budget for the Department of Early Education and Care. Notably, this includes fully funding C3 grants, which means the state is taking on the burden of expiring federal COVID dollars that threatened to close 1,800 child care facilities serving more than 50,000 kids, according to research from the Century Foundation.
This sort of commitment is a good sign, says Doug Howgate, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Howgate also said that there's an opportunity to figure out how to best use existing K-12 infrastructure to deliver more preschool alongside private providers.
“Going forward, we have to consider a range of options to connect with the public school system,” he said. “There’s a huge array of providers already providing [private child care] to thousands of kids, and that’s a big part of our economy, so it's not as simple as scrapping this system and moving to another.”
New Bedford hopes that it can become one of the leaders of public early education, said O’Leary. Already this year the district has revamped its existing public preschools so that every site offers full-day enrollment.
The new announcements to partner with HEED and to acquire and run a centralized public preschool are the next steps toward statewide leadership, the advocates say.
“We think we can get the attention of Boston and the rest of the state,” Hansen DiBello said.
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