Three pre-kindergarten classes are crowded onto the colorful carpet in the Umoja Room at Paige Academy, a nationally accredited, 40-year-old independent school in Roxbury. Inside the school — created from two converted Victorian homes — everyone must wear shoe covers upon entering.
“It’s all our responsibility to keep the building clean. It’s not just the janitor’s job to sweep,” said Angela Paige Cook, the school’s founder and executive director, as she discussed one of the school’s founding principles, ujima, which is Swahili for collective work and responsibility. “Those are the kinds of things that kids miss when you just have these big schools.’’
As Boston officials seek to create a universal pre-kindergarten system, they must take into account a host of considerations, and one of the key questions is defining the very recipe for high quality.
Are schools with hundreds of students up to eighth grade appropriate for 4-year-olds? How will the nurturing environment of small child care centers be reproduced in classrooms with nearly two dozen students? What will be the financial impact on private providers if a big source of revenue is taken? Will going to a private preschool keep families from getting into their favorite public kindergarten class?
Early child care providers, educators, and advocates, as well as Boston’s educational leadership, say the answers vary, depending upon whom you ask.
“No such system exists in Boston, right now,” said Rahn Dorsey, the mayor’s chief of education. “We’re going to have to learn along the way.”
The state doesn’t require school districts to offer pre-kindergarten seats. And because there are too few public classrooms in Boston, the bulk of the city’s 6,000 4-year-olds are educated in private classrooms.
Price tags at elite preschools can be upward of $15,000 a year. The state does subsidize a number of pre-K seats for low-income families at certain preschools, but there’s a huge waiting list.
City officials say the goal is to create a public/private system that would guarantee a free, full day of learning, allow community organizations to maintain their individuality, and have an agreed-upon set of standards for what constitutes a high-quality pre-K education.
About 90 percent of Boston’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in a public or private school program, a child care center, or a family-run facility, according to an April report by the city. But the report said the quality of these programs varies widely.
Dorsey said the city wants to invest in providers who are just a few notches short of its definition of quality, to help bring them up to par.
According to the report and city officials, the recipe for quality is a full day of learning in classrooms taught by teachers who have a bachelor’s degree or higher, use a “formal curriculum,” and engage with parents.
Early education experts say other ingredients to consider include class and facility size, location, the relationship between teachers and administrators, and culture and language.
Teachers and administrators at Paige Academy, for example, believe a quality education must be culturally competent, which is why the school’s mission is based on the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Umoja, which means unity in Swahili, is how the school refers to multipurpose rooms.
Cook said quality must also include stability, and right now, she and other private providers say the city’s school assignment system is threatening that.
Parents, she said, often withdraw children in the middle of an academic year if a slot opens in the public school of their choice, fearing there won’t be room in kindergarten as students move up a grade.
“What is the transition, or the pathway, for their child into kindergarten, first, second grade?” said Marie St. Fleur, an early childhood advocate who was part of the mayor’s Universal Pre-K Advisory Committee. “Boston public schools need to be more aggressive in spelling that out for those parents and working with community-based organizations.”
St. Fleur said the city must also consider “the instability that’s inherent” as more students are educated in free, city-run classrooms. Tuition for 4-year-olds offsets costs of caring for infants and toddlers in community-based programs.
“This is supposed to be a public-private partnership, so it’s not simply a public school experience when it comes to early education in the city of Boston,” she said.
The city already partners with nine private childhood centers, including Paige Academy, to bring early education to 250 of the city’s most impoverished 4-year-olds through a federal grant program.
Marie Enochty, program manager of early childhood education for the Boston public schools, stood in a hallway at Baldwin Early Learning Pilot Academy in Brighton on a recent day, confident that pre-kindergarten students in Anna Ruane’s classroom were getting an excellent education.
About 20 students were spread across Ruane’s class. Some worked on a science projects while others played in the sandbox and a few colored and wrote stories.
Audrey Davis and Chloe Lee sat a table giggling, as shaving cream with red and green swirls of food coloring bobbed atop brownish water.
“It’s like Christmas colors,” Audrey squealed with delight.
“It looks like Coke,” Chloe said of the water, as she shook the foam glob that she said looked like yogurt.
On the table sat the example made by the teacher, a gob of white shaving cream floating in artificially blue water. The concoction’s purpose: to emulate the clouds floating in a blue sky.
“We are learning about wind and water and rain,” Ruane said, her hands stained by the day’s lesson.
Back in the hallway, Enochty said: “What does quality look like? Exactly what you saw today.”
Some might disagree.
“Quality for us is making sure kids are being cared for in a safe and educational environment,” said Arlene Ramos, director of Project Hope’s Family Child Care Business Enterprise, which works with 20 home-based providers to ensure they have the technical support to run a child care business while taking professional development courses in early education. “You build their social and emotional skills in a small setting and a mixed-age setting.”
Ramos collaborates with the mother-daughter duo who run Play and Learn Family Child Care from the first floor of their family’s three-decker in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner neighborhood. They have associate degrees in early education — not bachelor’s or master’s degrees — and their curriculum is more informal than formal.
But Awilda Herrera has been educating children for 25 years, and her daughter has been helping her since middle school.
There are 10 little ones under their care, and the four preschool-age students are on a waiting list for a seat at a Boston public school. The preschoolers are all bilingual and they are at different academic levels, said Diana Herrera, 31, so their daily schedule fluctuates based on how much one-on-one time students need.
“Right now, they’re a little behind on their writing skills,’’ Herrera said as the preschoolers sat around a table barely a foot from the ground. “But I’ve been trying to make sure they can write their first and last names and recognize the letters out of order.”
Ramos said she worries that this nurturing would get lost in a class of 22 students.
“You’re creating these big classrooms. Two teachers aren’t enough when there might be a child who needs that one-on-one,” she said. “Sometimes quantity doesn’t allow you to give quality.”Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.