For many Boston families it is one of the biggest perks of living in the city — free public preschool — and a national report released Wednesday made clear how fortunate families are to have access to it.
Boston was one of just five cities to receive the highest rating, a gold medal, for its commitment to providing a quality preschool experience to at least 30 percent of its 4-year-olds, according to the report by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University and City Health, an initiative of the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente.
The other gold-medal rated cities were Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville; New York City; and San Antonio. In all, the report sought out to highlight which of the nation’s 40 largest cities were making investments to expand access to and the quality of public preschool and which were not.
Boston has been at the forefront of the early childhood education movement as it has pushed to expand the number of public preschool classrooms across the city. In the past five years under Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the city has invested about $5 million annually to add 1,000 seats in its preschool programs that serve 4-year-olds, increasing overall enrollment to 2,947.
A few hundred 3-year-olds, mostly those with disabilities, also attend preschool.
The programs have proven so popular that demand has exceeded capacity, creating jitters each spring for many families to see if they had any luck in securing a spot. (Students with disabilities are guaranteed placement, courtesy of state and federal laws.)
“Investing in high quality early education opportunities for our children is the best investment we can make as a city in their future,” Walsh said in a statement. “I am proud of all we have accomplished in expanding the number of high-quality seats available, and remain committed to doing all we can to ensure that our young students are put on a pathway to success in their lifelong learning career.”
Of particular note, the report lauded Boston for expanding access to preschool for students of all income levels and racial and ethnic backgrounds and for dedicating local funds to expand access to and improve the quality of public preschool.
“A few cities stand out for their attention to establishing both a continuous improvement system and funding program evaluation to ensure that funds are being invested well,” the report said.
Boston also earned high marks for its instructional practices and the quality of its teaching force. Specifically, the city won points for:
■ Adopting a curriculum, student learning goals, and low teacher-student ratios (1 to 10).
■ Screening students for health issues and learning disabilities.
■ Hiring teachers with bachelor’s degrees who specialize in early childhood education and providing them with additional training.
■ Paying preschool teachers the same salaries as other teachers in the school system.
The report holds up Boston and the other gold-medal cities as models for other cities to follow.
“Pre-K is a proven policy every city should employ to ensure all children get a strong and healthy start,” said Shelley Hearne, president of CityHealth. “The good news is that most of the large US cities we studied have a Pre-k program in place, but there is still work to do. In order to fully reap the benefits of Pre-k, city leaders need to design high quality programs that children and families can readily access.”