City leaders: Path to safer Philadelphia starts in preschool

President Obama, at a Head Start center in Yeadon, in 2011. In Philadelphia on Tuesday, Law enforcement, city, and school officials are set to announce the results of a new report that emphasizes the need to spend more on Head Start-type programs.
President Obama, at a Head Start center in Yeadon, in 2011. In Philadelphia on Tuesday, Law enforcement, city, and school officials are set to announce the results of a new report that emphasizes the need to spend more on Head Start-type programs. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: October 24, 2012

Law enforcement, city, and school officials think they know a way to reduce crime in Philadelphia: Invest more in high-quality preschool programs.

"If we're going to be serious about stopping the gun violence in our city, not only do we have to arrest the people who pull the triggers, we have to do all that we can to start kids from starting along that path," Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said Monday.

Williams, Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and other local officials are expected to underscore that point Tuesday, when they gather at the Penn Alexander School to read to Head Start students and tout a just-released report about the connection between preschool programs and crime reduction.

The report was produced by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization of police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors. Williams sits on the group's board.

The problem, organizers say, is that the government spends too much on prisons and not enough on preschool. In Pennsylvania, about $2.3 billion is spent annually on corrections; $340 million is spent on early childhood programs.

That has long-term ramifications, Williams said in an interview.

Students who lack good preschool programs may have trouble with key lessons - "Don't bite people. Don't take their toys. Don't shoot people. Don't steal their cars," Williams said. "Children need to learn conflict resolution, and that starts in pre-K. Children need to learn how to deal with their anger, and that starts in pre-K."

At-risk children not enrolled in a high-quality preschool were five times more likely to be serial offenders by age 27, according to a long-term study of one Michigan early childhood center; a Chicago study found that at-risk children were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

Researchers estimate that strong preschool programs provide $11 in benefits for every $1 invested - $5 of which comes from less money spent on crime and corrections.

In Philadelphia, as in many cities, there are far more needy children than spots in good preschools. More than 3,000 low-income city children remain on waiting lists, according to the Philadelphia School District.

Statewide, 17 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality, publicly funded preschool programs.

Williams and others exhorted Gov. Corbett and state legislators to expand early childhood funding, and cautioned that only high-quality programs - those with skilled teachers, age-appropriate curricula, low child-to-teacher ratios, and screening for developmental and behavioral problems - should be invested in.

While the main thrust of his job is prosecution, Williams said, advocating for causes like this one could someday make his job easier.

"I believe we have to be smart on crime," Williams said. "Not just talk tough."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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