Fewer than 57 percent of preschool-age children were enrolled a decade ago, administrators said.
In January, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announced he wanted to do better, to enroll every 3- and 4-year-old by fall 2014.
"Access to a high-quality early-childhood education program can have a dramatically positive effect on a young person's development," he said. "All young people deserve the opportunity to start their education by learning the fundamental academic and social skills they need to be successful."
Last week, Chavis canvassed neighborhoods with Rouhanifard and other administrators, knocking on doors, stopping into bodegas, and tapping on car windows to spread the word.
Registration for next year will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 19 at any Camden city school or private provider location, and from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Camden Board of Education Building. There's rolling admission thereafter.
Transportation is not provided, but parents can pick any location in the city, regardless of where they live - first-come, first-served, depending on capacity. Children who turn 3 on or before Oct. 1 can enroll. The district is at 97 percent capacity, meaning some classrooms have space for the remainder of this year and children can enroll midyear.
"A lot of parents don't realize it's free, others think their 3-year-old has to be completely potty-trained, or are nervous about sending them if they're not - and for some, it's just a personal decision - they think the child's too young," said Katrina McCombs, who heads the district's office of early childhood.
Camden's performance is on par with other districts with universal preschool where more than 90 percent are served, according to Ellen Wolock, director of the state Office of Preschool Education.
According to district statistics from fall 2010 to spring 2012, students in Camden preschools improved by about 20 percent in literacy and math from when they started preschool to when they left for kindergarten.
Unfortunately, that progress is often overshadowed by dramatically low state test scores in later years, with the early advantage often eroding.
"Preschool is a bright spot in many Abbott districts, particularly the larger ones - Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and certainly Camden," Wolock said. "They're really doing great things, and I think one of the things we're doing is starting to turn our attention to the early grades, so hopefully the impact will be sustained."
Outside of these districts, the state serves 8,000 children, mostly 4-year-olds, and 14,500 children to age 5, through federally subsidized Head Start and Early Head Start programs offered to families eligible based on income.
In total, about a quarter of all preschool-age children in the state attend classes, ranking New Jersey's access 16th out of 40 states that offer pre-K. Pennsylvania ranks 28th and Delaware 32d, according to a study by Rutgers' National Institute for Early Education Research.
On Friday, students in Rene Candelori's preschool class at the Early Childhood Development Center on Pine Street listened raptly as she read a version of The Three Little Pigs, prompting a chorus of giggles with each new character voice.
The center houses classrooms for 500 of the city's 2,448 preschool students. The spacious new building has become a draw even for some suburbanites.
"There's a large amount of people from out of district who will do anything they can to come here," principal Maricarmen Macrina said. "Their districts might only offer half-day programs, and, if you walk around the building, you see smartboards in every classroom, iPads, computers, new construction."
Macrina said she had to turn away about a dozen families a year from towns such as Voorhees, Cherry Hill, and Pennsauken.
"I just had a parent who put his child in pre-K and then took him out to go to kindergarten at a charter school in Camden, and now he wants to move him back," she said.
A March study by the National Institute of Early Education Research and Rutgers University tracked preschool children in Abbott districts (including 60 Camden students) to determine preschool's long-term impact.
The study found children in fifth grade who attended preschool programs were three-quarters of a year ahead of children who did not. It also found that two years of preschool cut the achievement gap by 50 percent.
The state gives between $7,800 and $14,000 per pupil, depending on whether the child is in a district, private, or Head Start school. Last year, Camden received $28 million for its program.
Janette Adams, a kindergarten teacher for nearly 22 years with the district, said she could tell which students came from pre-K:
"They come in with more social experiences, they have letter and sound awareness, a love of literature, and that enhances their ability to acquire even more skills."
She wouldn't want to teach any other age group. "I absolutely love the fact that they're little sponges and they're able to acquire so many skills. There's just such a love and a joy, and I count it a privilege to be able to start them on their journey to become lifetime learners."