Junior kindergarteners participate in a Fletcher Maynard Academy program June 16. (Photo: Fletcher Maynard Academy via Twitter)

A timetable showing full implementation of universal prekindergarten in Cambridge arriving in 2026 had some long-serving officials boiling over with frustration at a Monday roundtable of the City Council and School Committee.

Though Lisa Grant, the newly hired executive director of the Birth to 3rd Grade Partnership, pointed out that some “version” of universal pre-K would be in place earlier than 2026, the timeline was clearly a blow to some.

“Here I am at another roundtable, hearing how we have to be thoughtful and we have to be strategic … And all the time since 2004, kids are not being served. I’m done,” fumed councillor Marc McGovern, who noted that shortly after he joined the School Committee in 2004 he filed a motion to advance universal pre-K – and that document was already 11 years old at the time of filing.

“I just can’t sit through another roundtable talking about how we’re going to get there in another five to seven years,” McGovern said. “It’s just not good enough. This is 20 years of frustration.”

McGovern, councillor Patty Nolan and School Committee member Ayesha Wilson all pointed to other cities that had beaten Cambridge to implementing universal pre-K, including Chicago, New York, Boston and Somerville – whose program McGovern said he’d toured with Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for human services, 15 years ago.

“We have the resources and I know that we have the capacity, we really just need to get started,” Wilson said.

The pre-K concept

Universal pre-K lets all families with preschool-aged children enroll them in a publicly funded program, typically serving children who will meet the kindergarten age cutoff date the next year. Cambridge is looking at a mixed-delivery system, which means a combination of school and community-based providers, and looking at whether it will be free or could be subsidized at different levels based on family income.

Grant

A scholarship program is in place for children who are at least two years, nine months old and live in a household at or below 80 percent of the median area income identified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city has 17 partner preschool programs where children have been placed for preschool, Grant said.

The question of having enough space and seats led to frustration for councillor Quinton Zondervan beyond just hearing about “decisions that need to be made when we’ve been talking about them for so many years already.”

“Until tonight, we’ve been told there’s not enough space. And now we’re told that actually there’s plenty of space. So if you could help me understand,” Zondervan asked assembled staff.

Semonoff said she was sorry “if we misled you in the past,” but the estimates of lack of space was likely tied to a school department-only model, whether the seats would be “high quality” and how many were for Cambridge residents vs. how many could be used for people who work in the city. There are also more classrooms under construction, such as at the new Tobin school or in projects underway by the nonprofit builder Just A Start.

Next steps

Grant addressed the issue as well. “When we look at the entire early childhood landscape in Cambridge, theoretically, there are enough seats for all of the 4-year olds that live in our community. So the question then becomes less about space and more about how many of those seats can be dedicated exclusively to Cambridge children,” Grant said. “And where are those seats located in the city? Are they quality seats? Do we have enough qualified teachers to teach all of these young children?”

After answering those questions, there will need to be an assessment of whether there’s still a gap. “UPK is really only partially about space and is truly more about how we align and support what currently exists to ensure that every parent with a pre-K child has access to a program of their choosing that’s high-quality and is affordable,” Grant said.

The next steps will take place through an advisory committee and task forces over the next 18 months and represent “some pretty large systemic changes,” Grant said: changing district and city policies; building processes, tools and capacities for implementation; and securing funding and determining how the funding model will work.

“An even quicker pace”

But as Semonoff gave an overview of the path toward universal pre-K in Cambridge, it seemed to illustrate the cause of officials’ frustration. In one section that picked up long after the filing of the motion talked about by McGovern, and including a reference to Grant’s predecessor:

“We came back to a roundtable in 2015, shared the results of [a blue ribbon task force] and recommended the creation of the Birth to 3rd Grade Partnership and the hiring of an executive director … we hired the executive director for the partnership during 2016 and began some of the work … After a year and a half of implementation, we came back again with the school department in a joint roundtable with the School Committee and City Council in the fall of 2017. We gave an update about where we had been over the course of that two years since the roundtable in November 2015 and came back with a recommendation that it was time for us to take a more serious look at universal pre-K. And we committed then to beginning that process and in 2018 the Cambridge Public Schools and the city jointly engaged [consultants] to develop model options for the city and schools and for us to look at the potential for implementation.”

“I know it’s taken longer than a lot of people feel [it should have],” City Manager Louis A. DePasquale said, citing a “real Covid setback” as part of the cause. “Setting up the steering committee will help move this forward, so I’m excited … It’s now time to head in this direction and really get this thing moving at an even quicker pace.”

City councillors over the years also encouraged the expansion of Head Start, a free preschool program, and Grant said the city was now in partnership with Head Start to have all its classrooms in Cambridge as “full-year, full-day, preschool programs” – four classrooms that can serve 72 of the city’s 3- and 4- year olds.

Nolan added that the city should push for universal preschool. “If it’s not affordable, if you’re stretching, if you feel like you’ve been moved out of Cambridge in order to afford child care because you’re a middle-class family, that’s not the same,” Nolan said. “Universal also means affordable … our model has to be high quality for free.”