This story is featured in Chalkbeat’s 2023 Philadelphia Early Childhood Education Guide on efforts to improve outcomes for the city’s youngest learners. To keep up with early childhood education and Philadelphia’s public schools, sign up for their free newsletter here.
There are several ways Philadelphians can access high-quality, free prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds living in the city. Families who’ve been through the program say it’s had a profound impact on their lives and is among the best the city has to offer.
But signing up for pre-K hasn’t been easy for everyone.
Some eligible families say they have struggled with the application process, found themselves stuck on waitlists, or weren’t aware that the city offers free pre-K at neighborhood schools or child care centers near them regardless of their family income.
The city and school district want that to change. Early next year, city officials intend to launch a more streamlined, easy-to-understand application process with the hope that more families will participate.
For now, there’s two main ways to apply: through the school district and through the city’s PHLpreK program. Funding for these programs comes from the city’s soda tax (a portion of which is dedicated to PHLpreK), the state’s PreK Counts program, and the federal Head Start program.
Together, the district and city offer some 16,250 seats at schools and private pre-K providers across Philadelphia, according to Diane Castelbuono, the district’s deputy chief for early childhood. Because it’s a two-year program, she said, some five to six thousand seats open every year as kids move from pre-K to kindergarten.
But that’s less than half (45%) of the estimated 36,022 3- and 4-year-olds who reside within the bounds of the city school district.
Families can face many barriers throughout the application process. For example, in-person application hours at school-based locations are only staffed during weekdays from 9 or 10 a.m. until noon. If seats fill up at a family’s preferred location, their child may be put on a waiting list for the entire school year. And neither the district nor the city provide transportation for pre-K children.
Leah Falk, a parent with one child who went through the program, said the application process was “opaque,” and a bit of a burden.
“This is from a family with two college-educated people who fill out forms all day,” Falk said. “There seems to be a process and a shadow process and I don’t know why that is.”
Castelbuono said the district is aware of how complicated the process can be for parents. She said they’re working towards adopting one universal application “which is the best thing for families,” but she said, “we’re not there yet.”
In the meantime, Castelbuono emphasized, families should start the application process as soon as possible. For the best chance at securing a seat in a preferred location, she said families should get started right after the winter holidays.
Whether this is your first time applying, or you’ve got another child already in the program, here is everything you need to know to apply to pre-K in Philadelphia:
What are Philadelphia’s pre-K options?
The city and School District of Philadelphia provide free, high-quality, full-day pre-K classes for all city kids ages 3 to 5. A child must be at least 3 years old to enroll, but families can begin the application process before their child turns 3. Children who are turning 5 on or before Sept. 1 have to apply to kindergarten.
You can check to see if your child is eligible using the city’s tool here.
Pre-K programs at school-based locations run from September through June and follow the school district’s calendar. According to the district’s website, program hours may vary by location, but in general the hours are: Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Want to know what a typical day might look like? You can see a sample lesson plan here.
How do I apply?
Parents and guardians can apply two ways: online or in-person.
For your best chance at finding a seat, the district is encouraging families to complete both the city and school district’s applications before the end of February 2024.
How to apply online
For the 2024-2025 school year, the city and school district hope to have a simpler way to apply online. Check back here in January for updated information.
The online application process for the school district takes about 15 to 30 minutes to complete and requires a number of documents — it’s important to note that the district and city require different documents for their respective applications. The school district offers their own step-by-step guide with photos that can be helpful to have open while you’re applying.
The application will ask questions about the child’s name, birth date, housing status, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) information, and allow you to request a location of your choice — either a program in a school close to your ZIP code or one run outside of a school by a community partner..
After submitting, you’ll have to upload your documents. Per their website, the district requires:
- Proof of the child’s date of birth (ideally a birth certificate, but a valid U.S. passport, medical records, or any other form of government-issued document with your child’s birthdate would also work).
- Documentation of family income.
- Proof of Philadelphia residency (this could be a utility bill, driver’s license, W-2 tax form, or current lease or rental agreement, among other documents).
- Child’s health insurance card.
- Physical (health assessment form) and immunization records.
- Picture identification of parent/guardian.
If applicable, the district will also ask for:
- Proof of TANF benefits, SNAP/food stamps, medical assistance.
- custody order.
- Med-1 form if your child needs medication that a staff member will have to administer.
- a copy of your child’s Individualized Education Program.
- foster letter.
- homeless verification letter/shelter letter.
The city’s PHLpreK application requires:
- One proof of age document (such as a birth certificate or passport).
- One proof of residency document (such as a utility bill, lease, or driver’s license, etc.).
- A completed PHLpreK application and PHLpreK acknowledgement form.
How to apply in-person
You can register at many of the schools and community child care locations the district and city partner with or at the district’s office at 440 North Broad St. Just make sure you bring all of your documents — the same you’d need for the online application above.
You also have to print, fill out, and bring a paper application with you. The school district’s application can be found here in English, Spanish, and nine other languages. The city’s PHLpreK application can be found here in the same languages.
What happens next?
If your child is accepted or put on a waitlist, you will get a phone call, note in the mail, or an email within six weeks of your application submission. However, the district warns that notification may be delayed depending on the time of year your application was submitted. Castelbuono said there is “always a crush” of applications in the summer months, so by August seats are often full.
Each pre-K location has a maximum funded capacity, meaning only a certain number of children can attend at each location. If more people apply to a location than there are seats available, the district will create a waitlist. District officials say on the pre-K website that “it is possible for a child to remain on the waiting list for the entire school year.”
If a seat opens up at the location of your choice, the district says someone will call to let you know.
What else do I need to know?
Transportation services are not provided by the city or district for pre-K children, so you’ll have to arrange your own transportation or carpool with neighbors or friends.
Some locations do offer before and after care if your family needs an extended day, though there will likely be a cost associated. Check here to see if a location near you offers before or after care.
Who do I talk to if I have questions or concerns?
The district offers phone support for anyone with questions about the program or registration process: 215-400-4270. The city’s Office of Children and Families also operates a PHLpreK hotline: 844-745-7735 (844-PHL-PREK). You can also email the office at OCFCommunications@phila.gov.
You can also reach out to the Early Learning Resource Center for information or guidance throughout the application and registration process. Their phone number is 1-888-461-KIDS (5437).
Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
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