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First round of Multnomah County's free pre-K program serves 690 children while offering better pay for staff

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Children play together at Shannons Child Care & Preschool in Southeast Portland. The center has been in operation for more than 35 years. Now, its one of many sites under contract with Multnomah County's Preschool For All program.Nearly 690 children in Multnomah County are attending preschool for free under the inaugural Preschool For All program.

Voters passed the Preschool For All measure in 2020, approving a 1.5% tax on residents with income over $125,000 or joint filers who make more than $200,000, to pay for it. The measure imposes an additional 1.5% on those earning more than $250,000 or households with combined income over $400,000.

September marks the first month of the new program. Before its launch, county leaders said they hoped to serve between 500 and 1,000 kids during the first round.

For Leslee Barnes, who heads Multnomah County's pre-K program, landing roughly in the middle of that goal is a success.

"We really leaned into the fact that we were going to be around 500, 600 children this go-round, and so I think we actually exceeded that goal," Barnes said in late August. "We knew there was going to be a lot more interest than slots available. It just speaks to the broad (needs.)"

The program seeks to shore up a years-long lack of available and affordable preschool centers, while strengthening pay and resources for child care providers. Historically, the cost of child care has been one of the biggest factors behind women leaving or not entering the workforce.

Multnomah County's focus on preschool has a long history of support from within academia. A 2017 report, "The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects," came from educators at, among others, Georgetown University, Vanderbilt, Duke and the Brookings Institution, according to a National Public Radio article. The study showed that "While all kids benefit from preschool, poor and disadvantaged kids often make the most gains," according to NPR.

Additionally, a retired Portland State University economics professor recently highlighted the case for universal preschool, citing research from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

"Universal preschool is a two-generation anti-poverty strategy that also benefits the middle class," Mary King wrote in an opinion column published by Pamplin Media Group earlier this year. "Decades of research find that it reduced inequality by gender, race, ethnicity and income. Children from families with lower incomes gain the most, but all children make gains."

Who is served

The new, free preschool program exclusively serves 3- and 4-year-olds. There are no income eligibility requirements, but the county has prioritized low-income families and other groups with the highest need. Among the first families accepted into the program, 34% are at or below the federal poverty level and 91% are at or below 350% of that line, according to the county.

Other priority groups include families of color, migrant or refugee families, non-English speaking families, military households, kids living in foster care, as well as kids of teenage parents and those with special needs. Seventy-five percent of the first families accepted are families of color, and 36% have students whose primary language at home isn't English.

Thirty-two percent of the first year's slots are brand new. The rest are existing slots that are being financially supported by the program, making them accessible to more families.

In all, there are 36 preschool providers across 48 sites this year. All of them are operated by experienced child care providers.

Shannon Aden runs one of the nearly 50 sites now under contract with Multnomah County. This isn't her first foray into child care. She's been operating Shannon's Child Care & Preschool for more than 35 years in Southeast Portland.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Shannon Aden, pictured, has owned Shannon's Child Care & Preschool for more than 35 years in Southeast Portland. Aden says a new contract with Multnomah County's Preschool For All program has allowed her to pay her staff more and put more resources into her play and learning areas. This year, under her new contract with Preschool For All, she opened eight slots to the county. That's half her total capacity. She said the conditions of the contract have helped her business.

"There (were) some really great incentives to say, 'well, gosh, I'm gonna get paid really well and I can pay my staff really well, which is the cornerstone of quality child care, is staffing and our relationship with children," Aden said.

The county set parameters in the contract — all her staff need to be paid at least $19.91 per hour — that allow her to improve child-to-staff ratios while offering employees a fair wage. That's something that's been missing from the preschool equation, driving a bigger staffing shortage.

The voter-approved preschool initiative is now making it possible for people like Liz Dominguez to pursue a job in early childhood learning. Dominguez, 25, picked up babysitting jobs in high school, took early childhood development courses and worked with kids with disabilities. Now, she's able to get more training and continue on the path, working at Shannon's Child Care & Preschool.

"It takes patience and loving the kids like they're your own kids," Dominguez said of the demands of working at a preschool.

There are other aspects of the county's program that Aden likes. Aden said despite being in business for 36 years, this is the first time she's had access to professional development or extra resources for her play and learning spaces through a partnership.

"What was unique about Preschool For All is they asked you, 'What feels good to you? What would you like to get from us if we partner with you?'" Aden noted.

That's a key component of Preschool For All.

"I've been able to meet with the providers and I've gotten the sense that it feels collaborative, that we are partnering with them," Barnes said. "We're not saying, 'Hey, you know, you need to completely change your business model.' We're coming alongside them to support them. If they need new bookcases and materials in their classroom, this is the first time they've been able to get all those kinds of things to support children." PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Liz Dominguez works at Shannon's Child Care and Preschool in Southeast Portland. Dominguez said she's always had an interest in working with children, but the pay for child care and early learning jobs has historically been very low. Multnomah County's new Preschool For All program aims to fix that.

The free preschool sites are located primarily in North Portland, the city's outer east side and in east Multnomah County — areas identified as having low preschool access. Providers receive between $15,000 and $21,000 per year, per student in the program.

Some sites are in private homes, like Aden's. Others are at school sites or child care facilities. Providers are required to work with a coach and use curriculum aligned with Oregon early learning guidelines.

Barnes says county staff worked with families to place students at sites that best meet their specific needs, giving families choices of setting type and program philosophy or approach. Applicants were able to select their top three preferences of providers.

The county also partnered with community organizations like Latino Network, Native American Youth & Family Center, Self Enhancement Inc. and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization to identify families in need of free preschool, working with specific cultural groups to identify families who would benefit from the program and help them through the application process.

Path to universal preschool

The county has its work cut out to hit its goal of offering between 11,000 and 12,000 slots by 2030. There are an estimated 19,000 preschoolers in Multnomah County.

"We're looking to reach universal access in 10 years, so we're going to add additional slots each year," Barnes said.

Part of how Barnes' team plans to reach that goal is through the Pathways Program. The program gives providers hoping to take on preschool slots access to training and educational opportunities, business development, peer networks and individualized coaching tailored to their strengths. It's also available to people interested in starting their own preschool.

So far, the Pathways Program has received 100 applicants, with 84 already matched with a development coach, according to the county.

But if the county is to reach its 10-year goal, it's going to need to ramp up the annual number of slots it adds. Next year, the county expects to have 1,100 preschool slots. That's almost exactly how many families applied this year.

That target is a 400-slot reduction from its initial goal. Officials say they had to adjust the goal due to the impact of pandemic on child care providers, which forced many to close temporarily. Many never reopened.

Earlier this year, the county estimated 300 providers closed their doors during the pandemic.

The county is working with Boston University's Center on the Ecology of Early Development to update estimates of the lack of access to local, affordable preschool.

Learn more

Applications for families will reopen in Spring 2023. For more information, visit:

Note: A Previous version of this story misstated the hourly wage required for preschool aides. The story has been corrected.

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