Tim Burgess learns about sharing.
  • The Stranger
  • Tim Burgess learns about sharing.
Nestled into a converted public-housing building, two preschool classrooms in Seattle start the morning off with shared breakfasts, served family-style at small tables. That's mainly so the kids can practice sharing, says Neighborhood House's executive director, Mark Okazaki. One girl slowly but surely serves herself some warm cereal from a bowl, carefully scraping the spoon on the edge before bringing it on the perilous four-inch journey to her plate, all without spilling. The motor skills involved are impressive for such a young kid. Next to her, a boy politely passes the plate of fruit to his left. Before sitting down to breakfast, they all sang songs about the days of the week and the months of the year, and practiced counting to 20. From the hallway between the two classrooms, you can hear muffled clapping games and the occasional chorus of children shouting, "Yaaaaaaaaaaay!"

I was hanging out at preschool this morning because Seattle City Council president Tim Burgess is on a mission from God, Blues Brothers–style, to bring universal pre-K to Seattle. We've written about it before, most recently after Burgess's recent trip with other council members and the mayor to check out preschools on the East Coast in cities like Jersey City and Boston, where citywide subsidized early learning is now standard.

This school, run by Neighborhood House, serves Yesler Terrace kids; Neighborhood House also runs Head Start preschools in the city's other housing developments. Twenty kids per class can mean up to 20 different languages and dialects, says executive director Okazaki—currently, they've counted 11 in one of the classrooms, according to an AmeriCorps volunteer. The curriculum, continues Okazaki, is "about choice," letting kids find activities that they want to do and letting them "learn through play." Here, kids whose parents might not have time or energy to do intensive early learning get a leg up on classroom skills like taking turns, asking and answering questions, and cleaning up after themselves, in addition to things like starting to read and write numbers and letters.

But if Burgess's Preschool for All plan is going to work—meaning, if it's going to produce something worthwhile in exchange for what will be a sizeable ask from taxpayers—the classrooms that tax dollars help fund will have to be "high quality," according to all the data on pre-K. Babysitting and childcare don't have the same demonstrated effects that high-quality early learning does—effects like saving money on criminal justice and social services down the line or increasing high-school and college graduation rates. So Burgess is visiting classroom after classroom—this was about his "thirteenth or fourteenth since Christmas, he says"—to see what works.

Questions remain: Can the city afford to fund year-round preschool instead of just the school year, to avoid a "summer slide" where lower-income kids lose some of their progress over the summer? Will existing providers who may not make the cut for "high-quality" fight to lower the standards? More broadly, will voters accept the gub'mint asking for their hard-earned money to indoctrinate the next generation with schoolin' before they're ready?

Time will tell, kiddos. In the meantime: Neighborhood House, an awesome organization, is having a fundraiser on April 3. Check it out.