The new department will fill gaps where existing programs can’t meet the need in both early childhood education and after-school care.By Kristine Sorensen

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Allegheny County has created a new department that focuses on children.

The department gets started Monday when its new director takes the helm. It’s hoping to help fill the disparities that exist in many parts of the county, which were pointed out in a recently-released study.

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The study from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services found that children from low-income families who grew up in well-off neighborhoods grew up to earn nearly twice as much as those in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This new department aims to close that gap to give all children an opportunity to succeed.

Preschool is about more than playing and learning letters and numbers. It’s often the foundation for success in school and life, but not all families can afford it.

KDKA’s Kristine Sorensen: Is it a goal to try to get all kids to be able to go to preschool, even if they can’t afford it?

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald: Yes. And my goal is that when kids get to kindergarten, that they are ready to learn. The most basic part of that would be the ability to read at some level and basic math skills at some level.

Fitzgerald said the new department will fill gaps where existing programs can’t meet the need in both early childhood education and after-school care.

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“If you have the after-school (programs), you’re continuing the learning and the socialization and the things that are where kids just don’t have anything to do after 3 o’clock and often, that’s when they get into trouble,” Fitzgerald said.

The Department of Children Initiatives was recommended by a working group formed after the 2018 failed ballot measure to raise taxes to fund children’s programs.

The group said a $20 million budget would pay for 900 children to go to preschool and 1,500 to go to after-school programs.

This department’s 2021 budget is about $440,000, but Fitzgerald said the director will work to secure additional money from foundations, corporations and government — as well as possible short-term funding from the recent Cares Act and American Rescue Plan.

“It’s a heck of a lot more expensive to incarcerate people and put them through that system than if they’re out there working to improve the community, benefiting their employers, paying taxes,” Fitzgerald said.

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Fitzgerald said he hopes this investment will begin to close the economic racial gap that exists in Allegheny County. He also hopes with more kids in preschool and after-school care, more parents can work to improve the lives of their families.

Kristine Sorensen