More pre-K classrooms needed, educators say
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Oct 27, 2013 | 4890 views |  0 comments | 81 81 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dora Jones greets 4-year-old Joshua Burnett at a Head Start program in Hobson City. Jones is the director of Cheaha Regional Headstart a network of six programs in northern Alabama. Photo by Bill Wilson.
Dora Jones greets 4-year-old Joshua Burnett at a Head Start program in Hobson City. Jones is the director of Cheaha Regional Headstart a network of six programs in northern Alabama. Photo by Bill Wilson.
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There are now twice as many pre-kindergarten classrooms in Piedmont’s schools as there were last year, but there are still more students than there are spots in classrooms, school administrators say.

In Jacksonville, administrators started two pre-K classes at Kitty Stone Elementary this year, paid for in part with a $120,000 state grant The two classes are a start, but more are needed, administrators say.

And in Anniston on Tuesday night, city leaders agreed to pay $180,000 to Anniston City Schools to create three additional pre-K classes, bringing the system’s total to six.

The push to expand pre-K in Alabama has been going on for some time, and while there have been gains, those gains have come slowly, pre-K advocates say. The reason for worry, those advocates say, is that quality pre-K programs prepare children socially and academically for kindergarten, and those benefits can have lasting effects.

In 2007, then Gov. Bob Riley announced a plan to expand the state’s First Class voluntary pre-K program to include 35 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds by 2011. When Riley announced those plans, 4 percent of Alabama’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in those programs.

In 2012, about 6 percent of the state’s 4-years-olds were enrolled in First Class pre-K programs, well off Riley’s target.

Gov. Robert Bentley asked legislators to boost pre-K funding by $12.5 million this year, but it was instead increased by $9.4 million. The state plans to spend $28.4 million on pre-K this year.

That extra money is expected to create 93 new classrooms across the state to serve about 1,600 more children.

The additional money will increase the percentage of Alabama’s 4-year-olds in pre-K from 6 percent to nearly 10 percent, said Allison de la Torre, executive director for the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for quality pre-K education.

“But that’s not enough,” she said. “There are waiting lists across the state for the program.”

It would take an additional $115.6 million on top of what was spent this year to put every eligible child in the state into quality pre-K classrooms, de la Torre said.

The Alabama School Readiness Alliance pre-K taskforce, made up of state advocates for children, business leaders, and medical and legal professionals, recommended in November 2012 a 10-year plan to get every 4-year-old in the state into pre-K classrooms.

De la Torre said her agency is asking legislators to phase that plan in at a cost of $12.8 million each year for the next nine years.

That growth will require at least 100 additional teachers and assistant teachers each year, de la Torre said.

De la Torre said research shows children who attend pre-K do much better in school and in life, “But they must be in high quality programs to have those long-term effects.”

Teachers in First Class pre-K programs must have bachelor’s degrees and have specialized training in early childhood development, de la Torre said.

Once on the job, those teachers use researched-based curriculum approved by the Office of School Readiness, which operates the First Class program. The curriculum is designed to ensure students get skills needed to succeed in kindergarten, she said.

Quality pre-K is much more than what is provided by typical day-care providers, de la Torre explained. At state-funded programs, children receive help with early reading skills, vocabulary development, early math skills, recognizing numbers and patterns, following directions and peer interaction, she said.

“Too many children in Alabama still are coming into kindergarten without those skills,” de la Torre said.

Worth the investment?

There is little question among educators and researchers that Alabama has a quality pre-K program. The state was one of four to meet all 10 of the National Institute for Early Education Research’s Quality Benchmarks in 2012. Alabama ranked 33rd in access to pre-K that year.

A 2007 study by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette showed that at the beginning of the school year, the average early language, literacy and math-skills of pre-K children in the state ranked within the bottom 20 percent of the national peer group. By the end of that year those students caught up to national average, the study found.

Researchers with Chicago Child-Parent Centers, part of the Chicago school system, conducted a long-term study of the Perry Preschool Project, which served disadvantaged kids in Ypsilanti, Mich.

At age 27, those who had not been in the Perry Preschool Project were five times more likely than their pre-K attending counterparts to be chronic lawbreakers, the 2005 report found. By age 40 those that did not attend the pre-K program were 86 percent more likely to have been sentenced to jail or prison, the report found.

Piedmont City Schools’ pre-K program, now in its seventh year, is having the intended effect on student achievement, school administrators say.

Students in the system’s pre-K programs on average go on to score in the 90th percentile of their classes in later grades, Pruitt said. Last year’s pre-K class on average outscored 95 percent of their classmates in kindergarten benchmark assessments this school year, she said.

The district now instructs 36 students in two classes. Even with the additional classroom 18 children are waiting for a spot in the program, said Revonda Pruitt, the system’s pre-K director.

Piedmont’s extra class was made possible, in part, by an $85,000 grant from the Office of School Readiness. Jacksonville’s grant came from the same source. Grantees must provide a 25 percent match.

Cheaha Regional Head Start operates six pre-K programs serving 108 students in four north Alabama counties. Director Dora Jones said her agency receives supplemental funding through the Office of School Readiness of about $45,000 per year for each class.

If she had more funding, there’s no question she could fill more classrooms, Jones said. There are always more students than available spots, she explained.

Teachers in Head Start pre-K classes must meet all the same requirements as teachers in other state-funded programs, Jones said.

“Each year that they make the opportunity available we’ll definitely write an application to apply for more,” Jones said.

Support from local legislators

State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, recently toured Kitty Stone Elementary’s pre-K classes. Marsh pointed to studies that show children that go to Pre-K programs stay in school and graduate at higher rates than their counterparts.

“We’re trying to do all we can to expand that program. I believe in it,” Marsh said. “I definitely want to work with the governor and the rest of the Legislature to expand it.”

Asked if he’d support $12.8 million increases in pre-K spending each year for the next nine years, Marsh said he’s committed to doing all he can to fully fund the program.

“So I’ll work with the budget chairs and make sure they know of my support. And you get support through proof. I think as long as we continue to show these improvements and the results of the program, I think it’s much more likely to get that funding,” Marsh said.

Money problems aside, maintaining those improvements through providing quality education is a challenge pre-K advocates are taking seriously, de la Torre said.

By expanding slowly over 10 years, it gives individual programs and the Office of School Readiness, time to grow while still retaining the same quality of instruction, de la Torre said.

“You could have every 4-year-old in a program, but if those programs are not high-quality, they’re a waste of money,” she said.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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