Educators support governor’s call for increased pre-k funding
by Bill Kimber
Jan 18, 2014 | 1581 views |  0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Pre-kindergarten teacher Dawn Haywood works with students, from left, Briley McDonald, Aidan Freeman, Jahbrina Scott and Alexander Garrett Friday at Houston Elementary School in Talladega.
Pre-kindergarten teacher Dawn Haywood works with students, from left, Briley McDonald, Aidan Freeman, Jahbrina Scott and Alexander Garrett Friday at Houston Elementary School in Talladega.
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Alexander Garrett works on letters Friday in the First Class pre-kindergarten program at Houston Elementary School in Talladega.
Alexander Garrett works on letters Friday in the First Class pre-kindergarten program at Houston Elementary School in Talladega.
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One of America’s best preschool programs for 4-year-olds is the one created for Alabama youngsters, but it’s only available to 9 percent of the children who could benefit from it. Area educators contacted this week said they support Gov. Robert Bentley’s call for increased funding for the First Class Pre-Kindergarten program.

“Alabama has received the nation’s highest quality rating from the National Institute for Early Education Research for seven years in a row,” said Jeana Ross, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs.

Ross said data collected on third-graders last year showed that those who participated in First Class pre-k were 100 percent proficient on the Alabama Reading and Math Test. She said national research has long shown that high-quality pre-kindergarten has positive results. “Now we are getting Alabama information that is showing us that there are short-term educational benefits of this program.”

In Talladega, the results are "wonderful," said Houston Elementary School principal Alicia Laros.

"Every year it seems to get better. Our new goal is to develop strategies based on the information that we're getting from the 4-year-olds."

The program started at Houston six years ago, so the first students to participate there are now in fourth-grade.

"The ones we've watched over six years are always in the top 10 percent," Laros said. When they finish the pre-k class, the students are able to read sight words and sentences, and exceed Dibels benchmarks for the end of kindergarten, Laros said. She added that that can pose a challenge for kindergarten teachers working to catch up students who weren't enrolled in the program.

Laros said assessment is an integral part of First Class, and the results show that the students are able not just to name shapes and sit still to learn, but also to explain what they are thinking and why.

"You wouldn't think you could get that much information from a 4-year-old," she said.

In Montgomery, Ross said the course also helps some children avoid being referred for special education.

“We’re looking at our special education numbers now and putting a dollar amount to that. Special education referrals last year were 7.35 percent for students in this group and 10.79 percent for all students. That’s significant. When you think about all the students we have, this is a truly successful program. It makes a difference.”

The program began around 2000 with eight sites, and this year there are 311 in the state. This year the state is spending $28,624,146 on the program, Ross said. That’s up $9.4 million from the previous year, and funded 100 more classes this year than last. There’s at least one site in each of Alabama’s 67 counties.

It’s offered in Talladega County at sites in Lincoln, Talladega and Sylacauga, and in St. Clair County in Pell City, Ragland, Springville, Odenville and Moody.

“We went from serving 6 percent of Alabama’s population to serving 9 percent,” Ross said. “Our long-term goal is to get to 100 percent of families who choose to participate. I can’t emphasize enough, this is a voluntary program,” Ross said.

Bentley has proposed adding $10 million more in the budget to be considered in the legislative session that began this week.

“I can tell you, pre-k is making a real difference in the lives of Alabama’s children,” Bentley said Tuesday night in his State of the State address.

“First Class Pre-K children consistently miss fewer days of school, they are less likely to need special education services and are less often retained than those children who are not in pre-k. Third-graders who were in pre-k scored at 100 percent reading proficiency. But the most significant result of children in pre-k is the impact on those who live in poverty from low-income families. Pre-k closed the achievement gap for lower-income students by as much as 29 percent. Because of these proven results, I am including more funding for voluntary pre-k in my budget, so that we can once again expand,” Bentley said.

“The governor has said all along that early learning is a wise investment that will benefit children and families because it increases the students’ chances of success in kindergarten through 12th grade,” said Jennifer Ardis, the governor’s communications director.

Ross said the program’s diverse delivery system means First Class can be offered in a public school, a Head Start center or a private childcare center.

“Whether it’s military based or faith based, they can apply for a grant,” Ross said.

“It’s a competitive grant process, and it’s open. We have very stringent guidelines and assurances that they have to read and understand before they can even put the grant together. Then we score them on a rubric. If they hit a cutoff, we see how many dollars we have and how far we can go down the list. Then we do a site visit and evaluate the site to see if it’s going to be a good place. We will interview the person who wrote the grant or will administer the program and that sort of thing.

“We have a very specific framework. This was developed in Alabama, and we wrote exactly what should be going on in the classroom, program guidelines and professional development,” Ross said. “We know now that it is working tremendously.”

She continued, “It’s truly a program of excellence. We’re providing coaches, because adult-child interaction is key.”

Improved attendance and performance are particular factors with measurable outcomes, Ross said.

”They are great indicators of how successful the child is going to be in their whole school career, which affects them for the rest of their lives.”

This year, Ross said, there were two grant applications for every one that was funded, and most or all of the programs have wait lists.

“The problem is being able to provide access. One site I spoke to this week was a small town that had 60 children on a wait list.”

She said after registration deadlines, children are chosen in lotteries for inclusion in the program.

Pell City Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Barber said early learning experiences have a profound impact.

“I know we have a number of them in our community. Head Start and even some of our churches have had programs in the past and they were of great benefit. Anytime a child has a learning opportunity before they come to school – building a platform and understanding of kindergarten skills – it helps them be successful as they move forward through the educational experience. There are skills such as socialization in a formal learning environment that are not necessarily things you can measure, but you have to have mastery of them to be successful in a school setting,” Barber said.

“We do have a program, and expanding that would definitely be a benefit to our future student body. We partner with Head Start, as well, and provide training to their teachers and provide transitional services for the students. We’re already benefiting from pre-k programs that are doing a wonderful job,” Barber said.

Talladega City Schools Superintendent Douglas Campbell said his system would definitely welcome more pre-k funding.

“It gives students an opportunity to engage in readiness skills and get them prepared to come to school,” Campbell said.

In Talladega, 18 4-year-olds attend the First Class program each day at Houston. It offers ABCs, 1-2-3s, creative arts, science and environmental education, technology, social and emotional development, approaches to learning, and physical health and development, Campbell said.

And Laros said there are always 20 to 30 families on a waiting list to enter the class.

A pilot program in place at Munford Elementary blends youngsters with special needs and those without, said Karen Culver, elementary coordinator of instruction for the Talladega County Board of Education. “It has been a huge success, and the parents are loving it.”

Culver said, “Oral language development would be a huge benefit for children. A lot of our children come into kindergarten who have been to day care, from families who could afford to pay for it. This would open doors for other children, and help parents in the long run to not have that burden of cost.

“When children get that jumpstart into their education, they will perform better. They’re more prepared," Culver said. "Standards have changed and school is more stringent these days. To give them the jumpstart in a pre-k program would help them be more successful to get more education, graduate, get good jobs and come back into the community and contribute to our local economy.”

Sylacauga City Schools Superintendent Dr. Todd Freeman said leveling the playing field is an important benefit of pre-kindergarten.

“From the national level to the state and local levels, in recent years we’ve seen a surge of research to support the value of pre-k programs,” he said.

“Many students who show up in kindergarten are already functionally behind their peers, and much of that has to do with their exposure to literacy and other things prior to kindergarten. You’ll find in many cases, students who come from a poverty situation are already behind academically when they get to kindergarten. Preschools have helped narrow the achievement gap of those who might’ve been underserved prior to kindergarten. That research has gotten the attention of a lot of officials at the state, national and local levels.”

Freeman believes state and national education leaders would ultimately like to have quality pre-kindergarten programs available to any American family who wants to use it.

“The research supports it 100 percent. But it’s a very large endeavor financially, and many local systems can’t afford to have a program.”

He said a program at Indian Valley Elementary School uses federal funding to provide pre-kindergarten to students with special needs.

“That’s part of federal legislation. Pre-k is expanding, and there has been a wave of growth at all levels,” Freeman said.

Sylacauga recently completed a strategic planning process that listed expanding preschool among the system’s goals.

And while he would welcome increased state funding for pre-k, Freeman is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Whether it can be financed at the state level remains to be seen. We will have to watch the legislative process to see if it will. Typically the budget the governor proposes has a lot of changes by the time the Legislature approves it.”

Contact Bill Kimber at bkimber@dailyhome.com.