Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program to add at least 100 classrooms

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program to add at least 100 classrooms
Like other schools participating in Alabama's First Class Pre-K program, Birmimgham's Glen Iris Elementary School sees big gains among students. (Nik Layman/Alabama NewsCenter)

Alabama will add at least 100 new pre-kindergarten classrooms next school year, thanks to a $13 million expansion in state funding approved this morning by the Legislature.

Both chambers agreed to an Education Trust Fund Budget compromise after a conference committee worked out differences between the Senate- and House-passed versions. The bill, which includes a total of $77.5 million for the state’s high-quality First Class Pre-K program, now goes to Gov. Kay Ivey for signature.

“We already have 21,000 students pre-registered and on waiting lists for pre-K, and even with this expansion, we only have enough money to serve 16,500 of those,” said Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance. “That means at least 4,500 4-year-olds will be turned away. So we know the demand is there.”

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program, which began during the 2000-01 school year with eight classrooms, has been ranked No. 1 in the country for quality by the National Institute for Early Education Research for the past decade. NIEER annually ranks pre-K programs for quality, and Alabama’s program has consistently met or exceeded all 10 NIEER benchmarks.

A problem has been that because of lack of funding, only a fraction of the state’s 4-year-olds have access to the program. That is starting to change as expansions to the program have been announced the past few years.

There are 816 First Class Pre-K classrooms across the state. That is enough for only 25 percent of 4-year-olds statewide. The $13 million increase in state funding – combined with funding from year three of Alabama’s four-year federal Preschool Development Grant – should serve an additional 3 to 5 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, Muhlendorf said.

“We know our children are not graduating ready for college and careers, and those gaps begin very early in childhood,” she said. “Research shows that First Class Pre-K almost totally closes those achievement gaps, at least in early childhood.”

About 50 percent of students who begin the pre-K program test behind where they should be at 4 years old, she said. By the end of the school year, 96 percent of them test ready to enter kindergarten.

The Alabama School Readiness Alliance and its Pre-K Task Force are leading a campaign to encourage the Legislature to fully fund pre-K by the 2022-23 school year. ASRA estimates that $144 million is needed annually to serve every family in Alabama that wants to enroll a child.

In a joint statement, the co-chairs of the Pre-K Task Force, Bob Powers and Mike Luce, applauded legislators for prioritizing money in this year’s budget to expand access to the program.

“The budget approved today moves Alabama closer to our goal of fully funding high-quality, voluntary pre-K by the 2022-23 school year,” they said in the statement. “We thank the Legislature for once again making First Class Pre-K a priority.”

The state’s pre-K program is administered by the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education through a competitive grants process. Classrooms are in public schools, child-care centers, faith-based centers, Head Start programs and other preschool settings. Where the additional classrooms will be placed has not yet been announced, but education officials are expected to announce them in the next few weeks.

“We are very grateful that state legislators prioritized funding to expand Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program in this year’s budget resolution,” said Jeana Ross, secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. “This increase will allow our department to continue to support our existing classrooms and teachers, as well as provide new grants to help serve more children.”


RESOURCES:

What is high-quality pre-K? http://www.alabamaschoolreadiness.org/what-is-high-quality-pre-k/

Find a First Class Pre-K site: http://www.alabamaschoolreadiness.org/find-a-first-class-pre-k-site/

Parents can sign up here for parent-specific pre-K advocacy alerts and resources: http://www.alavoices.org/parent_voices_for_prek

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