“The most important part of a child’s education is a good, solid foundation, and our First Class voluntary pre-K program provides that,” Bentley said in a press release. “All children, regardless of where they live, deserve the opportunity to excel. A high-quality, voluntary pre-K program improves their chances of success in K through 12 school. This is a wise investment that will benefit children and families throughout Alabama.”
Wednesday’s announcement included a $120,000 grant awarded to the Kitty Stone Pre-K program in Jacksonville. Christy Hamilton, principal of Kitty Stone Elementary School, said the school launched a part-time, pilot pre-K program this past year. The board of education voted to expand the program beginning this August but did not think it would fulfill the increasing demand for pre-K education.
“We saw a need in Jacksonville,” Hamilton said. “There are very limited pre-K spots here for kids.”
Hamilton led the committee that applied for the First Class grant to fund an additional pre-K program. The grant money will go toward classroom materials, furniture, a playground and a full-time teacher whom the board of education hopes to hire in the next month. Hamilton says there is already a waiting list to be in the program.
“We have been taking names since Christmas,” said Hamilton. “The grant requires that you have 18 children, preferably nine girls and nine boys. If we got more people than we have slots, they will be selected lottery style.”
After the first year of operation, Kitty Stone will be eligible to apply for more grants depending on performance and fulfillment of grant requirements.
Bentley’s announcement also included four $45,000 Excellence Grants awarded to Head Start pre-K programs in Roanoke, Lincoln, Hobson City and in the Norwood community of Anniston.
The four programs operate under Cheaha Regional Head Start, which serves Talladega, Clay, Coosa, Randolph, Calhoun and Cleburne counties.
Excellence Grants are awarded to pre-K programs that meet standards as determined by the Department of Children’s Affairs’ Office of School Readiness.
Dora Jones, program director for Cheaha Regional Head Start, said the organization has six programs that now receive state funding through Excellence Grants. The other two Head Start locations are in Talladega and Lineville.
Jones said the grant allows the programs to accept students with family incomes slightly above the limit for typical Head Start programs.
“We felt really blessed that we were able to get it,” she said.
Jones stressed that those students will also be eligible for all the additional services offered through Head Start, such as dental care, physicals and eye exams.
Jones said the grants will mean a great deal to the program, which operates with an $8 million annual budget. But she could not say how the funds will affect enrollment in the programs, explaining there is still too much uncertainty concerning across-the-board federal cuts known as sequestration.
Alabama is currently one of only four states in the country to meet all 10 quality benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research. The benchmarks include teacher training, staff-child ratios, support services and more.
Alabama’s First Class pre-kindergarten program has now met all of these benchmarks for seven years in a row.
But despite the state’s recognition for quality in pre-K programs, only six percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds are currently enrolled in First Class. The state also ranks 33rd in access among the 40 states that offer pre-K programs.
In May, the Alabama Legislature approved more than $9 million in additional voluntary pre-K funding to expand access in the state.
The grants announced Wednesday represent approximately $7.26 million of the additional funding and will be divided among 93 sites across the state. Local match funding of 25 percent will be required. According to a press release, the remaining state funding will be allocated to additional sites based on various needs in the near future.
Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_Star.