Every workday, parents bring their four-year-olds to Pruitt's pre-kindergarten classroom, which is housed at Piedmont Elementary School. The class is never larger than 18 kids, and there are always two instructors — one with a four-year degree in education.
Tuition is on a sliding scale; the less you have, the less you pay.
“We've got applicants from all income levels,” Pruitt said. “It's hard to find a program like this. There's a lot of demand.”
Pruitt, the assistant principal at Piedmont Elementary, is also director of Piedmont's only state-funded pre-kindergarten program — a preschool class where four-year-olds learn the sounds that letters make, basic math skills and dozens of other skills they'll need in kindergarten. It's not technically part of the K-12 school system, but funds from the state education budget keep it running.
Programs like Piedmont's pre-K have become commonplace in many other states, but Alabama has only 215 of these classrooms, serving just 3,800 kids statewide. That's about one in every 16 Alabama four-year-olds, according to the National Institution for Early Education Research.
A group of educators and state officials is hoping to change that.
The Alabama Board of Education last week voted to ask legislators for an additional $5 million to supplement the $19 million per year the state already pays for pre-K. State Superintendent Tommy Bice called the $5 million "a stake in the ground," implying that more, bigger requests would come later. And a coalition of pre-K advocates and business leaders plans to hold a press conference Wednesday asking for an increase of $12.5 million per year over the next 10 years — enough to eventually provide pre-K education to every four-year-old in the state.
It may sound expensive, but pre-K advocates say it's something Alabama can't afford not to do.
Never held a pencil
Pre-K programs are actually a huge cost-saver, Allison de la Torre claims.
"It's a no-brainer," said de la Torre, director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, a group that campaigns for pre-K funding.
The idea behind pre-K is simple. There's a mound of research to show that when kids have been taught basic academic skills — like the notion that reading goes left to right, or the knack for spotting words that rhyme — before kindergarten, they'll do better in school. And kids who don't pick up those skills may struggle to keep up, not just in kindergarten, but for years afterward.
And there are plenty of kids who struggle.
"Some kids come to kindergarten having never held a pencil," de la Torre said. "Some come having never been read to."
Education experts believe that lag in pre-K readiness plays a big role in the "achievement gap" — the gulf in academic scores that separates black students from white students, and rich students from poor students. People in poverty, the theory goes, have less time and fewer resources to ready their kids for school.
But there's little room for middle-income parents to feel smug.
"School readiness is a problem that affects middle-class families," de la Torre said. She said there's also a gap in achievement between high-income and middle-income families.
So what if the state set up a school grade below kindergarten, to teach those skills to every child? That's exactly what a number of states have done over the past decade. According to the Pew Center for the States, funding for pre-K programs nationwide has almost doubled in the last 10 years, with 24 percent of kids now able to enter a state-funded pre-K system. In some states, such as Oklahoma and Florida, pre-K is available (but not mandatory) for all 4-year-olds.
Studies of programs in six states have shown pre-K programs boosting students' school performance years down the road. In Louisiana, kids who went through pre-K were 36 percent less likely to be held back in kindergarten and half as likely to enter special education. In Michigan, former pre-K kids were one-third less likely to repeat a grade, all the way up to eighth grade.
It does save money, de la Torre said.
"In the short term, you have the benefit of fewer children needing special education or remediation," she said. In the long term, she said, a decreased dropout rate would lead to even bigger savings.
"Studies show a return on investment of anywhere from 2-to-1 to 17-to-1," she said.
That 17-to-1 figure comes from an study of a pre-K program begun in 1967 — a study that factored in the cost of incarcerating kids who might drop out of school and go on to commit crimes. Studies closer to the 2-to-1 end looked mostly at the impact of pre-K students going on to get good jobs.
The best, out of reach
Alabama's pre-K program is either the best in the nation, or near the bottom, depending on how you look at it.
The National Institute for Early Education Research ranked Alabama's program among the best in terms of the services it provides to the students who can get in. The college-educated teachers, a good student-teacher ratio and high academic standards helped get it there.
Access to the program is a different matter. Only 6 percent of the state's four-year-olds are in the program. In Florida, where free pre-K is available to every family, three out of every four kids are enrolled. In fairness, 11 states have no pre-K program at all, but Alabama ranks near the bottom in accessibility among the states that do.
That gap is evident in the program Revonda Pruitt runs in Piedmont. There, the kids learn their letters and numbers on iPads, and beginning- and end-of-year tests show they're mastering the material. But there are always more potential students than the class can take.
"We admit them on a lottery system," she said.
Jan Hume, who runs the statewide program, said no one knows how many kids in Alabama are going without any pre-K education at all.
"With early childhood education, it's really hard to tell, because it's such a mixed sector," said Hume, director of the state's Office of School Readiness. Some kids are in church day cares, some at in-home day cares, and some at home. It's hard to tell what sort of education those kids are getting.
"What we do know is that there's demand," she said. "There are waiting lists at every site."
Educators always wanted a bigger program than this. But like so many pre-recession dreams, statewide pre-K got put on indefinite hold after 2008.
"The growth stopped after the recession hit, but I'm happy to say we didn't get cut," she said.
Hume is hoping for an increase in the next budget year, and she's not alone. De la Torre said her organization, the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, plans a mid-week news conference to ask legislators to increase the program's annual funding by $125 million over the next decade.
It sounds bold, after more than one round of state budget-slashing. But there's evidence that, after years of austerity, educators are hoping for more money in coming years.
In a budget request released last week, the state school board projected that Alabama's education budget would grow to $4.1 billion in 2014, more than $400 million above the current figure.
Hume thinks that as long as the economy keeps growing, more funding for pre-K can be mixed into the budget.
Hume said she makes her annual budget request directly to the office of Gov. Robert Bentley, which writes a figure into the governor's proposed budget.
When asked about Bentley's support for pre-K, spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis came back with a glowing endorsement of the program.
"Alabama has one of the best pre-K programs in the nation," she said. "It gives students a firm foundation for success as they move into the K-12 system."
But there was no mention of a dollar figure.
"It's too early for the governor to come out with specific budget numbers," she said.
Hume said she's "optimistic" about the chances for an increase next year. And over the long term, she said, building the program just makes economic sense.
"The workforce of 15 or 20 years from now is in pre-K today — or should be," she said.
Capitol and statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star