Alabama Aims For Huge Pre-K Enrollment Boost By 2025, Despite Pandemic Setback
Alabama Aims for Huge Pre-K Enrollment Boost by 2025, Despite Pandemic Setback
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Over the last 15 years, an unexpected location has become a thriving hub for prekindergarten education in the United States.
Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program is a standout in the southern region, where preschool education investment has historically been lacking. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the state remains committed to investing sufficient funds in the program, aiming to make it accessible to 70 percent of four-year-olds in the state by 2025. With an enrollment of nearly 25,000 children for the 2021-22 school year, Alabama currently serves 44 percent of eligible four-year-olds.
Alabama is among the few states to meet all 10 benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. In fact, the state holds the distinction of meeting these standards for 15 consecutive years. This achievement sets Alabama apart and demonstrates its dedication to preschool education.
To reach its goal of serving 70 percent of four-year-olds, Alabama will need to expand its capacity significantly. However, experts believe that the program’s gradual growth is a key factor in its success, as it has allowed for careful evaluation and refinement. By starting with a small number of preschool teachers and students, Alabama was able to identify effective strategies before expanding the program. Stephen Pruitt, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, commends this approach, which has produced positive long-term outcomes compared to other programs with mixed results.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Alabama in 2020 revealed that students enrolled in the First Class preschool program performed better in reading and math tests beyond elementary school compared to their peers. Mississippi, the leader in fourth-grade reading progress nationwide, also adopted a similar slow and steady approach, taking over a decade to achieve its success. Alabama’s methodical expansion of pre-K education follows a similar playbook.
The Alabama First Class Pre-K program began as a pilot initiative in 2001, providing state grants to both public and private preschool classrooms. Initially named Alabama Voluntary Pre-K, the program had 57 classrooms and less than 2 percent enrollment among four-year-olds by 2005. The National Institute for Early Education Research recognized the program in 2006 for meeting all 10 benchmarks, including small class sizes and requiring pre-K teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree.
Allison Muhlendorf, the president of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, describes pre-K as a bipartisan priority in Alabama that garners national recognition. It stands as one of the state’s few areas of praise.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed additional challenges to the program, but it is not the first time it has faced obstacles. After the Great Recession, enrollment stagnated for five years, with only 6 percent of the state’s four-year-olds participating in First Class. Despite Alabama being ranked in the top 10 states for preschool funding, achieving the targeted enrollment of over 40,000 students outlined in the Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s 10-year plan seemed daunting. The plan recommended increasing preschool spending gradually each year until it reached $200 million, ensuring the program’s quality.
When the pandemic struck, Alabama approved a $4 million increase for the program, a significant decrease from the originally proposed $25 million by the state’s governor. However, funding rebounded in 2021, similar to how it recovered after the recession, with the approval of $24.4 million for the program. Barbara Cooper, the secretary of Alabama’s Department of Early Childhood Education, attributes the program’s resilience to bipartisan support. Funding has consistently increased under the leadership of four governors, including one Democrat and three Republicans.
For LaKesha Petty, the Alabama First Class program enabled her to expand her small childcare center, Pamper Me Nursery, in Birmingham in 2019. The grant she received allowed her to increase her preschool enrollment from 10 to 18 children, hire a class aide, and purchase curriculum materials.
Despite the fact that there are states with higher enrollment rates for 4-year-olds, the achievements of Alabama are remarkable, according to Steven Barnett, the co-director and founder of NIEER. In Florida, 72 percent of 4-year-olds participated in the state-funded preschool program in 2020, but Alabama spends more than double the amount per student and has achieved more of NIEER’s success benchmarks.
Barnett argues that in Alabama, about 40 percent of children have access to a program that has long-term effects, whereas in many other states, there is no case to be made for such access.
Alabama’s progress has been slow but steady, and despite setbacks caused by the pandemic, they are in a favorable position, according to Barnett.
He believes that Alabama will eventually reach a 70 or 80 percent enrollment rate, but emphasizes the importance of doing it right and taking the necessary time to achieve this goal.
This article originally appeared in The Hechinger Report and is published here in collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Exchange.
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