55 New Classrooms Added to State’s Award-Winning Pre-K Program

Dr. Stephanie Parker begins the class day at Huffman Academy Pre-K by having the students fill in a sentence about the day Dec. 15, 2018. (Source: Julianna Hunter)

MONTGOMERY — Fifty-five new pre-K classrooms will be added in 25 counties this fall, Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education said Tuesday.

These additional classrooms expand access to the state’s award-winning First Class Pre-K program and are a result of the Legislature recently appropriating an additional $6 million to the department for the 2021 fiscal year.

“Alabama First Class Pre-K is a model of excellence in early learning for the nation,” Ivey said in a press release. “By adding 55 classrooms, we will ensure that 22,500 children will build a strong foundation for their educational journey. I applaud the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education for their uncompromising work in providing high quality early childhood education.”

The department received 163 new classroom applications and 123 of those met the qualifying criteria for funding. Ivey’s office said that the 68 eligible classrooms that can’t receive funding are now on a waitlist.

The new classrooms mean 110 additional teachers will be hired.

Currently, 22,500 children are being served in more than 1,250 classrooms statewide, serving 38% of 4-year olds in the state. Ivey’s office said this year’s increase is one step closer to reaching her goal of 40,000 students.

Around the region, Jefferson County added 11 classrooms, Shelby County added one classroom, and Walker County added four classrooms. No new pre-K classrooms were added in Tuscaloosa, Fayette, Pickens, Bibb, Hale, Perry, Greene or Sumter Counties.

A complete list of every state pre-K classroom is available on the department’s website.

Alabama’s pre-K program has been a priority for the state over multiple governors’ administrations beginning with former Gov. Bob Riley, who first pushed for expansion in 2007. The program has been ranked the nation’s highest for quality for 14 years straight by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“This important support for pre-K will keep many of our youngest learners from starting school already a year behind and keep educational inequities and achievement gaps from compounding in K-12,” Secretary of Early Childhood Education Jeana Ross said.

“We are appreciative of legislative leadership who have committed to further expanding pre-K with any identified additional funds.”

Ross told Alabama Daily News that before the pandemic the department was estimating 150 new classrooms would be created this year.

Ivey signed into law a record-breaking $7.2 billion education budget on Monday, which included a $6.95 million increase of the Department of Early Childhood Education and $6 million more for the pre-K program. While the program is receiving an increase in funding over the current year, it is about $20 million less than what was proposed before the coronavirus pandemic impacted state budgets.

Ross said the department has created a contingency plan if a resurgence in the virus comes in the fall, causing schools to close down again. She said it involves a coordinated effort with classroom teachers and parents to provide them with the best tools and resources for teaching their children.

“If we can get parents to understand that they really are their child’s first and most important teacher, and here is how we’re going to support you and help you in doing that,” Ross told ADN.

The department’s Born Ready program also is available with easily digestible lessons and study plans that parents can use with their children at home.

Ross said more than 20,000 Born Ready backpacks filled with supplies already have been delivered to every child participating in the state’s pre-K program.

The Department for Early Childhood Education’s website also has a list of resources that parents can use to assist in distance learning.

The federal CARES Act provided about $13 million in relief funds for the state’s Head Start program, which promotes school readiness for children from birth to age 5 and is run by the Department of Health and Human Services. There are no federal relief funds that go directly to Alabama’s pre-K program.

BirminghamWatch looked more deeply at Alabama’s pre-K program in a project last year:

First Class in More Than Name Only: Why Alabama’s Preschool Program Is Best in the Country on National Standards