Expanding First Class Pre-K: A Bessemer day care joins Alabama’s lauded preschool program. Thousands more 4-year-olds statewide also stand to benefit from expansion.

New learning materials arrived recently for the First Class Pre-K classroom at Trinity Love Center. (Source: United Way of Central Alabama.)

When school started in Bessemer Aug. 12, a faith-based child care center, Trinity Love Center, had something many Alabama public schools don’t yet have — a First Class Pre-K.

Trinity Love Center is one of nearly 200 new classrooms to have the pre-kindergarten program, cited as best in the nation, after the Alabama Legislature this year passed a major funding increase — $26.8 million, bringing the total budget to $122.8 million.

“I researched Bessemer for child care centers and I knew we didn’t have that anywhere in Bessemer or even Brighton,” said Latonya Bender, director of Trinity. “This is going to be great for the downtown Bessemer area.”

Trinity was awarded a $120,000 grant, which will help Bender take her center to a different level.

“When we were there the other day, they were actually receiving all of the supplies, the beautiful toys and classroom equipment for a state-of-the-art First Class Pre-K classroom as part of that $120,000 grant that pays for the teacher, the assistant teacher, and in recruiting teachers with those credentials and the salaries that are required by the program, as well,” said Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of  the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.

The overall funding increase in Alabama will greatly expand the reach of the First Class Pre-K program, she said. That translates to serving 3,000 more 4-year-olds. “And that’s going to bring the percentage of children served statewide to close to 40 percent,” she said. The state still was adding classrooms just before the start of school, so final numbers will be reported in the fall, she said.

Alabama’s voluntary pre-K program is expected to reach 21,636 children in the 2019-2020 school year, with more than 1,202 classrooms statewide, representatives for Gov. Kay Ivey’s office said recently. Jeana Ross, secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, told BirminghamWatch earlier that reaching 70 percent of all the state’s 4 -year-olds with First Class Pre-K is a long-term goal.

Program Guided by Research

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program, which was implemented in 2000, has enjoyed strong political support, including from Ivey. First Class Pre-K operates on a standard related to 15 elements recognized as essential for a high-quality educational program, governing everything from classroom size to political support, from curriculum to teacher compensation, from instructional standards to accountability measures.

First Class Pre-K has been shown to improve outlooks for students who participate in it. A long-term study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and UAB found that “regardless of income, ZIP code or demographics, children who attended First Class Pre-K when they were 4 were doing better than their peers on state reading and math exams throughout their educational career,” Muhlendorf said.

“The study has now gone through the 7th grade and found much higher rates of students being proficient in reading and math … . They also found that students who had attended First Class Pre-K had less disciplinary infractions in school, and significantly less. And that that they have better attendance than their peers, and they’re also less likely to require special education.

“That’s a really important one to continue to track because it really follows the science of early childhood,” Muhlendorf noted. “When you set up a child for success when their brain is developing in early childhood, you can catch and address some of those developmental delays before they turn into special education issues. The earlier that you can catch delays, the more you can address them and help a child get back on track to develop appropriately so that they can be mainstreamed and not need special education. So, we know that to be in line with the national research. But it’s exciting to see that play out here in Alabama. Now we just have to keep expanding access to this program.”

The program is funded by the state’s Education Trust Fund and the Preschool Development Grant, administered through the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education Office of School Readiness. Administrators of any preschool wanting the programs to be First Class Pre-K programs have to apply for a grant and agree to a set of rigorous standards.

Alabama’s pre-K program in 2018-2019 was ranked as best in the nation by the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University.

The Alabama School Readiness Alliance works with a number of other organizations to help private care centers elevate their programs and become eligible for First Class Pre-K grants, Muhlendorf said.

“I’ve been working alongside several partners in the Bold Goals Early Learning Action Network to help child care centers in Jefferson County to apply for and receive First Class Pre-K grants so that they can be providers of the program locally,” she said. “And that is a very important initiative that we were celebrating the other day because it has helped 11 child care centers over the past three years in Jefferson County come to the table and successfully secure First Class Pre-K grants, so that they can increase the quality of what they’re already offering 4-year-olds in their centers.

“So just as First Class Pre-K expands in public schools and in Head Start centers, we want to see it expand in child care centers where children of working families already are during the day.”

One “Tough” Journey 

Bender’s example demonstrates the benefits and the challenges of getting a First Class Pre-K grant, Muhlendorf said.

“Her journey is a really important and telling one and representative of what it’s like for a child care center that’s trying to do the right things for kids, not bringing in that much money from parents, trying to balance the books, while also offering high-quality care. And it’s really tough,” she said.

Bender said she saw the benefits of First Class Pre-K, which she refers to as OSR (from the Office of School Readiness), when her son went through a program at Hueytown Elementary.

“He developed so much, especially socially, mentally. It was just a great program,” she said. “It worked for my son, so I knew it would work for everybody and was what was needed for the community.”

Trinity Love Center Director Latonya Bender talks about the benefit of having an Alabama First Class Pre-K grant at her center. With her are (from left) state Rep. Louise Alexander, Childcare Resources Executive Director Joan Wright (chairwoman of Bold Goals Early Learning Action Network), United Way of Greater Birmingham President Drew Langloh, and Alabama School Readiness Executive Director Allison Muhlendorf. (Source: United Way of Central Alabama)

Bender began doing research on how to improve Trinity Love Center, which she had opened in 2018 in a Brighton building where her grandmother had operated a day care for years. Bender learned about the available grants, but she only had three days before the grant application deadline to apply.

She was turned down. She applied again the following year, working with the organization Childcare Resources and visiting various First Class Pre-K programs to learn more. She even obtained another building for Trinity Love Center in downtown Bessemer and started renovating it.

She became obsessed with getting the grant. “That’s all I’d eat and, like, sleep, was just OSR. I would just think about it all the time,” she said. “And I didn’t get it that (second) year and I was devastated,” she said.

But she didn’t give up. She went to workshops, studied the guidelines, kept working on her grant application. She was still obsessed — so much so that after an emergency surgery, her doctor found her working on the grant at the hospital.

“The doctor told me, ‘Put it down for a minute,’” she recalled.

Still, her determination paid off that time, and she got the grant.

“It was just like a dream come true,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but it was well worth it. And when they picked our center, I was just so excited because I knew it was greatly needed for the Bessemer area.”

Trinity Love Center is at 1908 8th Ave. in Bessemer, in the building Bender renovated. There are five teachers and 30 students at the peak attendance. Bender said she hopes the high standard of the pre-K classroom will help raise the standards of her entire center.

In some ways, her ambitions reflect those of advocates who want to see First Class Pre-K expand across the state. The recent funding increase is pushing it in that direction, Muhlendorf said.

‘Bold Goals’ Pushing Pre-K Expansion

The Bold Goals Early Learning Action Network Expanding Public Pre-K Project is moving beyond working in Jefferson County, as it has over the past three years, to working in Blount, Shelby, St. Clair and Walker Counties as well.

“So they’re actively recruiting child care centers to be part of the next cohort, which officially kicks off Tuesday, Sept. 10, with a workshop at Childcare Resources,” she said.

The effort has gained momentum. During the first year, only one child care center was able to get a grant. “The next year, 2018… we were able to get three child care centers,” Muhlendorf said. This year, seven child care centers were able to get grants, she said.

“Next year, we’re hoping for double that. Especially with expanding to all the other counties.” According to Muhlendorf, in Jefferson County 28% of 4-year-olds are expected to be served by First Class Pre-K, with 15% for Blount, 19% for Shelby and 32% for St. Clair. She did not have the estimated numbers for Walker County yet.

Faith-based centers in Alabama used to be able to operate under an exemption. But to get state First Class Pre-K funding, they have to meet the same standards as public school-affiliated programs.

“They’re not as used to applying for grants, going through that oversight … . It was getting close to around half of child care centers in Alabama were actually not even licensed because of a faith-based exemption. So, imagine them not even having to be licensed to having to go through the health and safety inspection,” Muhlendorf said.

“You know, child care really runs the gamut from very low-quality, low-training places that are not high-quality places to put children, to very high-quality centers. But there are very few incentives for child care to improve. The cost of high-quality care is a lot higher than what parents can afford. So child care is really stuck trying to make ends meet and often offering low-quality care.

“This grant is really helpful in helping child care and improving the 4-year-old classroom… . The teacher in that 4-year-old classroom receives a coach who is there throughout the year, mentoring that teacher, helping that teacher identify professional development opportunities. And when that classroom is in a child care center, that coach can really support the whole center. And they often do,” Muhlendorf said.

The coach will “identify professional development opportunities for all the staff and that pre-K teacher acts like a master teacher. So, it really doesn’t just improve the quality of (the) 4-year-olds room in the child care center, but it really raises the bar for the whole center.”

That’s just what Bender hopes will happen at Trinity, and if other day cares follow suit, she’s convinced they’ll see the benefits.

“It might be scary at first because some people don’t like change, but the change is for the better. It will make your center, overall, the best. … It’s a challenge, but it will be so worth it.”