They set off in tandem, lock-stepping like segments of a drunken centipede,
with one following so closely behind the other, a hiccup could cause a pileup.
"Wait," calls a student-teacher, trotting forth to bring the children back to
the starting point. "One at a time."
They fidget, adjust the bean bags atop their heads.
The centipede lurches forth.
"Wait. You need to learn to wait your turn."
Taking turns and following instructions are the lessons this morning for the
oldest class at the Jacksonville State University Child Development Center at
McClellan. The 4- and 5-year-old students, who'll next year be heading to the
Big School, as little ones call it, are taking a break from pre-K studies to get
a little physical activity.
And to learn the art of the turn.
It's an intangible skill, one that doesn't show up on assessment tests. But
veteran teachers in the elementary school ranks say patience and the ability to
follow instructions are fundamental to learning. They're also fundamental to
what children across Alabama learn in accredited, structured pre-kindergarten
This legislative session, Gov. Bob Riley and early childhood education
advocates are banking on Alabama expanding its current program, Alabama First
Class Pre-K. The program, which is scattered throughout the state, ranks high in
national experts' opinions for the results it's wrought.
Students who've come through it are less likely to drop out. They're more
likely to enter first grade and kindergarten reading, writing and knowing the
dynamics of a classroom.
Nationally, studies have shown that, as pre-K graduates move into middle
school, their grades are consistently higher, their test scores are higher and
the "educational experience" they and their families receive is better than
children who have no structured pre-school.
Even in Alabama, where increasing funding for education frequently is smacked
down by voters, few teachers, day-care operators or parents would say the
program doesn't succeed in getting children ready for school. What remains to be
seen is whether the Legislature will pay to expand the program to reach 21,000
4-year-olds by 2011.
To start that process, Riley wants the Legislature to increase funding for
the program from $10 million to $30 million and expand the number of students
from 2,358 to 7,600. This comes at the same time the state's money experts are
estimating a sluggish economy will lead the Legislature to cut education
spending from $6.7 billion this year to about $6.2 billion next year.
Alabama established the Office of School Readiness in 1999. Within a year, it
was funding pilot programs in 59 classrooms. This year, it costs $10 million to
expand the program to 131 classrooms and 2,300 children.
The goal in Riley's latest plan is to build a network of public and private
partnerships that, he hopes, will reach middle-income children whose families
can't afford private pre-school programs but are too wealthy to qualify for Head
Start, the federal readiness program for impoverished children.
"Middle-income families are the ones who are getting left out," says Libby
Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a non-partisan group in Washington,
that advocates for pre-school readiness programs. "This isn't necessarily about
lower-income homes, or a poverty issue. The gap between middle-income children
and upper-income children is pretty steep.
"Those opportunities are simply not there for them."
Riley's plan would expand pre-K by offering $45,000 grants for private day
cares and pre-schools. The schools, in turn, would teach a state-approved
program; any church-based pre-schools would have to stick to that curriculum.
The program would allow centers to make up any expenses by charging up to $300
per month to families, based on the families' income and ability to pay.
By expanding the program to private day-care providers, the state hopes to
reach children whose parents work, but whose child-care arrangements don't
contain any structured learning time. Many of those children stay with
neighbors, grandparents, in-home day-care providers and a hodgepodge of
arrangements that are all too familiar to working families whose paychecks
barely cover the baby-sitter's bill.
The program's supporters say, correctly, that $300 per month is the average
cost of child care in Alabama. However, in Calhoun County, pre-K programs with
experienced, degree-holding teachers run at least $100 per week, roughly $400
per month. Where families would make up that $100 difference remains to be seen.
"There is no way to recoup fully the cost of providing a quality program,"
says Patricia Hobbs, director of JSU's McClellan center. "I think parents
understand how expensive it is, but I'm not sure the general public does."
Breaking down the center's $110 weekly fee equals about $2.31 per hour on a
parent's 40-hour work week. That is typical in Calhoun County for a tested
curriculum that is geared to prepare children for kindergarten or first grade.
"JSU really considers this a community service," says Hobbs, who has been at
the center 18 months and serves 106 children. Before that, she was in
Washington, D.C., working for the U.S. Department of Education, and that
followed a career as a fifth-grade teacher.
"I've seen education reforms come and go. One thing that is clear is that
children do better in school when they've been in a program that gets them ready
That sentiment is echoed by her fellow teachers at the public and private
school level. However, Alabama voters — and legislators — have not shown
themselves keen to increase funding for pre-K.
Riley, who was not available to comment for this story, and pre-K proponents
have taken another route to convincing them: selling early childhood education
as an economic development model.
"This is the smartest investment we as a state can make in the future of our
children, and these organizations understand that," Riley said last month. "They
are all together on this, because they truly care about the quality of education
and the future of Alabama's children."
Around the country, more than 70 state and local economic development teams
have formed to study child care, pre-K and the demand for early childhood
education programs, according to a 2007 Cornell University report. The teams,
made up of economic developers, child-care providers and public officials, have
looked at pre-K's impact. What they've found, beyond the jobs created in a
growing child-care industry, is that a dollar spent on pre-K stimulates the same
amount or more economic activity than a dollar spent in K-12 education.
Also, by expanding the field of quality pre-K programs — and helping families
pay for them — communities and states increase the number of parents who can
enter the work force, the Cornell researchers found. Some 30 percent of parents
in one survey said their child-care arrangements had been interrupted in the
Many of those parents had opted out of the work force's professional ranks,
not because they couldn't keep a job, but because they couldn't afford — or find
— a pre-school that met their standards.
"For a long time, economists have thought of education as an investment
portfolio like any other," says Clive Belfield, an economics professor at Queens
College at the City University of New York. "Looking at it as an investment, you
ask what is the return on the children themselves, the return to the state on
"You look at the return on what sort of society is it if we have all kids
ready for school?"
What his and others' research has shown is that, in educational-funding
terms, the biggest bang for the buck comes at the pre-school level. They're
still murky on why that is, but the effect of pre-K is now backed by four
decades of data showing:
• Students from pre-K follow instructions better, on average. That helps
classroom cooperation, which allows teachers in elementary grades to spend more
time teaching and less time fussing.
• They also are more familiar with materials and tools that are common in
modern classrooms. They come to school on the first day ready to read, write,
color and cut. That means they can fully participate in lessons and activities
from the first day and are not playing catch-up to their peers.
• The children's basic academic engine has been turned on. They come in
accustomed to such things as story time — and sitting to hear someone read or
waiting to ask a question. They know that books and magazines have information
in them, and they ask questions based on that information.
• They develop skills that have practical applications beyond a classroom.
"It's not just something for low-income children," Belfield says, after
ticking off his list. "So many things need those practical applications, whether
it's orienting their way through the health-care system or getting a specialized
• Their parents are accustomed to seeing their children learn. That means
from the early grades, parents will be more likely to take an interest in their
children's school work. Research shows, Belfield says, that getting parents
involved early means they'll be on hand in the middle-school years. A parent who
hasn't been engaged from their child's first class is less likely to step in and
help when they're teenagers.
• Pre-K graduates are less likely to drop out, which, over time, reduces the
strain on the justice system. A black boy who has dropped out of high school has
about a 100 percent chance of being incarcerated at some time, and a white boy
has about a 20 percent chance, Belfield says.
"If you think to yourself, 'I don't care if those other kids drop out,' well,
you do care if you're paying $40,000 a year for incarceration," says Belfield,
who has a 3-year-old daughter.
They'll also care if their child is in a class with children who don't know
how to behave, says Becki Etheridge, a retired elementary school teacher who now
works part-time at JSU's McClellan center.
"They have to have some structure," Etheridge says a few minutes before
starting a music class for toddlers. "Kindergarten and first-grade teachers have
so much to do these days."
Etheridge is qualified to teach the Alabama Reading Initiative and
incorporates that into her reading lessons with the older children. She says
early literacy programs have proven their worth. They've shown that getting
children to learn while they're young leads to teenagers who learn and finish
"I believe they are capable of learning so much," she says. "We just have to
be there to help them and get them started."
Some 15 years ago, Georgia started its Bright From the Start program in much
the way Alabama addressed school readiness. The first class is just now set to
graduate from college, and Georgia has learned a few new lessons every year
since, says Mary Mazarky, the assistant administrator for Georgia's program.
She says Riley is correct in wanting to expand the program slowly and to tap
private providers — and not rely just on programs run through public school. For
one thing, school systems run out of space. For another, parents want a choice.
They need to be able to coordinate child-care pick-up and drop-off, and public
schools simply do not have the flexibility of private day cares and pre-schools,
most of which stay open for school-mandated holidays, such as President's Day
and Martin Luther King Day.
That sounds like a small thing, but when parents come to picking a provider,
convenience and cost often outweigh quality, says Doggett of the national pre-K
group. Indeed, the Cornell study found that, when it comes to assessing the
quality of curriculum in a pre-K, parents aren't the best of judges.
That's where having a monitored, accredited curriculum ensures that students
entering school know the same things, Mazarky says.
"Georgia has invested heavily in this," she says, pointing out that the
$4,000 it takes to serve each of the 79,000 participating pre-K students in
Georgia is from the state's lottery. "It's incredibly successful, and we're
looking to build those bridges."
About Laura Tutor
Laura Tutor is the features editor for The Star.
See story at The Anniston Star's website: www.annistonstar.com