Pre-Kindergarten Program Uncertain
Norma Jannone greets her students with a smile as they gather on the carpeted floor in her classroom to talk about the day’s weather.
It’s a “lamb-y” March morning at Southern Pines Primary School, and the children have a busy day ahead of them.
In a school year that has blown in more like a lion for the NC Pre-Kindergarten Program, Jannone is one of eight teachers, along with 16 teacher assistants, in the Moore County school system working to prepare 4-year-olds for their first day of kindergarten.
Jannone is one of many waiting to see what changes the N.C. General Assembly could implement for the program in its upcoming May session after a year’s worth of struggles over funding pre-k between the legislature, Gov. Beverly Perdue and state courts.
In February, the House Early Childhood Education Committee circulated a proposal to privatize the state-funded NC Pre-K program and lower the eligibility for free tuition. Currently, families can qualify by earning 75 percent or below the state median income, making the maximum annual income for a family of four $50,975. Children with identified special needs are also able to enroll in the program for free.
Ultimately, the committee backed down from the privatization measure and issued a revised recommendation suggesting that services be offered in settings that include private childcare centers and public schools.
The recommendation also leaves it to the General Assembly to decide aspects of eligibility.
Evelyn Seidenberg, specialist for preschool programs with the Moore County school system, says the five sites in the system are more than just day cares. Students receive individualized instruction that ties into the state’s elementary curriculum from licensed teachers, while also learning how to act in a large group setting like a classroom.
“Our responsibility is educating the child in addition to watching for the child’s safety,” she said.
She worries that tighter eligibility restrictions could lengthen the waiting lists of families hoping to receive one of 120 slots allotted in the Moore County program.
Program Changes Made
The program, previously known as the More at Four Pre-Kindergarten Program, was created in 2001 to help prepare all 4-year-olds for school by providing a strong academic and social foundation before beginning kindergarten.
Last July, the General Assembly cut funding for the program by 20 percent, changed the name to NC Pre-K and transferred the program’s oversight to the Division of Child Development and Early Education under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The cut resulted in a loss of roughly 7,300 slots statewide, reducing the number of children enrolled from 32,000 to 24,700 this school year. Approximately 67,000 4-year-olds in the state qualify for the program.
Soon after the changes, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled that the state is obligated by its constitution to provide the services to all at-risk 4-year-olds, and in February, Gov. Perdue added 2,000 slots to the program using federal funds.
In Moore County, the program here lost 12 slots, reducing the number of student spots from 54 to 42 in sites located at Aberdeen Primary School, Robbins Elementary School, Southern Pines Primary School, Vass-Lakeview Elementary School, and West End Elementary School.
But Seidenberg said the program has pooled its funding streams to stretch resources and maintain the same number of students without reducing overall enrollment.
“It hurt us much more financially,” she said. “But we were able to keep the kids.”
Slots are filled based on three student groups: at-risk, special needs, and tuition-based enrollment. Each classroom, led by a teacher and two teacher assistants, is “blended’ with 15 students representing each of these groups.
Another issue facing the program is that, in more rural parts of the county, NC Pre-K classrooms are the only option for poor families with limited transportation options and few private child care centers locally.
Robbins Elementary School Principal Heather Seawell sees significant demand for the services.
“We have enough children on the waiting list to open at least three more classes,” she said. “There’s no HeadStart. Most of the child care is small and family-run in homes. There are two daycare centers up here.”
Pre-K teacher LaSanya Moseley has seen the program pay off for many students in her seven years at Robbins, including her own daughter.
“It’s amazing to see the progress [students have] made and to know that in March, we still have a few months to work on that,” she said. “Without the program, they would have just gone straight into kindergarten and not had the opportunity to develop the taking turns, the sharing, the speech and all those other skills that are important in addition to the academic stuff.”
Moseley gestures to the child quietly coloring a sheet of paper next to her at the table. Last August, he threw tantrums when new people walked into the room, attempted to bite and kick others, and had a hard time being in a group setting.
“When he’s done here,” Moseley said, “we’ve got that foundation built, so all [kindergarten teachers] have to do is just start building off it.”
Defining ‘At Risk’
At the center of the NC Pre-K discussion is the issue of poverty and whether children from poor families have an unfair advantage entering kindergarten without a pre-K option.
Results released by the U.S. Census Bureau last fall showed that Moore County’s poverty rate increased from 7.7 percent to 18.9 percent over the last three years.
The results, paired with a 2010 report on poverty from the Moore County League of Women Voters saying that 18.5 percent of children under age 18 are living in poverty, paints a tough picture for many local families.
Norma Jannone sees these faces of poverty every day in her classroom, and she worries that the potential changes could bar the students who need the most help.
“We live in an area where we have a lot of low-income families even though we’re in an affluent county,” she said. “We have a high influx of children coming in who live maybe at the poverty level, and most have not ever been in a structured group setting with other children. The parents may or may not have books available to children at home, and they may not have the educational background children would need to begin some of the readiness skills to be prepared for school such as pre-reading, concepts and numbers — even colors.
“There are several high-rated tuition-based pre-schools in this county that are available. But if [families are] in the very low income, they may not seek those services because it may be difficult for them.”
Having worked in a private child care facility, Jannone said that private providers can’t always offer the same services students receive at Southern Pines Primary.
“It’s difficult to hire a certified teacher within the budget of a private setting,” she said. ‘It is difficult to have the support services on a consistent basis in a private setting. It can be done, but it is difficult to find the facilities that are willing to go the extra mile to keep that five-star rating [required by NC Pre-K].”
One of her students, Jonathan Garcia, is not only receiving the basic skills for kindergarten, he’s also learning English.
“The benefit is that before he starts kindergarten, he already knows some English,” said his mother, Ciynta Sanchez. “He can talk to the teachers and tell them what he wants. [At home] I didn’t want to confuse him. I want him to learn English, but I want him to have his first language be Spanish because my parents, they don’t speak English.”
Growing up in California, Sanchez remembers beginning school not knowing English. She says she was lucky that the language came to her quickly in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
“For me, it was harder because I wasn’t in a program like this,” she said. “I entered kindergarten, and I had to learn English. It was a lot of pressure. With [Jonathan], I see he’s developing his English, and he’s learning new things. I’ve seen the progress in him.”
If the program were not available, Sanchez said her family would have few options offering the same affordable quality of education. Her husband works and takes the family’s only car during the day, while Sanchez stays home to care for her 2-year-old son, Joel, and 1-year-old niece.
“I basically wouldn’t have an option,” she said. “Because in another program, you have to pay, which is hard for us. This program is free. I know the Hispanic community would need it, especially the parents that don’t know English, and their children need to learn before getting to kindergarten.”
As the school system prepares for next year, Seidenberg said her department is trying not to get hung up on the uncertainty.
“Unfortunately, it’s a lot of ‘who knows?’” she said. “The best we can do is move forward at this time, but it can still change.”
The system does not plan on letting families know whether or not their children are enrolled until June with hopes that the General Assembly will have given school systems more direction by then. But the school system also plans to open a new site at Carthage Elementary School next year, which will add another 15 slots to the program.
At Southern Pines Primary, Jannone continues to work with her students on the basic skills they will need next year, but at the end of each day, regardless of what lies ahead, her goal is always to inspire her students.
“I think front and foremost is to teach them to love school,” she said. “If we can influence that and make them want to come to school every day and want to learn how to read, then we’ve really done our job.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at email@example.com.
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