Senator visits Clanton Elementary Pre-K Academy

Published 2:18 pm Tuesday, November 29, 2016

By JOYANNA LOVE/ Senior Staff Writer

CLANTON — Alabama state Senator Cam Ward and preschool advocates visited the First Class Pre-K program classrooms at Clanton Elementary School Tuesday.

Members of the Department of Early Childhood Education and the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K task force toured the classes while discussing the need for more funding for the program with Ward.

Allison Muhlendorf , executive director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance,  said the ultimate goal is to have preschool in Alabama fully funded by 2023.

Fully funded is defined by the organization as 70 percent of Alabama’s four year olds having the option to attend preschool. Muhlendorf said this would require $144 million annually in state funding.

The program is funded at $64.5 million annually at this point. Thomas Rains of A+ Education Partnership, a member of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, said he was glad to see the state funding for pre-K continue to increase.

Ward said he has seen first hand the positive impact preschool makes on a child.

“I am a huge Pre-K advocate. My daughter has autism. She was diagnosed when she was three, so those three years before she started school were so important,” Ward said.

Attending preschool was a major part of her being ready for kindergarten.

Ward said awareness needs to be raised of the benefits of preschool for all children. He said Senators who never had children in preschool need to know what the First Class Pre-K program does, so that they will support continued funding.

“We need to do more to fund it,” Ward said. “The funding has gone up gradually each time. With the education funding growing the way it is, I expect to see more funding next time around.”

The Clanton preschool began with one classroom about 10 years ago, Principal Rebecca Threlekeld said.

“We have grown to five, and we want to grow more,” Threlekeld said. “We bring in right about 240 kindergartners ever year, so obviously we have 240 four year olds that could be in pre-K and we can only serve 90.”

Muhlendorf said an average of 25 percent of four year olds have the chance to attend First Class Pre-K.

“It is a program we see benefits in K-5 because children are in this program, they enter kindergarten … much more ready to do the concepts that are covered in the K-5 classrooms,” Threlekeld said. “It evens the playing field for children entering K-5 and it helps them all be ready.”

A local 25 percent match through local funding, whether from donors or from local government is also required.

“As long as there is a waiting list you don’t have enough funding,” Ward said.

Muhlendorf said Alabama First Class pre-K classes are typically 18 students with two teachers.

“The lead teacher has to have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development, and the assistant teacher has to have a CDA, which is a child development credential … These are experts, who really know how to help the child,” Muhlendorf said.

Learning reading, math and social skills through playing is the focus in each classroom.

Teacher Pam Teel gave the example children deciding they want to build a stable “because the reindeer have to live somewhere.”

“So they have to think about what they are doing and then they will wind up counting the animals and that’s where we learn,” Teel said.

Another aspect of the program is the support from the Department of Early Childhood education through prekindergarten coaches that teachers can contact with any concerns or issues that may come up.

After touring the Clanton First Class Pre-K Academy, ASRA Pre-K task force members met at the Jefferson State Community College to discuss goals for the coming years and the advocacy strategy.

Visits like the one made with Ward are an example of this advocacy.

“For 10 years in a row, Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program, which is managed by the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, has been ranked the number one pre-kindergarten program in the country for quality,” according to a press release.