By Jeana Ross,Â secretary of theÂ Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education’s Office of School Readiness administers the state-funded First Class Pre-K program. Learn more atÂ children.alabama.gov.Â
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to join a member of the Alabama Legislature at a First Class Pre-K classroom in Montgomery. While this member was supportive of our efforts, he didn’t quite understand the urgency to offer high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten to more children.
As the secretary of theÂ Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, this wasn’t the first time that I was asked “why pre-k?”
According to noted economists and scholars, high-quality early education programs have the highest rate of return of any social investment, and their research shows that the benefits far outweigh program costs.
However, there is no better way to understand pre-k than to spend some time in a high quality classroom. So, I took the legislator on a field trip to see exactly why our state-funded, high quality program is so successful.
As we went into the classroom, the sounds of busy children could be heard. To the untrained eye, it may have appeared that children were “just playing around.” However, as this particular legislator quickly learned, what appeared to be playing with blocks was an intentional activity designed to help the students learn spatial thinking, math skills, team building and negotiation.
As we observed the classroom, I explained that the children were involved in strategically planned, individualized activities. In this First Class Pre-K classroom, rich opportunities to support reading, thinking, problem-solving and motor skills were everywhere.
The children quickly drew him into their activities and included him in building large block structures. The children showed him how to position the blocks, demonstrating the early skills that will support later learning in science, technology, engineering and math.Â
After we left the program, we talked about how this classroom is replicated in other public and private schools, child care facilities, Head Start programs and churches across the state. All First Class Pre-K classrooms are held to the same high expectations and guidelines for accountability and quality. All First Class lead teachers have at least a Bachelors degree and specialized training in child development, and all assistant teachers have a Child Development Associate credential or the equivalent. We provide 30 hours of professional development a year to our teachers to ensure they have knowledge of the latest research and best practices. Also, every classroom is regularly reviewed by a system of coaches and monitors that support the high-quality early learning environment and teaching practices.Â Programs that do not maintain the high expectation of accountability and quality are defunded.Â This is why Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program has earned the nation’s highest quality rating from the National Institute of Early Education Research for the past nine years.
We are starting to see the returns of high-quality pre-k in our own state, but only for a limited number of children that were lucky enough to attend.Â A recent study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama lookedÂ at the achievement of students through sixth grade and found that â€“ not surprisingly – those who had participated in First Class Pre-K as four-year-olds consistently outperformed their peers. PARCA also found that First Class Pre-K closed the achievement gap for participating low-income students by an average of 25 percent.
Imagine the impact that First Class would have on Alabama’s schools if all four-year-olds had access to the voluntary program. All children deserve the benefits of early learning experiences that have been proven to profoundly influence a child’s success in school and throughout life.
And, with the continued leadership of Governor Bentley and the help of the state legislature, all parents who want their children to participate will soon have that choice.
Secretary Ross is a featured participant in an online roundtable discussion about high-quality, voluntary pre-k in Alabama hosted byÂ AL.com, theÂ Alabama School Readiness AllianceÂ andÂ VOICES for Alabama ChildrenÂ on Tuesday, Oct. 13, Â at noon. Registration is free and open to the public. Join the conversation at:Â https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/7350128948335612418