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Few pre-K slots remain in Ga. despite Obama’s push to expand

Program's success becomes a burden, but goal remains 'quality,' official says

POSTED: February 23, 2013 12:32 a.m.

President Barack Obama recently announced a new pre-kindergarten initiative that would add thousands of new children to Georgia classrooms, but pre-K slots in Georgia are largely filled and the state currently has a waiting list of about 8,000.

Obama has proposed a federal-state partnership to expand high-quality preschool education to low-and-moderate income families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. Currently, about 84,000 mostly low-income kids are enrolled in Georgia’s pre-K program, which is paid for by state lottery funds.

The state doesn’t have an estimate of how many students the federal initiative would add, said Reg Griffin, chief communications officer for the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.

Obama recognized Georgia’s commitment to preschool education with a visit to Decatur right after his State of the Union address.

“Studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own,” Obama said during his State of the Union speech. “We know this works. So let’s do what works.”

Georgia is proud of its 20 years of investing in early education and would like to share its experience and knowledge with the nation, Griffin said.

“We are very interested in learning more about the president’s proposal,” Griffin said. “Ultimately, given our successful history in this area, we would like to see the federal government provide maximum flexibility to us in implementing any changes in policy.”

Few pre-K slots are currently available in Hall County, according to the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. Applications of 4-year-olds wanting to enroll in state paid for pre-K for the fall will start being accepted March 1, according to staff at Ninth District Opportunity, a private nonprofit. There are public and private pay pre-kindergarten available in Hall County, including Head Start, state-funded pre-K and private pre-K.

The state of Georgia recently put back 10 days of pre-K class after cutting it due to the economic downturn. The state spent $299 million in lottery funds in the fiscal year of 2013, which ends in June, and is expected to spend $312 million in fiscal 2014. However, it is not adding more preschool slots. Griffin said the state is focused on quality, not quantity.

“The key to the success of the program is that children are served in quality programs so we are always looking to build capacity statewide in the type of environments that promote child outcomes,” Griffin said.

Obama also wants to enhance Early Head Start, a federally-funded preschool program that serves ages 3-5 and targets students at or below the federal poverty level. The 2012 poverty level for a family of four was $23,050. Two hundred percent of the poverty level could equal about $47,000 in annual income for a family of four.

Kay Laws, Head Start and pre-K director for Ninth Opportunity, said the curriculum for both programs were about the same. The goal is to expose kids early to early math, science, language and literacy. Among the skills taught is for children to recognize their names and the letters used to spell them.

Some Hall County preschool programs, such as the one at World Language Academy, are dual-immersion and teach both English and Spanish. It’s paid for through lottery funds.

Children that attend these programs are more likely to do well in school, find good jobs and succeed in their careers than those who don’t, according to the White House website.

“They’re like sponges,” Griffin said.

Georgia has one of the few state-funded universal prekindergarten programs in the nation. A child’s most significant brain development occurs from birth to age 5, initial findings of a statewide evaluation stated.


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