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Georgia qualifies for early childhood education grant

Rating system, incentives and priority areas focus of the $50M

POSTED: January 9, 2014 12:56 a.m.

Georgia now has more than $50 million in the bank to promote and increase early childhood learning opportunities, with an overall goal of better preparing children for later academic success.

The state qualified for $51.7 million from the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, a competitive grant through federal departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, led by Commissioner Bobby Cagle, is the agency in charge of distributing the funds over the four-year grant period.

“(We’re) just getting a good project management plan in place,” Cagle said about the next steps. “For the next 90 days, the federal government allows us to develop detailed plans for how we’re going to implement what we said we would do in our grant application.”

There are four overall goals, he said, with the first tied to the department’s Quality Rated system, a three-star rating system for early learning and child care facilities.

Second, funds will be used on the workforce itself, including providing scholarships for people in the early education field.

“It’s (focused on) creating and expanding different educational opportunities and incentives for our workforce to increase their level of knowledge and skills,” he said. “It’s both the (day care) operators but primarily the teachers that work in this program. We’ll do things like provide very intensive training around how to implement our Georgia Early Learning and Development Standards.”

The funding, which has been in place since 2011 — Georgia is in the third round of grant recipients — is part of President Barack Obama’s Preschool for All proposal.

“I think what we know is that, very much, the quality of what a child receives in a classroom, in early education, is pretty much determined by the same things as what children get in K-12,” he said. “So (it’s about) the quality of the teacher, the kind of knowledge that they have about child development and the ability to deliver content that is age appropriate for these children.”

It remains unclear just how much, if any, of that funding will be used on a more local level, but the third goal of Cagle’s department is to distinguish “empowerment zones,” areas of high poverty and low test scores as opportunities to create initiatives in those locations that have demonstrated a need for more resources.

“We would invest more heavily in communities that have demonstrated need,” Cagle said. “We know that providing a good, high-quality early education will give children a better chance at reading at grade level by third grade, graduating high school and the potential of them to go to college.

“We know that we have areas that are struggling,” he added.

To fulfill this initiative, four areas of the state — which could be either individual counties or regions — will be identified as places to invest in more early education programs.

“The quality is lacking across the state in early education in many respects,” Cagle said. “But through looking at it over the last three years, the areas that are the poorest probably have the lowest level of quality. So we want to use this as an opportunity to see if we intensively invest in those areas, if we can raise the quality and have it sustained.”

He said the grant application is very much in line with a goal stated by Gov. Nathan Deal, who has said increasing the percentage of students reading on grade level by third grade is a “top priority” for his administration.

In 2011, the year Deal took office, the number of third-grade students meeting or exceeding standards in reading on the standardized Criterion-Reference Competency Tests was 90.9 percent. In 2013, it was 92.1 percent.

The final goal behind the grant funding is to better track data in holding early education programs accountable, as well as improvements through the years, with particular interest in how the Quality Rated programs prepare children for elementary school.

Cagle said his department will work closely with the state department of education to “retool” the Georgia Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills, an assessment program that gives kindergarten and first-grade teachers instructional information about incoming students.

The plan is to shift the process to get that data closer to the beginning of a student’s kindergarten year.
After this initial planning process, implementation should begin in June or July.

“We’re looking to probably start seeing the initial money go out to the initiatives that we proposed within about six months,” Cagle said.

Georgia is one of six states to receive the funding, a $280 million grant in total. Along with Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont, Georgia joins 14 other states that have received these federal funds since 2011.


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