Preschool children at Friendship Learning Center in Buford squealed with delight as a giant blue cat named Pete walked through the doors.
“Pete the Cat,” a character from a series of popular children’s books, was not the only special guest to the pre-K program Monday. Gov. Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal stopped by to read “Pete the Cat and the New Guy” to a class.
The governor and first lady’s visit marked the beginning of Georgia Pre-K Week. Georgia pre-K programs across the state will receive visits from state leaders, who will have the opportunity to see what the programs are doing firsthand.
“We were so pleased to represent pre-K for the state with the kickoff event this morning,” said Kasandra McDaniel, owner of Friendship Learning Center. “It was an honor.”
In August, Deal announced his intention to devote $50 million back to the Georgia Pre-K Program, after years of cuts to teacher pay and increases in class size. This year, the program serves approximately 84,000 students across the state.
“We do intend to put additional revenue into the pre-K program,” Deal told the press at Friendship Learning Center on Monday. “We know that it is one of the most important elements in increasing the educational level of people in our state. We believe we can reduce the class size back to 20, which is our primary goal, and then of course to raise the salaries for the teachers and assistant teachers in our programs.”
Deal said he knows raising salaries will be necessary to keep and attract the best teachers to the program.
Pam Forrester, director of Gainesville Academy, said teachers are an essential part of a successful pre-K program.
“Parent involvement is a big plus,” she said. “But the teachers that care about the kids and work with them, and the teachers that want to have fun, that want to make pre-K a fun learning environment, they make all the difference.”
McDaniel said pre-K gives children an advantage going into kindergarten and the rest of their lives.
“It’s night and day, the difference between the children who have attended an early childhood program and those who haven’t,” McDaniel said. “About 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs in the first five years of a child’s life, so it gives a great advantage.”
Forrester said pre-K is a more flexible, adaptive classroom setting.
“They have the freedom to explore and investigate their environment, as well as getting prepped and ready for kindergarten,” Forrester said. “It’s a great kickoff for them getting into the school routine.”
Sandra Deal, a former educator, said she knows well the importance of providing students with access to preschool.
“If we can teach children young how joyful reading is, they will want to learn to read,” she said. “That’s what I try to encourage. We’ve learned that children from poverty oftentimes come to school with a smaller vocabulary than those who have been enrolled in school. And that slows them down.”
Her husband agreed.
“We know early learning is one of the most important ingredients in improving the educational skills of our children,” he said. “Our program has been a great success in Georgia. We are acknowledged as having one of the best pre-K programs in the country. We want to continue that record and to improve.”