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Preparing the Way with Pre-K


‘This isn’t child care – this is learning readiness

Summer 2012

By David Zaslawsky

The significance and the impact of a thriving pre-kindergarten program is not lost on Montgomery Education Foundation Executive Director Ann Sikes.

“The ability to change a child’s or student’s outcome becomes progressively less successful and more expensive the older they are and the further they are along in school,” she said.

“The superintendent absolutely gets and understands that she can invest a little bit now or a lot later,” Sikes said, referring to Montgomery Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Thompson. “If we can give children good starts then so many of those things that become necessary later on aren’t needed. Children come to school ready to learn and are prepared so they have the abilities to grow successfully on a level with their peers.”

 Ann Sikes, executive director of the Montgomery Education FoundationSikes called the Montgomery Public Schools’ pre-K program “a marvelous acknowledgement of our system’s understanding the importance of starting early.”

There were just a handful of classrooms for the pre-K children in the beginning, but that has grown to 23 classrooms in Thompson’s brief three years and most are now clustered at McKee Elementary School, which had been closed during a district-wide consolidation. That number may revert back to 21 unless there is funding from the Office of School Readiness.

Sikes, whose grass-roots organization is an advocate for public schools and has conducted the comprehensive Believe It campaign to improve public education, said that “4-year-olds are receiving incredibly great pre-K experiences. This isn’t child care – this is learning readiness.”

Learning in pre-K is so critical it impacts graduation rates. “It’s an investment in preventing dropouts and people don’t make that connection,” Thompson said. She said if a child comes to pre-K with skills they will likely be a reader by the end of second grade. “If you aren’t reading by the end of second grade, we know you’re going to have problems,” Thompson said. Those students are at least one-third less likely to graduate, according to Thompson. “That’s why you invest in that foundation.”

Although the state does not require that children enroll in school until age 7, Sikes said that Alabama does have “high-quality pre-K standards.” The Legislature has passed a bill that would require children to start school at age 6. That bill is awaiting the governor’s signature to become law.

The Montgomery Public Schools partnered with several organizations including Head Start and Success By 6 as well as received funding from the Office of School Readiness and the district itself.

“The biggest difference between private and public schools is that we take everybody,” said Tom Salter, senior communications officer for MPS. “We have children who come to us in kindergarten or pre-K who read. We also have students who have never held a book. We have a variety of readiness for school. What the pre-K

program does is try to bring those students up to where they are ready to go into kindergarten so they are ready to learn.”

Although the number of children participating in the district’s pre-K program “is a drop in the bucket,” Sikes said – there were 363 this year – “it’s a pretty good drop.”

Salter said there are more than 2,700 children in kindergarten, but with limited funding it is difficult to reach more pre-K children. “The need is great, but the resources are lacking,” Salter said.

Actually, Montgomery is reaching twice as many children as the state average for pre-K. About 10 percent of all pre-school children in Montgomery, including those in private schools, attend pre-K programs. The percentage for Montgomery Public Schools is between 12 and 14 percent, which Thompson said “is pretty significant.”