July 20, 2008

Board Asks School District to Make Room for All of the County’s at-Risk 4-Year-Olds

By Jonathan Cribbs, The Beaufort Gazette, S.C.

Jul. 20--The Beaufort County Board of Education has asked the school district to figure out how to provide pre-K programming for all at-risk 4-year-olds.

About 130 children are on waiting lists to join pre-K classes at district schools, according to district data. The majority of them, 73, are in northern Beaufort County. Board members and district officials have said pre-K education is crucial to preparing low-income students for kindergarten. Low-income students are more likely to fall behind or drop out as they continue in school if they don't receive early intervention.

Classroom space has been the primary inhibitor to providing all eligible students, district officials said. The state government limits each pre-K classroom to 20 students, and at many schools there isn't a classroom to spare, said Kay Newsome, director of readiness. Coosa Elementary School, for instance, is already struggling with 10 trailers holding an overflow of students, not to mention 10 students on the pre-K waiting list.

Beaufort Elementary School, which is roughly half empty, has four students on the waiting list simply because they do not constitute enough to create a separate class, Newsome said. Now, the district is going to have to come up with alternative plans to meet the board's request.

"We could get very creative," Newsome said. "What other places in our community would house a program? We can't build that many classrooms that quickly to meet that need."

The district may consider combining some schools' pre-K programs into schools whose enrollments fall way below their capacities, she said. Other options might include using other organization's facilities, such as churches or the United Way.

"The school district alone probably is not going to be able to do it," Newsome said. "We needed the board to vocalize that this is a priority. I'm delighted that this has surfaced, and we're going to make a move on it."

The district can serve 685 pre-K students and has accepted 663 students for the programs with open spaces scattered at various schools. Whale Branch Elementary School also has 16 3-year-olds eligible for pre-K, but superintendent Valerie Truesdale has decided it best to partner with local agencies, such as Head Start, to handle 3-year-old pre-K, Newsome said. Three-year-olds are scattered at schools countywide.

Head Start is a federal program that provides education, health, nutrition and parental involvement services to low-income children and their families. The organization has a joint program between Beaufort and Jasper counties in Beaufort.

Readying the district's pre-K students will require more than the district's efforts, school board Chairman Fred Washington Jr. said.

"We need to make sure we're working with our early childhood providers," he said. "Let's be a little more comprehensive in our approach and not put the full burden on the public school system to do that."

Among the preliminary recommendations the district made to the board:

-- Replicate the model on St. Helena Island with Head Start serving 3-year-olds.

-- Assist the Head Start program at Shanklin Elementary by finding a new location for the program's 3-year-olds for the 2009-10 school year so the school can serve more 4-year-olds.

-- Establish an additional pre-K program at Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center to serve more 4-year-olds for the 2009-10 school year.

-- Investigate the feasibility of creating an early childhood center in downtown Beaufort to serve 4-year-olds from Beaufort, Mossy Oaks and Port Royal elementary schools.

-- Complete a countywide, demographic study using live birth and school district enrollment data to determine the need for 4-year-old programs by location.

The demographic study should be done soon, Newsome said, and the district will have a plan back to the school board before the next budget season in January.

The pre-K program is paid for with a combination of state, federal and local dollars, and the district spends more than $1 million yearly on the program, Newsome said. Cost, however, shouldn't be a concern for taxpayers, board member Earl Campbell said.

"We keep talking about student performance, and many of our children -- I won't say a large percentage -- have no educational background at all," he said. "In the long run it will benefit us in the county as taxpayers. We will not have as many drop-outs. I do not think we'd have some of the discipline problems we have if we can get to some of those students at that (early) age."

Pre-kindergarten is a S.C. Department of Education child development program that began in 1994 for 3- and 4-year-old children unprepared for school. -- The district must notify the public of availability at each school, including enrollment criteria such as age requirements, legal and health documentation and an in-person screening. -- Programs must operate five days a week, 180 days a year with a minimum of 2.5 hours of instructional time. -- Classrooms must be staffed by one certified teacher and one qualified teacher assistant for a maximum of 20 children. -- State money is provided yearly based on a formula utilizing first grade readiness data. Additional money comes from local districts. At minimum, 10 percent of the total budget must be used for supplies, materials and equipment. -- The state tracks children in the program through third grade to make sure it's working. -- A prescribed, research-based early childhood curriculum must be used in classrooms divided into learning centers with age-appropriate learning materials. SOURCE: Beaufort County School District


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