After more than a decade ranked among the top state-funded prekindergarten programs, Alabama’s First Class pre-k is continuing its expansion and adding 122 new classrooms this fall, including five in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

First Class Pre-K, a voluntary program for 4-year-olds, is funded through state grants appropriated in the Education Trust Fund (ETF). Classrooms can be located in public or private schools as well as in child care, faith-based or Head Start centers throughout Alabama.

The program is managed by the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, organized under the governor’s office, and the First Class designation indicates a classroom has met “high-quality standards” recognized by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

For instance, classes in First Class cannot exceed 18 students and a required staff-to-child ratio of 1 to 9 means each classroom uses as a teacher as well as an assistant. All First Class teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree, while assistants must have at least a Child Development Associate credential or an equivalent certification.

Former Gov. Robert Bentley often pushed for the expansion of the First Class program, which saw its funding increase substantially during his time in office. However, Gov. Kay Ivey appears to share predecessors’ zeal for growing parents’ access to high-quality pre-K options in Alabama.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey recently extended grant funding to 122 “high-quality” pre-k locations throughout the state.

“A high-quality childhood education program has long-lasting benefits on our society as a whole,” Ivey said in a statement last month. “Investment in our people through education, no matter at what level, is an investment in economic development.”

Ivey made those comments shortly after the National Institute for Early Education Research’s 2016 State of Preschool Yearbook named First Class among the nation’s top state-funded pre-K programs in the country for the 11th straight year.

In 2005, the ETF only allocated $4 million to pre-K programs, but that’s changed drastically. This year, lawmakers put up more than $77 million — a $13 million increase from 2017 that will ultimately fund and staff 122 additional units this fall.

Alabama’s First Class pre-k is continuing its expansion, adding 122 new classrooms this fall including five in Mobile and Baldwin counties. (Jason Johnson)

By August, there will be 938 First Class pre-K classrooms serving roughly 16,884 students statewide, which is equal to 28 percent of all the 4-year-olds in the state of Alabama. Among them, will be programs launching at Fairhope/Point Clear Rotary Youth Program in Fairhope, Chickasaw Elementary, the Starlight pre-K center, Elsie Collier Elementary and Robert E. Lee Elementary in Satsuma.

Paula Reese, who oversees the prekindergarten programs in the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS), said the newly funded unit at Collier would be a welcome addition to the existing First Class classrooms as well as other pre-K offerings throughout the district.

“We have a great need for pre-K programs in this area, and the farther west you go, the greater that need is because of the the population,” Reese said. “Currently, we have 58 pre-K classrooms, and of those, eight are First-Class. The addition of Collier will be the ninth.”

Though the state’s push for pre-K is somewhat of a new trend, MCPSS has been providing pre-K education for nearly three decades using federal funding for special education and low-income students through its inclusion units and pre-K programs offered at schools receiving Title 1 funds.

The Mobile County Public School System.

In an inclusion unit, special-needs students are paired with others from the general population who act as “peer role models.” While the special-needs students are enrolled at no cost, Reese said the units “don’t have funding for typical children,” whose parents can pay up to $65 per week for tuition in some cases.

First Class programs, however, are free to all students regardless of income or ability, though entry is based on a random selection similar to that used in magnet programs. Altogether, Reese said, MCPSS has the capacity for 1,062 4-year-olds, but that’s less than a fifth of the 5,400 kindergartners entering the system in an average year.

Currently, Reese said, there are more than 2,500 MCPSS students who went through the prescreening and got approved for the program, only to be placed on a waiting list until more funding or space became available. Since registration ended in April, Reese estimates 200 more parents have called asking about the program, sometimes dozens in a single day.

“The state has to provide for every child to attend kindergarten, but with pre-K, we haven’t gotten there,” Reese said. “I do foresee that coming, but right now it’s a funding issue.”

While the consistently increased appropriations pre-K has seen since 2012 have given supporters hope, the nonprofit Alabama School Readiness Alliance estimates it would take a level funding of $144 million before every family would have an option to voluntarily enroll their child.

However, Reese believes the results speak for themselves, telling Lagniappe there is already data showing “high-quality” pre-K programs aren’t only effective in preparing children for kindergarten, but also have lasting effects down the road — making students “less likely to repeat a grade” and “more likely to graduate from high school and graduate on time.”

In the meantime, Reese said MCPSS is looking for ways to spread its existing resources and use a combination of its three existing programs to offer the option to as many interested families as possible.

Sometimes that means working with pre-K units not part of MCPSS by referring students placed on waiting lists to facilities within the district. In other cases, it’s allowing programs like Head Start in Grand Bay to use facilities such as Breitling Elementary School for classroom space.

Reese said those are efforts to “ensure as many children as possible” can get access to “quality pre-K” programming, which she encouraged all parents of young children to take advantage of.

“We are really grateful to our school board and superintendent, who for years have believed in pre-K and supported this program,” Reese said. “I also can’t say enough about the state’s support and the funds being put in it. It’s nice Alabama is number one in something other than football.”