Gov. Robert Bentley was in Mobile Wednesday to discuss how a $1.5 million grant through his office would be raising the standards of several local Pre-K programs.

Since taking office 2010, Bentley has placed an emphasis on early childhood education by establishing a specific department overseeing the initiative within his own cabinet and has motivated the legislature to significantly increase allocations to Pre-K programs throughout the state.

In 2005, Alabama’s Education Trust Fund put just $4 million toward those programs. In the current budget, the state’s appropriation was closer to $49 million, and Bentley said now, he wants to double down.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 9.29.51 AM “I’m going to put a little pressure on legislators and try to double the amount I’ve been putting into Pre-K,” Bentley said during a news conference at Eichold-Mertz magnet school. “I can’t always guarantee it will stay there, but as I present my budgets, I will continue to put my emphasis on early childhood education.”

In May, Bentley announced his office would be awarding 200 grants to early childhood education programs across the state. In Mobile, about $1.5 million is being used to help enhance the existing Pre-K program available to students in the Mobile County Public School System.

Currently, the district serves about 1,000 4-year-olds through 54 Pre-K units at 27 elementary schools and the Just 4 Developmental Laboratory in the Toulminville community.

While the grant will not increase the number of children who can participate, it will enhance the quality of the programs through First Class Pre-K — a grant program funded by the state and other private partners.

These new funds will help the MCPSS Pre-K units meet certain high-quality standards recognized by the National Institute for Early Education Research by providing new furniture and classroom items, teacher training lower student-to-teacher ratios.

It will also provide around 42 scholarships for teachers and teaching assistants to complete certification courses and professional development.

“There are a lot of things we try in government and in education, and some things work better than others,” Bentley said. “With the limited amount of money we have available for education, I believe (we) should put that money in the programs that prove they work.”

Bentley said high-quality Pre-K programs have proven themselves as effective, and he’s not alone. Currently, Alabama is one of 44 states funding early childhood programs, and several organizations like the Alabama School Readiness Alliance (ASRA) are working to increase access to every child.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 9.33.38 AM “Ninety percent of a child’s brain is developed in the first five years of life,” Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of the ASRA told Lagniappe. “When children don’t have high-quality early childhood development with a parent or in a classroom with their peers, they enter school behind and it’s very hard for them to catch up.”

The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama conducted study following First Class Pre-K program participants through the sixth grade, and it found they were outperforming their peers in reading and mathematics at every grade level.

According to Muhlendorf, First Class Pre-K is helping to close the achievement gap between low-income students and those on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum — a 29-percent reduction among participants tracked through the sixth grade.

Bentley also added that among First Class students surveyed, 100 percent were proficient in reading by the third grade, something he called “major” for a state where only 35 percent of third graders in the general population met those proficiency standards in 2014.

Haley Baker, a Pre-K teacher at Eichold-Mertz magnet school, said the students in her classroom are building a foundation in reading, math and science, but they’re also developing the social skills needed to be successful as a student.

“I’ve noticed that several of the children who started out kind of quiet and shy, they’re opening up,” Baker said. “They’re learning about how to work cooperatively with their friends because they develop a lot of social and emotional skills at this age as well.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 9.33.54 AM As Bentley toured a Pre-K classroom at the school, children were playing with clay, blocks, dolls and all sorts of other items at various centers, but Baker said they were doing much more than having fun. She said those “hands-on” activities give children an opportunity to reinforce the subjects they’re being taught.

The setup of those classrooms is one of the more expensive requirements of meeting the standards of a “high-quality” Pre-K program, and it’s also where the bulk of the First Class grant is being spent in Mobile. Approximately $1 million will cover the cost of new furniture and other items that are expected to be in place in all 54 Pre-K units by Dec. 18.

During his visit, Bentley called MCPSS a “leader of education” in the state of Alabama, but as was mentioned above, the MCPSS grant is only one of 200 being awarded this year alone. As of today, there are 658 First Class Pre-K units in Alabama, which is a long way from the eight established in the program’s first year.

However, not just public schools can apply for the grants — the funding is also accessible to private operations like faith-based child care centers, private schools and community organizations that meet the necessary requirements.

In Mobile County, there are approximately 17 private Pre-K programs that have received First Class funding, and Bentley encouraged any program that meets the standards to apply.

“If we complete what I want to complete, by the time I leave office every parent in this state will have the ability to send their children to one of these programs,” Bentley said. “I will say this now. If every child in Alabama goes through a First Class Pre-K program, 15 years from now, this will be a very different state. I truly believe that.”