More than 3,000 educators from across the state converged on Mobile last week for a professional development conference as part of Alabama’s First Class, the top state-funded prekindergarten program in the country for more than a decade.

First Class is a voluntary program for 4-year-olds that meets a set of rigorous “high-quality standards” recognized by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

To be designated “First Class,” classrooms can’t exceed 18 students and must maintain a teacher-to-child ratio of 1 to 9. Teachers are also required to have a bachelor’s degree, and even assistants and substitutes must hold at least a Child Development Associate credential.

The program is managed by the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (ADECE) under the office of Gov. Kay Ivey. Classrooms are funded through state grants, though they can operate in public schools or through private and community organizations.

Tara Skiles is the professional development manager for ADECE and organized the conference in Mobile last week. Speaking to Lagniappe, she said 28 percent of 4-year-olds in Alabama have access to First Class pre-K, which has ballooned from just 6 percent in 2012.

“This is not just a program where kids come in and there’s no intentional work or no intentional play,” Skiles said. “We have teachers who plan out high-quality, engaging activities where children can learn and grow in all content areas — preparing them to be lifelong learners.”

Jeana Ross, secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, welcomed nearly 3,000 teachers to Alabama’s First Class Pre-K Conference, which was held last week in Mobile. (Photos Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education / Meg Javoronok).

Under Gov. Ivey, the state has continued to expand the number of First Class programs available to Alabama families. The governor has also made pre-K a primary component of her statewide “Strong Start, Strong Finish” education initiative announced in summer 2017.

In Mobile County, which has had both public and private pre-K programs for years, a number of classrooms have converted to meet the “First Class” designation in recent years. Today, there are 84 “First Class” units locally, 59 of which are located in the Mobile County Public School System.

In November, MCPSS added its latest First Class pre-K classroom at Collier Elementary School through a $130,000 state grant. Those monies were made available through a $13 million expansion approved by the state Legislature in 2017 that also funded similar programs in Fairhope, Chickasaw and Satsuma.

Misty Blackmon, southwest regional director for ADECE, said the Mobile area has been particularly aggressive in converting existing classrooms to “First Class” programs and said currently around 28 percent of the county’s 4-year-olds are being served.

She said pre-K programming is great educational foundation because of the brain development that occurs between the ages of 4 and 5. One of the topics covered in last week’s conference was the different ways teachers can engage children at that vital age in their development.

Early childhood educators from across the state were taught numerous block play activities to engage the hands, hearts and minds of young students during Alabama’s First Class Pre-K Conference last week. (Photos Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education / Meg Javoronok).

“What is developmentally appropriate for children is not something you will find on a worksheet because 4-year-old children just don’t work like that,” Blackmon said. “What’s developmentally appropriate for them is putting a manipulative — it’s a toy, but ‘manipulative’ is the educational word — in a child’s hands and letting him or her learn how to problem-solve with a real object.”

According to Blackmon, another big component of the First Class program is the daily interactions between teachers and their students. Providing individualized attention and educational planning is one reason the teacher-to-child ratio is kept so low.

Whether for social development, which occurs significantly during the pre-K years, or building a foundation for a student’s educational career, Blackmon said “a strong relationship with a teacher” is one of the biggest benefits to children enrolled in a First Class classroom.

“One of the primary goals is exposure to experiences, words, language, books, nursery rhymes — not through a device, but through another human being,” Blackmon said. “Another aspect is engaging parents so they understand what we do. There is a strong family component, and we work to educate families on what they can do to support that continued development at home.”