Wake school officials push expansion of preschool services

khui@newsobserver.comApril 6, 2014 

  • North Carolina’s preschool programs

    In North Carolina, more than 48,000 children are enrolled in taxpayer-funded prekindergarten programs.

    Much of the attention has been focused on the N.C. Pre-K Program, previously known as More at Four, which was created in 2004 as a state response to court rulings in the long-running Leandro school quality lawsuit brought by several poor counties. In the now 20-year-old case, courts had found that there is a constitutional right for all children to have a “sound, basic education.”

    The General Assembly approved new income eligibility rules and funding cuts that have reduced the number of children served from a high of 35,000 in 2010 to 26,617 this year.

    Supporters of expanding the N.C. Pre-K Program say that it should be open to all at-risk children, while conservative lawmakers say it should be offered to only the poorest of families. Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative Raleigh think tank, said it makes more sense for the state to target the program at low-income families.

    In addition to the N.C. Pre-K program, nearly 22,000 other students statewide get pre-K services from the Title I and special education programs. The Wake school system’s proposed prekindergarten expansion falls under this category.

    But Pam Dowdy, executive director of Wake County SmartStart, the local contractor for the N.C. Pre-K program, said any expansion of pre-K programs is welcome news.

    “There are tremendous needs,” she said. “There are children going into kindergarten who don’t have everything they need.”

    T. Keung Hui

— Preschool hasn’t just been getting Ryan Elstob ready for kindergarten, it’s been a life-changing experience for him and his family.

Ryan, who has a genetic disorder affecting his development, is in his second year at a prekindergarten program for special-education students at Hilburn Academy in North Raleigh. He’s accomplished milestones such as being able to use a walker, verbalizing his thoughts and interacting with other children, according to his mother, Johnna Elstob.

“He’s definitely made great progress,” she said. “He wouldn’t have made the gains without this program.”

Ryan is among the 2,075 students in prekindergarten programs run by the Wake County school system. School administrators hope to get additional funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners to expand the number of children receiving prekindergarten services.

Superintendent Jim Merrill wants to ask the commissioners for an overall $39 million increase in local funding, most of which would go toward giving all district employees a 3.5 percent pay raise. But about $1.5 million would go toward preschool efforts such as:

• Hiring staff to identify and assess which children need special education preschool services, $493,576.

• Hiring teachers and teacher assistants and expand the number of prekindergarten classrooms, $851,260.

• Hiring additional preschool special education teacher assistants, $148,908.

Karen Hamilton, Wake’s assistant superintendent of special education services, said the expansion of prekindergarten services fits with Merrill’s call for providing educational excellence in Wake County.

“There’s been a quantity of reports about the importance of having high-quality early education for children,” she said.

On Tuesday, the school board will review the budget and hold a public hearing on Merrill’s proposal.

Plan would add more than 200 slots

Of the school system’s 2,075 students in preschool programs, the majority – 1,400 – are children with learning disabilities who are getting services because of the federal requirement that special-education students get a “free appropriate public education.”

The remaining children – 675 – are in the district’s Title I prekindergarten program, with 822 more on a waiting list, according to Hamilton. Title I is a federal program targeted at helping low-income students.

If the funding is approved, Hamilton said they’ll be able to serve an additional 200 special-education students and add 40 slots to the Title I prekindergarten program.

Hamilton said prekindergarten is especially needed now because of the heightened focus on having children reach proficiency in reading by an early age.

At Hilburn, Jean Evans, the Title I prekindergarten teacher, said she’s seen significant progress among her students since the start of the school year. She said they’re no longer shy children who are uncomfortable with speaking English and working with peers and adults.

In addition to teaching socialization skills, Evans is also working on their academics, getting them used to things like rhyming words and looking through children’s books.

“What we’re trying to do is get the children ready to go to kindergarten and understand they have to work with others; and if they learn some academic skills, that’s great, too,” she said.

Evans said her students will be in a much better position for kindergarten than children who didn’t have any preschool time.

‘It’s what they deserve’

Amanda Hummel’s job getting her students ready for kindergarten is even harder as Hilburn’s prekindergarten special education teacher. In addition to learning disabilities, many of her students also have physical disabilities.

It’s a series of small gains, Hummel said, that try to get students to become more independent and know what they can do themselves. She said each day they try to celebrate the successes.

“We want to give them the least restrictive environment possible,” she said. “It’s what they deserve.”

Elstob, whose son Ryan is in Hummel’s class, admits she was nervous about the thought of her son going to kindergarten. But the whole prekindergarten experience – such as working with the school’s staff, getting used to crowds and making friends of his own – has made Ryan ready for the transition, she said.

“We are so grateful for this,” she said. “We’ve had a fabulous experience.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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