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Future is cloudy as educators struggle to find funding

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

Early childhood education programs in Georgetown County are scrambling to find money.

After the state cut $200,000 from First Steps in 2009, the state Department of Social Services gave the organization a $200,000 grant for scholarships and the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation gave $200,000. Money funds the $2,600 annual scholarships and pays for Centers of Excellence and supplies.

With that money, Carol Daly, executive director of First Steps, said the nonprofit will be able to keep kids from “falling through the cracks.”

The money will pay for 102 scholarships until July 31 since the $200,000 comes from stimulus funds. After that, the nonprofit will need more money for scholarships for the 150 children on its waiting list.

Daly asked the Georgetown County League of Women Voters to help find money when she spoke to them this week.

“Groups like this are extremely important,” she said.

She believes they can raise community support for the program and aid in the nonprofit’s search for funds.

“We all realize the problem of public funding, but I just can’t imagine anything that’s worth more. We think early childhood education is key. If we don’t do something for these kids, we’ve lost our chance,” said Dwight Fee, president of the league.

Centers of Excellence teach children colors, shapes, letters and basic math skills before they get to first grade. There are six centers in the county, including Pawleys Island Civic Club Child Development Center.

“Model centers work when they have the right components that fit the demeanor of the county,” Daly said.

To describe the program’s success, she told a story.

“Children who have a love for learning constantly pursue education,” she said.

Not long ago, she was called to an elementary school to talk with a child about why he kept trying to run away from school. He was a former First Steps student, she said, and had just left the program. The boy, who kept climbing over the fence, stopped when Daly provided more books for his classroom. He’d read all of the other ones when he was at First Steps, she said.

The boy’s experience shows how much early childhood education can prepare a child for school, Daly told league members.

County children who go through First Steps do not need remediation and have not repeated a grade. They are also less likely to drop out of school, get pregnant at a young age or go to prison.

Teaching kids how to love learning at an early age will help them become productive citizens, Daly said.

“Without intervention, these children will continue the cycle of poverty,” said Madeleine Ritchie, a representative for the Bunnelle Foundation. “The work that was done and the progress made to improve school readiness will be lost.”

Ritchie attended the meeting because the foundation supports First Steps.

“Something’s got to give soon for us to save First Steps,” she said.

Their waiting lists are full, but they can’t take any more children, Daly said, although with families moving and searching for work, they’ve lost children and have openings.

First Steps is not alone in its search for education funding.

Georgetown County School District is facing more furloughs and layoffs in the next few weeks.

Miss Ruby’s Kids, another nonprofit that helps educate children, is also struggling to find grant money, Ritchie said. In addition to her duties with Bunnelle, she is a board member for the early childhood mentoring and parenting program.

“The financial aspect has been grim in the grant areas,” said Betsy Marlow, executive director of Miss Ruby’s Kids. “As with First Steps, some of the grants we’ve applied for haven’t come. We’re not, right now in terms as the situation, as bad off as First Steps.”

But, she said every organization that works with young children in Georgetown County is interrelated. When one agency suffers from cuts, like First Steps, Miss Ruby’s Kids hurts, too.

“Our clients are some of the same clients as First Steps,” Marlow said.

“A lot of our children attend the Centers of Excellence. When they can’t afford to send their children to day care, it affects our family,” she said. “They didn’t get the grant they needed, so that’s money we aren’t going to get, because we can’t do in-home visits.”

Fee asked if money from court fees could be used to prevent crime by funding early childhood education programs.

Brooke Domski, a program coordinator with First Steps, said the organization called state Sen. Ray Cleary, state Sen. Yancy McGill, state Rep. Vida Miller, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and U.S. Rep. Henry Brown with that proposal.

Miller said she supports early childhood education, but trying to fund First Steps with court fees “is a little premature at this point.”

The state legislature went back into session Tuesday and is working on the budget.

“Until we get some idea of where we are on the budget it’s too early to say what might be a possible, if any, at this time,” she said. “It’s just going to be a tough year financially to fund all the needs out there.”

Fee told members at the meeting that he’d ask what the state League of Women Voters could do to get First Steps more funding.

“We need guidance on how we’re going to change this damn system,” Fee said.

The answer is to “stop pigeon-holing people because of pigeon-holed money,” Daly said, referring to government mandates.

She said the money First Steps gets from government sources has to be used in the county.

“I get calls from parents begging for help from centers, but I have to tell them no because we only serve Georgetown County,” she said. Daly would like to see Georgetown, Horry and Williamsburg counties work together to provide for the region’s early childhood education needs.

“Silos don’t work,” Daly said. “We need to work together.”

In November, the Bunnelle Foundation invited business leaders, politicians, educators and officials from other nonprofits to the first Early Childhood Education Summit in order to accomplish that goal.

McGill encouraged First Steps organizations in each county to work together to get grants. Although they’d have to share the money, McGill said they’re more likely to win them.

“The bigger picture is how we, in the long-term, secure quality early childhood education in Georgetown County,” said Nancy Bracken, a consultant with the Bunnelle Foundation.

If the community has ideas, First Steps would like to hear them.


First Steps is also looking for volunteers and board members. To apply, go to firststepsofgeorgetown.org. Donations can be mailed to P.O Box 531, Georgetown, SC 29442.

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