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Rare glimpse of hope for pre-K

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

Over the last three years, the Georgetown County First Steps program that promotes early-childhood education has lost several staff members and seen the amount of children it can serve cut by nearly half.

Lillian Reid, executive director of the Pawleys Island Child Development Center, has been with her organization for more than 30 years. She has trouble recalling a time when it has faced such pressing needs.

Like countless other nonprofits around the nation, state and local area, both organizations are struggling to find funding during an ongoing recession. State and federal budgets have been cut, and many private corporations have been forced to reduce, or eliminate, grant monies.

But the nonprofits are hopeful a county school board initiative can help bring attention, and funding, to the work they do.

School Board Member Teresa Bennani suggested the Georgetown County School Board form an early childhood pre-K committee to encourage community awareness and the further collaboration of efforts between pre-K programs and providers in Georgetown County.

“[Pre-K] programs are always something I’ve been passionate about,” Bennani said. “Part of the reason I wanted to have a committee to look at this issue was financial, but the other reason was to facilitate more cooperation and collaboration. I feel like there are a lot of good pre-K options in Georgetown County and there is always room to work together and share resources.”

Having different organizations pull together and present a united front is important because many of the private funds that are available, and some of the new legislation on the way, call for teamwork.

“We have to be serious about working together,” Bennani said. “It’s a new day. The grants that are being done by people like Bill Gates and some of the new government [programs] have collaboration and teamwork built into them as part of their methodology.”

Conceived by the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation in response to the funding crisis, the Georgetown Early Learning Initiative has fostered a spirit of collaboration between child welfare organizations in the area. However, the possibility of further fine-tuning those efforts has been embraced.

“Anytime we can meet with other groups who have similar needs and exchange ideas it’s a plus,” Reid said. “I think the school board would maybe be able to open some doors. It takes a joint effort to get through times like these. So many of the funds we’ve relied on have been cut.

“There are many children that we want to serve, but neither we, nor their parents, have the means to make that possible. People haven’t been able to find work, and they don’t have the money to send their kids to us. The money has to be used for other things. The children don’t understand what is going on. They just know they miss their friends and their teachers.”

“I think the school board would be able to help us raise awareness about how important of an issue this is,” said Carol Daly, executive director of Georgetown County First Steps.

“The important work pre-K programs do is too important to be overlooked.”

Studies, such as a 2003 cost-benefit analysis conducted by W. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research, support Daly’s words.

Quality preschool programs for disadvantaged children save $7 in costs for remedial education, crime, welfare and low earnings for every $1 invested, the study found.

Statistics compiled by the Early Learning Initiative show a pressing need for early childhood development funding in Georgetown County.

Twenty-six percent of county kids live in poverty, more than 30 percent of the county’s population can’t read, and South Carolina ranks 45th in the country in overall child well-being.

Recognizing these facts, every member of the school board will serve on the pre-K committee, with Bennani acting as its chair.

“The strength of our board is its diversity,” Bennani said. “The experience our board has provides us with a good understanding on the needs of the different communities we have in Georgetown County.

“I was very pleased that all the board members expressed interest in the committee and wanted to serve. I think it shows the understanding of how important pre-K programs are. We work well together as a board, and I think we can help raise awareness and offer support.”

The pre-K committee is currently in its organizational and fact-finding phase and the hope is it will hold its first meeting in January.

“We’re gathering information,” Bennani said. “We’re looking at what is being done in other communities and looking at the models that have been successful. We want to start meeting after the first of the year.”

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