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Education: District adopts full-day pre-K

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

All classes for 4-year-olds in Georgetown County schools will run the full day this year with funds provided through the state budget to expand pre-K programs. The two classes at Waccamaw Elementary School already have a waiting list.

The district had used federal funds earmarked for low-income students to provide all-day pre-K at four elementary schools. The school board has received annual requests from principals at the other five elementary schools to expand their half-day programs, but has been hampered by the rules that govern the use of the federal money, known as Title I funds.

Under federal law, Title I money can provide additional services to low-income students, but can’t replace local funds for services offered throughout the district. “It’s fairly confusing if you don’t understand the process,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

The district will receive about $900,000 from the state to provide full-day pre-K throughout the district. “No more half days. They will all be full,” Dozier said.

The district qualified for the funds because 75 percent of its students come from low-income families. To qualify for the expanded pre-K, students must also be eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Students in the half-day programs were screened for need, but not for income, Dozier said.

“If they qualified for the half day, they would probably be in the full day,” he added.

The district will add 10 teachers and 10 aids and renovate some classrooms for the expansion. It will save some money by eliminating the midday bus service required for the half-day program.

Principals say the expanded program will better prepare at-risk students for school. At McDonald Elementary in Georgetown, which added full-day pre-K last year, staff saw improvement in language and social skills exceed their expectations. “It was a pleasant surprise,” principal Miriam Daniels said.

“Oral language development has a strong correlation to ability as early readers,” said Angela Blocher, the curriculum coach at the school. And low-income students typically are exposed to a smaller vocabulary than other students.

The school measured vocabulary growth in pre-K students and found it was three times the annual goal midway through the school year. “Those words become part of their everyday vocabulary,” Blocher said.

“It’s kind of what we’ve always known,” Daniels said. “You need to meet some of those needs in pre-K to hit third-grade expectations” on standardized tests.

There are other benefits.

“I can see the difference in the confidence of the children who are here all day,” Daniels said.

Funding for all-day pre-K came through an increased allocation to South Carolina First Steps. It had already funded the program in districts that were part of a lengthy lawsuit, still unresolved, that challenged the constitutionality of school funding in the state.

The local office of First Steps used to fund 166 scholarships to preschools, but those fell victim to budget cuts. None of the new money will go to those programs, but Carol Daly, director of First Steps Georgetown, said she is pleased with the expansion of the public school program.

“There is going to be no excuse for a 4-year-old in Georgetown County not to go to school,” Daly said.

The local First Steps office works with private child care providers to help them meet the requirements for state funding, which empasize the quality of education.

Even with the expansion of public school programs, there will still be a need for private pre-K, Daly said, because many families need child care beyond the 6-1/2 hour school day.

““The very-very at-risk children whose parents are doing the minimum wage work, working multiple jobs those are going to be the ones coming to First Steps,” she said.

The expansion of state funding also extends to private providers.

The Pawleys Island Civic Club Child Development Center is also taking applications for 4-year-old pre-K that covers the same time as the public schools, said Lillian Reid, the director.

It has the same eligibilty requirements and there is no tuition.

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