BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Clusters of small children sit at low tables together, counting dots on brightly-colored dominoes or sounding out letters of the alphabet. Two teachers traverse the organized room, bending down to eye level with their students, offering words of encouragment as the children do their work.
Proclamations of "good job!" and "way to go!" from the adults can occasionally be heard over the hum of tiny voices, quietly chattering over neon plastic buckets of lesson supplies. Where would these 4-year-olds be if they weren't lucky enough to be placed in the Pre-K class at Carrie A. Tuggle Elementary School in Birmingham's Smithfield neighborhood?
"I don't know," said Arlene Williams, Pre-K Director for Birmingham City Schools. "That would be a good study for someone, but I just don't know."
More than half the kindergarteners in Birmingham City Schools were not enrolled in the system's Pre-K program last year. Even though the program has experienced tremendous growth since 2014, space is limited and funding is tight.
(Pre-K classroom at Tuggle Elementary. Source: WBRC)
Williams said there are currently 45 Pre-K classes across the district, with a record 738 children estimated to be enrolled. But given kindergarten numbers for 2017-2018, that's not nearly enough to serve all the rising kindergartners in Birmingham. This year the district has 112 kindergarten classes with 1,940 registered kindergarten students.
"That in itself tells us we've missed a lot," said Williams. "We have a long way to go."
Birmingham had more schools on the state's failing schools list than any other district. Supporters of the state's First-Class Pre-K program, administered by the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, believe making preschool available to all four-year-olds will turn underperforming schools around.
Data shows nearly all children who completed the program are better prepared for kindergarten, meeting or exceeding growth in the six domains of development: math, literacy, cognitive, language, physical and social-emotional.
The classrooms have a maximum of 18 children. They're each set up with ten learning centers that include age-appropriate lessons that meet quality-based research benchmarks. Williams said she's seen shy children develop confidence and all children thrive in this nurturing yet stimulating environment.
"It's just something that every child should experience," Williams said. "Anybody that comes to our Pre-K, they are getting the best that you can get."
There is no cost for children to enroll, which is one reason the program has such high demand. Williams said they are considering adding Pre-K classes in some of Birmingham's middle schools because space is a premium.
Because there are limited spots available to enroll, Birmingham places children in the program through random selection. Parents can select up to five different locations as their preferred choices when they register online. Pre-registration is open now, but ends March 1. Williams said they do their best to accommodate everyone, and if they can't, they refer children to another program, like the kindergarten readiness program at the YMCA.
Full Interview: Arlene Williams - Birmingham City Schools Pre-K Director
Birmingham's Pre-K classes are paid for through a mix of federal, state and local tax money. Four classes have been made possible through the Woodlawn Innovation Network.
Governor Ivey has proposed increasing funding for Pre-K by an additional $23 million. Alabama's First Class Pre-K program is now available in more than 900 classes across the state. Currently 28% of Alabama's 4-year-olds are enrolled. The $23 million budget increase would bring enrollment to 35% statewide, according to Allison Muhlendorf, Executive Director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.
As the Alabama legislature debates how much money to spend on Pre-K, Williams had a message for lawmakers who control those precious dollars.
"Come visit, visit the schools and see where your money is going," said Williams. "If they just walk into the classrooms they'll know, it's money well spent."