Potential pre-K class time cutbacks raise concerns

PERRY -- Students in Alison Wheeler’s pre-kindergarten class at Perry Primary School were spread out in small groups around the room Friday morning, taking part in various activities.

Some in the back drew family portraits with markers and talked about how they looked alike and different from their relatives. One girl sat on the rug in the front of the room, playing with and sorting rubber dinosaurs.

Next to her, others arranged colored diamonds, triangles and other shapes to make pictures, like a flower.

Through the activities, students are getting much more than it may seem on the surface, learning colors, letters, patterns and spatial relationships, Wheeler said.

“They’re learning through playing.”

Wheeler’s pre-K class and others across the state may not have as much time to learn while playing in the next school year, if $54 million in cuts to the state’s lottery-funded pre-K program proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday come to pass.

Deal proposed cutting the pre-K day from six and a half hours to four by cutting out rest, routine and meal times as demand for the program exceeds state lottery revenue. The move is expected to open up 5,000 additional pre-K slots across the state, with schools having the option of offering two sessions every day, according to Deal press secretary Stephanie Mayfield.

Currently, there are 84,000 students across the state enrolled in pre-K programs, with another 10,000 on waiting lists to enroll.

Deal’s proposal also includes $4.5 million in extended day funds for at-risk students who would need additional after-school services, as well as an increase in transportation funding.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword. The more time you have with kids in a school setting, the more opportunities they have for getting prepared for school,” said Eric Payne, Houston County’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. “With half the time and twice as many kids, you benefit a whole group of kids you were not able to help before.”

Georgia’s pre-K program received national attention in 1995, when the program became the first in the U.S. to become available to all 4-year-olds, regardless of family income. The program first targeted at-risk students when it debuted in the state three years prior.

Georgia is one of four states nationwide that offers universal pre-K, along with Florida, New York and Oklahoma. Students are able to enroll in pre-K programs hosted by both public schools and private institutions, granting parents the flexibility to choose a program they feel would suit their child’s needs best.

“Maintaining the current high quality of instruction will be our guiding principle as the Department of Early Care and Learning works directly with families, providers and other stakeholders to develop implementation details,” Bobby Cagle, Georgia’s commissioner for the Department of Early Care and Learning, said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Local impact

Of the nearly 1,000 pre-K students in Houston County schools, 120 attend Perry Primary, the school with the largest pre-K enrollment in the district.

Once parents apply for a pre-K spot, students are chosen through a lottery system. If a spot becomes available mid-year, parents on the waiting list are contacted until the space is filled.

By engaging in activities such as reading, writing, drawing and playing computer games, students are learning how to socialize, develop routines and take their first steps toward becoming competitive with their peers around the world, according to Elgin Mayfield, principal of Perry Primary.

“It’s all about trying to get every child to reach their full potential,” Mayfield said.

The pre-K classroom is especially beneficial for at-risk students who may not have books at home or who lack experiences other children may have before entering school, said Payne, formerly the principal of Bonaire Elementary.

“Those kids entering kindergarten are already exposed to a print-rich environment -- writing, letters, sounds -- even something as simple as opening a book and turning pages. All those little things, those are things you don’t have to think about in kindergarten, because they learned them in pre-K.”

Concerns over cuts

In response to teacher concerns over the proposed cuts at a legislative hearing Friday, Reps. Jay Neal, R-Lafayette, and Kathy Ashe, D-Atlanta, proposed the possibility of keeping the program’s full day by increasing class sizes and not adding the extra pre-K slots, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Currently, pre-K classrooms have 20 students and are staffed by a teacher and a paraprofessional.

Local educators have expressed their own concerns over the educational and logistical impact of the proposed changes.

As a kindergarten teacher at Perry Primary and a parent of twins currently in pre-K there, Frances Humphreys has mixed feelings on the proposed cuts.

“Being just a normal parent, they’re still able to learn dynamics of how school works -- they’ll still learn that in the short day,” she said.

As a teacher though, Humphreys is concerned that students will have trouble adjusting from a four-hour day to a full school day in kindergarten.

“It’s not only beginning to play and get along with others, kindergarten is how to read, write, add, subtract -- it’s a full learning day,” Humphreys said. “They’re not going to be prepared for that.”

Schools will also have to factor in matters such as midday transportation, working parents who have to make plans for their children after the shortened pre-K session, and additional work demands for teachers, according to Mayfield.

“It’s not that it can’t be done, we just have to work it out,” he said.

Monroe County schools have postponed their March pre-K registration to May 17 as they and other local districts wait to find out whether the changes will take place and how they will be implemented.

Houston County officials are also looking to Atlanta for their next cue.

“We’re waiting to see right now,” Payne said. “We can’t wait too long -- we’re already making decisions for next year.”

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.