Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education

Alabama Pre-K Ensures Quality for a Brighter Future
by Dr. Barbara J. Cooper,

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program is nationally recognized for high quality and has been proven to positively impact student achievement throughout participants’ academic careers. I am honored to lead the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (ADECE), which administers the First Class Pre-K program.  Our vision at the ADECE is that every young child in Alabama will have a strong early learning foundation for healthy growth and development. Currently, over 25,000 students have access to one of almost 1,400 First Class Pre-K classrooms located in all 67 counties.

What started as a small program serving fewer than 2% of the state’s population of four-year-old children has grown to serve over 42%. This program is built on a mixed-delivery system that includes partnerships between the ADECE and public schools, private schools, child care centers, community organizations, faith-based organizations, universities, and Head Start providers. The First Class Pre-K program in Alabama was founded with the desire to meet children and families where they are and to provide the highest quality early education possible. A comprehensive plan was developed in 2012 with the Business Council of Alabama, the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which determined that incremental growth of a high-quality program is the best method for expanding pre-k.  The ADECE remains committed to continuous quality improvement that ensures our state program continues to show positive outcomes for children throughout their K-12 careers.

Research indicates that children in First Class Pre-K make substantial gains in math, early literacy, language, cognitive, social-emotional, and physical domains during the academic year. Students who have participated in the program demonstrate higher academic proficiency throughout their educational journey. Students who attended First Class Pre-K have better attendance in school and are less likely to repeat a grade during their school career, and are less likely to have disciplinary issues, or need special education services.  These results combine to save the state millions of dollars.  For Children historically considered at-risk, First Class Pre-K is reducing the achievement gap and other challenges early on so our students can thrive throughout their life.

Unlike many other states, Alabama understands the importance of investing significant resources in supporting classroom teachers. The ADECE ensures that all First Class Pre-K teachers are supported through job-embedded coaching that promotes learning through developmentally appropriate practices. The results are proof that our strategy to invest in professional development ensures a well-qualified workforce that is highly skilled at meeting the needs of young children.

In the news recently, much has been said about a study of Tennessee’s state pre-kindergarten program calling on states to ‘rethink’ how pre-k programs are implemented. The headlines share only a small part of the story. Upon closer review, the study makes recommendations that First Class Pre-K has been doing for over a decade.  This is encouraging news for Alabama’s First Class Pre-K where we cultivate an environment that encourages learning through play and activities that are appropriate for young children. Have you ever tried to make a toddler sit at a desk and write for any length of time? If so, you know this is a lesson in futility and it frustrates the young child and the adult.  Yet some pre-k programs incorporate this style of learning environment. While children may be temporarily ready with some basic skills of knowing letters and numbers by kindergarten, they won’t have other important skills required for long-term success such as problem-solving and getting along with peers. In Alabama, we call on our early educators to honor the young child and provide a developmentally appropriate environment for a strong start where they learn through play.

The Tennessee study highlights the importance of allowing children to learn in the way in which their brains are wired. For most young children, or adults for that matter, there are more effective ways to learn than by sitting quietly and listening.  Conversely, we learn most effectively by interacting with others, asking questions, and challenging each other to think critically. We invite legislators, stakeholders, and parents as our partners into our classrooms to experience first-hand our shining stars and the future workforce in action. We also urge them to hear from our teachers, who are the boots on the ground, making high-quality learning a reality each day.

In Alabama, we tout our great workforce and have recruited, retained, and grown a variety of 21st Century industries that contribute to a healthy Alabama economy. We expect our workers to be of the highest quality, which means they are able to build and maintain effective working relationships, think critically about problems and develop innovative solutions.  These are the skills that early childhood education builds and the skills on which our workforce of tomorrow will require.  As Governor Ivey said in her State of the State speech in January, Alabama’s best days are in front of us.  I am thankful for her support, as well as the bipartisan support of the legislature and the business community.  Working together, the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education continues to provide First Class Pre-K and other birth through age eight programs that prepare our youngest citizens for their future that is indeed bright!

National News Story:  “Pre-K in Alabama is like football in Alabama”

Alabama First Class Pre-K featured in documentary film Starting at Zero

International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy:  The persistence of reading and math proficiency: the benefits of Alabama’s pre-kindergarten program endure in elementary and middle school