Gov. Kay Ivey was among those attending Friday’s ceremonial ribbon cutting for the Early Learning Initiative Pre-K program at the University of Alabama Center in Gadsden.
ELI, which opened in January, is a program sponsored by the University of Alabama that allows Gadsden children to receive Pre-K classes at no cost to their families. The program currently features two preschool classes with a total of 35 students.
“Creating progress in educational outcomes for Alabama’s children is not something that can be achieved at the state level alone. It’s something accomplished through collective collaboration at every possible juncture,” Ivey said during her speech at the event, “There’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure that every child in Alabama has a strong start and a strong finish as they travel on their education journey, but days like this show that we are definitely on the right track.”
She also recognized the “diligent work” of ELI’s faculty and staff, saying they “have worked tirelessly to unite with national and state agencies, organizations and local communities to aid in supporting services provided to children and families on their path to school readiness.”
“For the governor to be here makes it especially important to use because it helps acknowledge its importance,” said Dr. Peter Hlebowitsh, dean of UA’s College of Education, “It’s also a way of disseminating it so that people across the state know what we’re up to as a college. For the governor to be here makes that message especially profound.”
Hlebowitsh said the university began its involvement because “We see it not only as a way to work with children, but also to help families and do some outreach in northern Alabama.”
He described ELI as “a preschool program dedicated to the education of 4-year-olds that has been federally supported by the Alabama Department of Education. It’s part of a larger federal effort to try and universalize public education and (offer) support for educating this age group.
“It’s beautiful because it (ELI) became a reality through the amazing and, in a way, unlikely gathering of people who are really able to see the good possibilities for a preschool here in the Gadsden area,” he added.
ELI also has support from the Alabama School Readiness Alliance and Alabama Voices. The university and these organizations work together to further the research on early childhood education, helping Alabama reach all the National Institute for Early Education Research benchmarks for 15 years in a row.
“Right now, the program (Alabama’s Pre-K) serves 42% of 4-year olds in the state, but our goal is to support 70% of these students in the state,” said the ASRA’s executive director, Allison Muhlendorf, “We’re so excited that we have willing partners like the University of Alabama to have the implementation of these programs.”
One of the biggest benefits the Gadsden area will see from this preschool is a center for “high-quality preschool education,” said Hlebowitsh.
“We hope, right now, to make it bigger and better moving forward,” he said. “But the preschool is just part of a broader effort that will be housed here at the center that will include other types of services like after school programming and other social services.”
Muhlendorf said, “We have a long-term study in the state that has been published in the International Scientific Journal that shows that students who went through this First Class Pre-K program were more likely than their peers to read proficiently in the third grade and to be successful in middle school and were less likely to have disciplinary issues, be held back a grade or need costly special education services.”
ELI Faculty Sponsor Dr. Alison Hooper hopes the program will give the area a much-needed boost in early childhood development. “It’s definitely a state priority,” she said, “So we see this as a way that can build on some of the efforts from other departments.”
Hlebowitsh hopes the program can expand throughout the state at some point; the difficulty will be finding resources and space.
“We would love to,” he said. “We are in Tuscaloosa, and we are lucky to have a building here to work out of, but if we can find similar conditions prevailing in other areas of the state, we would be happy to exploit them and reach out as best as we can.”
Another faculty sponsor for ELI, Dr. Cailin Kerch, said this is only the first phase of that goal. “We hope to support, in future phases, future growth and access from birth to 4-year-olds,” she said.
Hooper said they hope the center can serve as a site for training and support for other programs in the area, as well as teachers past, present and future, inviting them to come and learn and “see great things happening.”
The program also hopes to have long-term growth in areas outside of the early childhood education realm as well, with goals to support the workforce within the area and the state.
“Our initiatives align with different organizations supporting early childhood community and families, including business growth and workforce development,” said Kerch, “Beyond that, we hope we can support other communities and increase their access to first-class pre-K and, more broadly, high-quality early childhood education.”
Dr. Barbara Cooper, Alabama’s Secretary of Early Childhood Education, also was present Friday, and said, “(Kerch and Hooper) have been instrumental in really supporting this program, not giving up and realizing that we had to do this for the children.
“There are no stronger components for Pre-K than the governor and her staff. They’ve been instrumental in continuing to help us make this work and be a priority,” said Cooper. “We are working to ensure that the Pre-K expansion continues and, most importantly, we are committed to ensuring Alabama’s First-Class Pre-K expands incrementally. We will not give up on the quality that we have put in place in our programs here in Alabama.”
Cooper said the state took the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to examine and understand the significance of early learning and care within the state. “We have to get out to understand what others are experiencing to continue to make it better,” she said.
State School Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey said, “We’re grateful for this partnership and all the great work that this program will have going on. It’s so good to be a part of a day where we see people pull together who are invested in the children of this state who say ‘We’re gonna get together and get it done.’”
“I cannot tell you how proud we are to have this program here,” Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton said, “It is amazing and I know how important it is for a child to receive a good education.”
After the ribbon cutting, Ivey was escorted around the center and was introduced to its students and their teachers, allowing her and her staff to see first-hand how these kids were learning and stimulated throughout the day.
“These kids are calm because they’re constantly engaged,” said Alabama Voices CEO Collier Tynes, “Their brains are developing every second that we are talking. Their lower brain, which controls things like stress responses, are calm right now and that means they can get the higher brain to start learning math, reading and critical thinking by kindergarten. Without this, they would be behind, which is why it’s so important.”
This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: Gov. Ivey cuts ribbon at UA’s Early Learning Initiative