Like other schools participating in Alabama's First Class Pre-K program, Birmimgham's Glen Iris Elementary School is seeing big gains among students. (Nik Layman/Alabama NewsCenter) Isaac Gonzales was a year away from starting kindergarten and had never stepped foot in a school or day care.

He didn’t know his ABCs. He didn’t recognize numbers or colors. In fact, he spoke little English, since Spanish is the main language in his home.

As his fourth birthday approached, his mother, Lizette Gonzales, began to panic. Even though she and her husband hold down steady jobs, money was tight. She simply couldn’t afford to send Isaac to a private preschool, even though she knew without it Isaac would be starting kindergarten behind his peers.

“I was really worried about kindergarten because he is very shy and hasn’t ever really been around a lot of people or in a structured setting, like a classroom,” Gonzales said. “Then my sister-in-law told me about a pre-K program starting at Glen Iris Elementary School.”

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K levels playing field for lucky students from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Best in the nation

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program, which is managed by the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, has been ranked No. 1 in the country for quality by the National Institute for Early Education Research for the past decade. NIEER annually ranks pre-K programs for quality, and Alabama’s pre-K is one of only six state programs to meet or exceed all 10 NIEER benchmarks, and only the second to do so 10 consecutive years.

A problem has been that because of lack of funding only a fraction of the state’s 4-year-olds have access to the program. That is starting to change, as expansions to the program have been announced the past few years. Last week, DECE announced 155 new First Class Pre-K grants for the upcoming school year, bringing the number of high-quality, voluntary First Class Pre-K classrooms to more than 800 statewide. That will serve about 25 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds.

The Alabama School Readiness Alliance and its Pre-K Task Force are leading a campaign to encourage the Legislature to fully fund pre-K by the 2022-23 school year. ASRA estimates that $144 million is needed annually to serve every family in Alabama that wants to enroll a child. Funding for the program in 2016-17 will be $64.5 million, an increase of $16 million over the past school year’s funding.

A level playing field

Gonzales was able to take advantage of the newly added pre-K at Glen Iris, which just completed its first year since Birmingham City Schools more than doubled the number of offerings. She was one of the lucky ones. Like most schools across the state offering the program, Glen Iris has a waiting list to get in. The school selects students through a lottery.

“I was so lucky he got in,” Gonzales said. “I worried about it for months.”

Today, Isaac speaks almost perfect English and can recognize 49 out of 52 uppercase and lowercase letters, said his pre-K teacher, Erika Poe.

“As a teacher, I can’t stress the importance of pre-K enough to parents,” Poe said. “By the time they get into kindergarten, if they haven’t been exposed to any kind of school setting, they are unfortunately labeled as slow learners, when that’s really not what they are. They just haven’t been exposed to or learned the things that children who have been in school have learned. I wish we were able to offer the First Class Pre-K program to everyone. It really levels the playing field.”

Because the state pays for the program, parents pay nothing. That was key for Erin Pippen, a single mother whose daughter, Anaya, just graduated from the pre-K program at Glen Iris.

Unlike Isaac, Anaya was in day care before starting pre-K, but there was very little – if any – learning going on there.

“I was paying $105 a week for her to play,” Pippen said. “She’s cut from a different cloth. She needed something to challenge her – wake her up.”

Pre-K was the answer because Anaya, who will start kindergarten at Glen Iris in August, now knows how to read.

Like other schools participating in Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program, Birmimgham’s Glen Iris Elementary School is seeing big gains among students. (Nik Layman/Alabama NewsCenter)

Huge learning gaps

Glen Iris Principal Michael Wilson said he could easily fill another two classrooms with pre-K students if he had the space.

“The need is so great. Demographics are changing, and we are seeing so many kids coming into kindergarten without any pre-K whatsoever, mostly because of lack of affordability,” Wilson said. “They typically come in with a 3,000- to 5,000-word deficit in their vocabulary. Well, that’s huge, especially when you’re talking about high-stakes testing starting in third grade. Programs like First Class Pre-K shouldn’t just be open to a few.”

Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, agrees.

“Kindergarten readiness is essential. We know that between 40 and 60 percent of children entering kindergarten are not ready — they are not meeting benchmarks,” she said.

ASRA visited areas where there were no quality pre-K programs available before First Class.

“Less than 50 percent of those 4-year-olds were meeting benchmarks, either socially or academically, when they first started the program,” she said. “By the end of the year after attending First Class Pre-K, 95 percent of them were meeting the benchmarks. It’s incredible what small class sizes and two skilled teachers can do.”

Social benefits

First Class Pre-K is offered at a number of facilities – not just schools – throughout the state. About 11,800 students are enrolled. With the 155 classrooms being added, an additional 2,800 students will have access to the all-day program. No more than 18 students are allowed in a class, and two teachers are assigned to each classroom. There is still a lot of playtime, but most of it is structured play, so students are still learning.

Pattric Barnett said besides learning her letters, numbers and colors, his 4-year-old daughter, Jillian, has learned social skills.

“For me, that was major because I worried about her paying attention. She still needs some work in that area, but she’s come a long way,” Barnett said.

Jillian, who just completed pre-K at Glen Iris, was in day care before that.

“The biggest difference in day care and a program like this is that in day care, there are a lot of younger teachers and it’s just a job for them,” he said. “They just played there, but I don’t think there was a lot of learning going on.”