Prekindergarten a ‘shining success’ in rural Alabama: Black Belt 2020

Earlier this year, National Institute for Early Education Research ranked Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program as the top state-funded prekindergarten program in the United States for the 14th year in a row – and it’s no accident. The state has targeted some of the poorest counties in the state – especially those in the Black Belt. And according to the latest in a series of issue briefs on the region from the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, these strategies have worked.

“Alabama’s First-Class Pre-K program is a shining success,” said Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center and one of the brief’s authors. “[There have been] good policies by our legislative leadership and Governor Ivey to provide the stable, sustained funding so strong programs can make a difference. Stable, sustainable funding is critical to closing achievement gaps.”

The latest entry to Black Belt 2020, a partnership between the Education Policy Center and, examines pre-K across Alabama and specifically in the 24 counties that make up the Black Belt, as defined by the center.

First Class Pre-K is Alabama’s public, voluntary pre-kindergarten program for four-year-olds. It’s expanded rapidly in the last few years, from around 5,000 students in 2013 to more than 21,000 last year, according to the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. The program has also more than tripled its number of certified classrooms, while still seeing results.

“The outcomes for children who receive First Class Pre-K services are numerous,” Pamela Truelove-Walker, assistant director of Alabama’s Office of School Readiness, said in a media availability on the issue Monday. “[They] have increased school readiness skills. That’s seen across reading scores, math scores, social-emotional development.”

The Education Policy Center’s latest brief, authored by Katsinas, Hunter Whann, Noel Keeney, and Emily Jacobs, shows testing scores across a number of key areas, from language and literacy to mathematics, increased from an average of 45 percent in students entering the program, to around 90 percent upon leaving.

But these students tend to enjoy benefits outside of testing, too. According to the brief, First Class students have lower absentee rates, need less special education and are held back a grade less often than students who didn’t attend First Class Pre-K.

Pre-K Access in the Black Belt

The success of the program has led to an increase in funding, with Gov. Ivey’s office announcing its largest ever single-year funding increase, “which expanded pre-K access to more than 38 percent of four year olds in the state.” And in many areas – including many Black Belt counties, that number is even higher.

“A lot of Black Belt counties actually have very high access,” said Whann, one of the authors of the brief. Just four of the 24 Black Belt counties studied by the Education Policy Center had less access than the state average.

“When this program was started, and particularly when Gov. Ivey came in, a big part of the emphasis was specifically to start with the Black Belt,” Katsinas said. “I would suggest these data show that that has been a successful approach.”

Barbara Cooper, secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, also said the focus on the Black Belt was intentional.

“We’ve been able to really see these types of gains in the Black Belt communities because the Department has been so purposeful about making sure we’re serving our most vulnerable populations,” she said. “When the program was started, from its very inception, we knew that there were some counties, and some students that we needed to really focus our resources around. So we did target the Black Belt counties.”

And that’s important for a region that’s struggling with school enrollment, unemployment, labor force participation and population loss, all big, interconnected issues that will need long-term, strategic planning to overcome – like the state has done with pre-K.

“[Pre-K] is a bright spot for the state,” Whann said. “A lot of progress has been made, but as always, there’s more progress to be made.”