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Pike County schools to benefit from grants

Nearly three dozen Pike County preschoolers will benefit from the expansions of the state-funded voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

Gov. Robert Bentley on Tuesday announced more than 200 new grants that will provide more than 3,600 additional Alabama 4-year-olds access to high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten through Alabama’s First Class.

Those new grants include Banks Elementary School and the Christian Love Center Inc. in Pike County, both of which will receive a $120,000 grant for the program. The new programs join four existing ones: Goshen Elementary and two Organized Community Action Program Inc. pre-school classes in Troy and one in Brundidge.

“We’re excited about getting this other site added and optimistic about continuing funding for the Goshen site,” said Dr. Mark Bazzell, superintendent of Pike County Schools. “These particular pre-k programs help get the kids ready for school and give them the structure they need to prepare for kindergarten. In truth, we could probably use about six of the classrooms, but for now, we’re thankful and appreciate the two that are funded through this state program.”

The pre-k programs, which can serve 18 or so students, are offered free of charge. Agencies such as Pike County Schools, OCAP or the Christian Love Center mush provide a 25 percent funding match for the grants.

“But the students don’t have to pay a thing to attend,” Bazzell said. “And that’s important.”

Grants were awarded based on several criteria including local needs, local demand and assurances of high quality standards at the new and expanding pre-k sites. Local match funding of 25 percent will be required.  Remaining grants will be allocated to additional sites based on various needs in the near future.

The additional 202 grants will benefit 51 counties across Alabama and positively impact an additional 3,636 students’ lives now and for years to come. In his Education Trust Fund budget recommendation, Bentley recommended a $10 million increase for the voluntary pre-k program, from $38.5 million in FY2015 to $48.5 million in FY2016. The Alabama Legislature approved the $10 million increase.

“Demand for these grants has far exceeded our supply,” Bentley said. “Only 13 percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds are currently enrolled in the First Class program and that is the reason we need to continue expanding access to this program. It is my goal to give more families the option of enrolling their children in voluntary pre-k, and I will continue my efforts to expand access to First Class even more.”

The Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs received 410 applications for new First Class Pre-K classrooms for the 2015-2016 school year. This is the largest number of grant requests the Department has ever received.

Alabama’s First Class program is nationally-recognized for its quality.  Alabama is currently one of only four states in the country to meet all 10 quality benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research.  The benchmarks include teacher training, staff-child ratios, support services and more.  First Class has now met all of these benchmarks for nine years in a row.

First Class is managed by the Alabama Office of School Readiness.  The office is part of the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs, which is overseen by Bentley.

“While these grants will help us offer voluntary pre-k to many more families, there is still a long way to go before all children have access,” Bentley said.  “That’s why it’s important to build on this progress and make sure we’re offering this high-quality program to even more families in the years to come.”