NEW HANOVER COUNTY — At College Road Early Childhood Center in Wilmington, three new pre-K classrooms are now in session, serving New Hanover County 3- to 5-year-olds that may have otherwise lost out on the opportunity of an early childhood education.
Public funding for pre-K classes doubled to nearly $1 million in the recently approved county budget, which went into effect in July. The investment made possible the addition of the new classes at College Road Early Childhood Center; at no cost to their families, at-risk children learn skills to set them up for a successful 13-year-run in the public school system.
Previously, the county backed just three pre-K classrooms, though New Hanover County Schools’ early childhood program serves 918 students across 63 classes with the aid of other government programs. NHCS oversees 607 seats for the state-funded N.C. Pre-K classrooms and 260 slots for the federally funded Head Start program. It also partners with qualifying private day care centers, such as multiple Childcare Network locations, which receive government dollars as well.
Almost four years ago, the county contributed money to expand preschool services with 45 new seats at the Career Readiness Academy Pre-K Program at Mosley off Princess Drive, in an attempt to clean up the inflating waitlist for Head Start and N.C. Pre-K.
But the waitlist kept growing, on pace with the region, leading to the latest investment by county leaders.
“It’s such a huge win in our county, knowing that we have this need and they are responding to it,” said Shannon Smiles, director of early childhood education at NHCS.
After several days of staggered enrollment and home visits, the newest preschool classes kicked off Thursday, Sept. 2. Students are learning the basics of math and literacy to prepare for elementary school, while also familiarizing themselves with a routine. It’s a skill many children never learned as they rose out of toddlerhood during a pandemic, especially those who are eligible for the county pre-K programs.
NHCS’ early childhood program targets at-risk children who may lack support. There are limited spots –– only enough for about half of incoming kindergarteners –– so the district uses a database to sort information and prioritizes children based on eligibility. The children with the greatest needs land high on the list, while those who are merely eligible fall further down.
Located in Wilmington’s Northside, Dorothy B. Johnson Pre-K Center accommodates hundreds of 3- and 4-year-olds in 20 classrooms, most of whom qualify for the Head Start program. Smiles said some children arrive without having ever worn shoes.
“Sometimes this is the only routine that they have in the day and feeling safe,” Smiles said. “We have some children that grew up in the projects that are amazed by grass because they play in the back concrete yard. I mean, little stuff like that. When they get to go on field trips, they’ve never been to the beach. And it’s right there.”
The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges underprivileged children and their families face. Coming out of lockdowns, potty training is top-of-mind for teachers at the start of the year. Kids are also arriving nonverbal or dangerously overweight, Smiles said. Behavioral issues are evident and likely rooted in a lack of structure at home.
“When we did the assessments this summer, [staff] kept on coming up to me and going, ‘This is going to be a heavy year. A heavy year,’” Smiles said. “’Lost learning’ is what they’re calling it.”
In March 2020, the early education program followed the guidance of NHCS and paused in-person instruction. In the fall schools opened up to students part-time. Students could attend in person twice a week and learned from home the remainder of the days.
Nationally, shutdowns were found to deepen education inequities, and the pandemic cut preschool attendance drastically. Participation among 4-year-olds dropped from 64% to 43% for families earning below $25,000 yearly, compared to a decline from 72% to 55% for higher-income families, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Inside the preschools, classes are back at capacity, but students are still wearing their masks when not eating or drinking. The children arrive at 7:15 a.m. and are dismissed by 2:45 p.m. In between, they are kept on a tight schedule: play to learn, eat nutritious meals and snacks, and even practice brushing their teeth.
“It’s just a lot of the procedures and the routine . . . and day-to-day, this is what we do in a classroom setting,” said Stacy Kiser, a teacher in one of the new county-funded classrooms at College Road. “It’s so new to them. But even in a short time, these two weeks, I’ve seen huge, like huge improvement.”
Previously, College Road housed the kindergarteners at the congested Heyward C. Bellamy Elementary School. After redistricting, space opened to transition students back to Bellamy, creating empty rooms for incoming preschoolers at College Road.
Smiles said her dream is to base a preschool class in every elementary school in New Hanover County. But that is dependent upon whether space is available and how great of a priority it is for the superintendent and senior leaders.
While she considers New Hanover County fortunate compared to its neighbor Brunswick, where preschools are only in public schools for students with disabilities, she’d like to see the district on the same level as Charlotte. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools runs pre-K in 56 of its 106 elementary schools.
Keeping preschoolers in the same building as they move on to kindergarten helps preserve connections between families, staff and resources. The earlier the district can reach the children and their families, the better the outcome for the child, she said.
“Talking about dropout rates in middle school and high school, and gun violence that happened at New Hanover –– too late,” Smiles said. “We need to get them at 3 and 4, and their families.”
The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners recently authorized the county manager to dip into a $350 million pot from the sale of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center system to prevent future youth violence in the community that spills over onto campuses. After a shooting at New Hanover High Aug. 30, local officials began to look at prevention methods, including intervening by reaching disadvantaged children as early as age 3.
It is not yet determined how the money will be spent exactly, though at least one board of education member, Stephanie Walker, has mentioned it is worth considering early education in anti-violence discussions. The first nonpublic meeting to consider the spending potential is Friday with local law enforcement, county and city top staff. Superintendent Charles Foust is expected to invite several principals, teachers and students.
“Violence prevention is building these relationships with these families and getting these children in a safe and high-quality learning center,” Smiles said. “The more that we do that, I mean, the better your community.”
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