Zaniah Pearson rushed to a nearby table, pencil and paper in hand.
The Randolph Park Elementary pre-kindergarten student, who turned 5 years old this month, had been practicing handwriting and was eager to show off her skills Thursday morning. Slowly and steadily, Pearson wrote her first name, then identified each letter.
“I’ve been learning my ABC’s,” Pearson said with a smile. “I like pre-K to play with my friends.”
Pearson and her 14 fellow students are in one of 10 pre-K classes in the Anniston school system. But Anniston education officials want more classes, and they plan to seek part of a recent $16 million expansion of the state’s pre-K program to help them reach the day when every city student can receive early education from the system.
The Alabama Legislature last week approved the pre-K expansion, expected to help enroll approximately 2,800 more 4-year-olds than there are in the current school year. Some education experts say pre-K classes help students better succeed throughout school.
Superintendent Darren Douthitt said his staff would try to acquire as much money from the state as possible to offer more pre-K classes in the city.
“The goal is to have universal pre-K … we need all the help we can get,” Douthitt said.
Douthitt said he estimates the program, which the system started expanding two years ago, would need 14 classes to offer universal pre-K. It’s a goal Douthitt and system staff say could help their students excel and better perform in their later years.
A recent study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama that analyzed student achievement through the 6th grade found state pre-K alumni consistently outperformed their peers in reading and math. PARCA is a nonprofit that provides nonpartisan research to help improve state and local government.
Allison Muhlendorf, the executive director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the expansion of pre-K, said the $16 million expansion is the largest the state’s program has ever received year-over-year. Muhlendorf said the expansion would benefit many students in the state for years to come.
“Pre-K students outperform their peers in reading and math in every level,” Muhlendorf said. “We want every student to have access to pre-K to close the achievement gap.”
Teresia Hall, principal of Randolph Park, said she’s seen the benefits of pre-K on students who moved on to kindergarten this year.
“My kindergarteners who were in pre-K last year … we have readers, children who are able to check out and read advanced reading books and take tests on them,” Hall said. “Many of them are typically our top students.”
State-approved pre-K classes like Anniston's must adhere to strict guidelines. Unlike typical public school classrooms, a pre-K class requires a head teacher and an assistant, both of whom must have varying levels of early childhood education training.
Also, the classrooms are not set up with rows of desks. For instance, the pre-K classrooms at Randolph Park have 12 stations that students use off and on during the day. Among the stations are some where students can practice writing letters, recognize numbers and listen to stories. Students are also given exercise each day in the form of dancing to music and playing outside.
“But it’s not about pushing them to meet benchmarks, it’s about providing them activities,” said Tammy Owen, pre-K teacher at Randolph Park. “It’s about nurturing them, giving them experiences they need to build knowledge on.”
Beyond expanding the program, the Anniston Board of Education recently voted to close Cobb Elementary and repurpose it to house all the pre-K classes currently spread among the system. Douthitt said the pre-K academy would be more conducive to learning and provide a greater opportunity for education students from Gadsden State Community College, for example, to get experience teaching.
“Having that standalone building could maximize opportunities for those kids by having zero distractions,” Douthitt said. “And it would be a good training ground for young people considering being teachers.”
Douthitt said he also hopes to one day have the Cheaha Career Head Start, which also offers pre-K classes in Anniston, operate in the academy to better provide universal pre-K in the city. Cheaha Head Start, a division of the TCR Child Care Corporation, offers education and other services to low-income families.
Kay Jennings, executive director of TCR Child Care, said Head Start offers three pre-K classes funded by the Head Start program and the state. Jennings said Head Start could apply for the new state money to expand.
“But we would have to do a community assessment … if we see a need, then of course we would apply,” Jennings said.