Cumberland County could be at risk of losing funding for pre-kindergarten classrooms next year due.
“The state looks at our utilization by tier one, income eligible students when they determine how many classrooms we have,” Rebecca Farley, pre-K-eighth grade supervisor of curriculum and instruction, told members of the Cumberland County Board of Education during its Jan. 18 work session.
The state uses a competitive grant to award funds for pre-K classrooms, and 25% of the grant score is the number of students who meet income qualifications.
This year, of the 224 pre-K students in the county, 176 students meet state income guidelines for low-income tier one, for a 78.6% utilization rate.
“The state wants us to have 90%, and we’re at 78%,” Farley said. “This is my third year with pre-K and this is the lowest we’ve been. Typically, we run 85-86%.”
The state will not take applications for funding in the 2020-’21 fiscal year.
“That’s a little concerning,” Farley said. “With us being this low, there is the possibility we could lose a classroom.”
Board members asked how the school system would adjust if funding were reduced.
Director of Schools Janet Graham said the priority would be to keep one class at every elementary school.
Tennessee launched its voluntary pre-K program in 2005. Cumberland County has had 12 classrooms since that time.
Homestead, Martin and South Cumberland each have two classrooms while the other six elementary schools have one classroom.
Funding has not increased since 2005, though costs have. At this time, the grant covers the cost of a teacher and teaching assistant for each classroom and substitutes. The school system provides in-kind grant matching through the use of space in the schools and administrator time.
But much of the equipment in the rooms is the same equipment purchased when the program began in 2005.
“We’ve had no money to replace equipment,” Farley said.
Board members asked what the cost would be to sustain 12 classrooms if the grant funding were reduced. The cost would primarily be in staffing, Graham said, noting equipment and space were already allocated.
One way to increase utilization of the program would be to provide transportation, which Cumberland County does not currently offer.
Darrell Threet, principal at South Cumberland Elementary, said many of the families targeted for the program face transportation barriers.
“They set it up for low-income families, yet the families that can’t afford to bring their kids to school and pick them up every day — they can’t get there,” Threet said.
However, in order to allow 4-year-olds on the bus, the school system would have to provide bus attendants and students would have to be signed in and out each day.
The voluntary pre-K program uses a consistent curriculum across the county, and they meet the same guidelines as childcare centers. Teachers are also evaluated regularly.
Parents can register their child for pre-K during countywide registration held in the spring. They must bring proof of income along with the child’s birth certificate, immunization record and other information.
Each classroom can accommodate 20 students. If more than 20 students register for a school, a lottery is held for spaces.
“In the past, we’ve had first-come, first-served, but I think it’s more fair to have a lottery,” Farley said, adding she uses a random name generator and records the process should there be questions.
Tier one students are placed in the spring or added to waiting lists if they were not placed. Other applicants are placed on waiting lists, as well.
Ten days after school begins in the fall, open spaces will be filled from tier one waiting lists or the tier two lists.
Tier two includes students who have special needs.
Ten days after that, enrollment is opened to other students.
“Then everyone else can come,” she explained.
In order to maximize use of the program, schools will call parents and guardians from the waiting list, even if they requested another school.
The county has an attendance policy for pre-K, which is tracked daily. The school system will develop attendance plans with parents if students miss five or more days in a month.
“We try to work out things to help the parent get the child to school,” Farley said. “Typically, it is a transportation issue.”
If students continue to have low attendance, the school can remove them from the roster and open the space to another student.
The pre-K program also offers a variety of family programs, such as the Brain Building Breakfast held each fall and the On My Way To K programs in October and November.
Farley said they struggle with attendance at On My Way To K programs, with 93 parents attending across the two sessions. But the programs include a variety of learning aids to help them prepare their child for kindergarten, all at no cost to the parent.
However, Farley said data showed Cumberland County’s pre-K graduates still did well in kindergarten and beyond. While some pre-K studies have claimed the impacts of early childhood education faded over time, Farley said pre-K students continue to score higher on literacy and math tests, have better attendance and fewer behavioral issues than students who did not attend pre-K.