Universal pre-K set as a goal for Forsyth County

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Family Services President and CEO Bob Feikema greets Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust President Laura Gerald at Winston-Salem State University on Tuesday. (photo by Jordan Green)

A coalition led by Family Services wants Forsyth County to provide universal pre-K to every 4-year-old by 2022.

A coalition of community leaders led by Family Services announced a plan to provide universal early education for every 4-year-old, commonly known as pre-K, in Forsyth County at a press conference at Winston-Salem State University on Tuesday.

A report issued by the initiative, named the Pre-K Priority, cites a 2017 Harvard study that found Forsyth County to be the fifth worst county in the nation — only four Native American reservation counties performed lower — “for helping poor children move up the income ladder.” The initiative’s backers believe that early childhood education is the key to disrupting the cycle of poverty, based on recent discoveries in brain science that show that the first five years of life are a time of rapid and critical physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.

The report also cited a recent Duke University study of more than a million North Carolina public-school children, which found that pre-K programs “continued to have positive effects on the population of targeted students… as they progressed through middle school. Higher levels of program funding improved students’ math and reading scores, decreased the likelihood they would be placed in special education, and reduced the probability of repeating a grade.”

Bob Feikema, the president and CEO of Family Services, said about 60 early childhood development professionals from 20 organizations have been meeting for the past five years to develop a plan to address the problem of roughly half of third graders in Forsyth County not being able to read at grade level.

“Our goal is to make high-quality, pre-K programs available to all 4-year-old children in Forsyth County,” said Feikema, whose agency addresses childhood development, family violence, sexual assault, grief counseling and adoption in Forsyth County.

According to the coalition, there are 4,500 4-year-olds in Forsyth County, and while 2,700 are eligible for publicly funded pre-K, only 1,300 are actually enrolled because middle-class families struggle to find affordable, high-quality programs.

An $847,250 grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust will fund a feasibility study by Forsyth Futures, a nonprofit that provides data analysis to organizations in Forsyth County, to determine whether the county had adequate facilities, quality programs and qualified teachers to expand to meet the need for pre-K services, and to launch a public awareness campaign.

Laura Gerald, the trust’s president, said the foundation is investing $30 to $40 million in Great Expectations, “a comprehensive funding initiative to try to see that our children enter kindergarten ready for success.” She added, “Those funds, as significant as they are, are not enough to actually pay for universal pre-K.”

Feikema said the cost of providing universal pre-K in Forsyth County would be about $30 million “if you started from scratch.” The figure is based on an assumption that the county would need 200 classrooms for an average of 18 children at a cost of $150,000 per classroom. But the overall costs would be defrayed somewhat by an assumption that many parents would pay on a sliding scale based on what they could afford.

Feikema and Gerald said the successful launch of the program will require public investment at the local and state level. Both said the target date for implementation depends in large part on buy-in from elected officials.

Michelle Speas, the chief development and public relations officer for Family Services, said in a public letter that the initiative has a “goal of incrementally increasing local and state funding to achieve full availability of high-quality pre-K by 2022.”

“We really look at a four-year horizon to kind of move forward on it,” Feikema said. “Some of it’ll depend on if the state government through the North Carolina Pre-K program keeps expanding, and if they increase how much they pay per child. And some of it is, will local elected officials make a determination that there needs to be local investment?”

Feikema said some of North Carolina’s largest counties, including Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham and Buncombe, have already committed public funds to the goal of achieving universal pre-K.

A 2017 report by Durham’s Community Early Education/Preschool Task Force includes a recommendation to “serve all 3- and 4-year-olds in Durham County in high-quality preschool by 2023.”

The Buncombe County Commission passed a resolution in October 2018 establishing an Early Childhood Education Development Fund.

Similar to the initiative in Forsyth County, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force formed in 2015 in response to a 2014 study by Harvard and UC-Berkeley that found that Charlotte ranked last among the 50 largest cities in the US for upward mobility.

In June 2018, the Mecklenburg County Commission approved a 3/4-cent increase in the property tax rate to fund the MECK Pre-K program. The investment added 33 classrooms serving 600 4-year-olds in the fall of 2018. According to an implementation progress report released in February, 5,254 out of about 12,000 4-year-olds in Mecklenburg County now have access to public pre-K. Ultimately, the program aims to serve 9,600 children. (Feikema said if pre-K is available to all, typically 80 percent of families will take advantage of it.)

In addition to enlisting support from elected officials in county government, Gerald said there are a lot of logistical and workforce challenges to address before Forsyth County is prepared to provide pre-K education to every 4-year-old.

“It could be that there are more opportunities in schools; it could be that there are more licensed daycare centers that provide pre-K opportunities,” she said. “We just want to make sure that they are high quality and that they provide access for everyone. As part of the feasibility study, presumably they would look at what is a potential pathway to this? Are there enough quality licensed opportunities? What would it mean for teachers? What about pay differentials between childcare centers and schools, and how do you work with that? Those are the kinds of things you have to study and plan for.”

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