Perdue tours preschool impacted by NC Pre-K expansion
Gov. Beverly Perdue sat in a small chair in a play kitchen to talk to children enrolled in a program at a Durham preschool Monday, and got a tour of one 4-year-old’s cubby.
“Are you learning to play together? Is it good to hit each other?” she said, getting down to the level of several children playing with blocks in a classroom at the Primary Colors Early Learning Center at 311 Dowd St. in Durham. “What’s your teacher’s name? Do you know what letter your name starts with?” she asked the class.
Perdue toured two classrooms at the center on Monday in her first visit to a preschool since she issued an executive order expanding enrollment in a state-funded pre-kindergarten program for at-risk children.
The order authorized the expansion of the North Carolina Prekindergarten Program for thousands of additional children by Jan. 1. The program, previously known as More at Four, is for 4-year-old children of families whose gross income is 75 percent or less of the state’s median income.
Perdue said she had identified $20 million in projected unspent funds from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to pay for the additional slots. Students have already enrolled who could be identified and signed up quickly, she said. Enrollment is anticipated to continue into January, she said.
“Every year, you have money that’s left unspent in a department as large as the Department of Health and Human Services – millions of dollars – we just looked where the money had traditionally been left unallocated at the end of the year, and took funds from these initiatives to fill the gap here…,” Perdue said.
Her executive order followed an August decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals that upheld a Superior Court judge’s ruling made in the summer of 2011. The decision mandated that the state not deny any eligible, at-risk 4-year-old admission to the NC Pre-K Program.
The judge’s decision did away with program changes by the Republican-led state legislature as part of a budget bill ratified in June of last year. State legislators had looked to implement a fee for some eligible families.
Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, a co-chairman of the state legislature’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services, said he had concerns about the use of the funds for the pre-kindergarten program. He said he didn’t think the governor’s move was the “right way to go” for the pre-kindergarten program in the long-term, and also said that “halfway into the school year is probably not the best time to do this.”
“I think it potentially restricts the department from being able to consider other uses for those funds,” he also said. “The governor’s decided to make a big splash, and (pull) funds…(from) other areas of the health and human services budget for this purpose.”
Kara Turner, owner of the Primary Colors Early Learning Center, said the governor’s expansion of the NC Pre-K Program allowed her to hire two additional teachers – a lead teacher and an assistant – and to add a classroom of students at the center’s location on Dowd Street.
The additional preschoolers started in mid-November, Turner said. The school worked “hard and fast” to get ready for them, she said.
The children may have been at home prior to their enrollment, she said, and not in any structured program.
“It is challenging because families have often made other plans, not usually as high quality,” said Laura Benson, executive director of Durham’s Partnership for Children, which manages the NC Pre-K Program in the county.
Across Durham County, 97 additional children enrolled in the N.C. Pre-K Program as a result of the expansion, Benson said. They were taken off a waiting list. That’s in addition to 420 program slots that have been funded in the county since the 2008-2009 school year, she said.
Three private child care centers, including Primary Colors, added a classroom to take in the additional children, according to Durham’s Partnership for Children.
But even with the expansion, there is still unmet demand for the program in Durham County, Benson said. For the 2012-13 school year, 1,278 families applied for the NC Pre-K Program.
There are other public-funded pre-kindergarten initiatives, Benson said in an email. About 850 4-year-olds in Durham County are served through NC Pre-K, the federal Head Start initiative, and with Title I/exceptional children funding, according to Benson.
“We clearly see a need for additional funds for our birth to 5 continuum in high-quality care and education,” Benson said in an email. “The waiting lists are one indicator of community need and interest in these programs.”
Durham resident Lakesha Jones said her 4-year-old daughter, Tyauna Jenkins, was in a home day care program before the NC Pre-K Program expansion allowed her to enroll her at Primary Colors.
Now her daughter is with children her own age, she said, and in a program designed to prepare her for kindergarten.
As a mother of three and a widow, Jones, who works as a nail technician, said the program helps her financially.
Perdue took Tyauna by the hand during her visit to the school Monday to get a tour of the 4-year-old’s cubby.
The preschooler is in the class added as a result of the expansion in enrollment.
Perdue visited with the children, asking them about what they’re learning. She also talked to the teachers about the impact of the expansion.
In one classroom, she sat on a carpet on the floor with children surrounding her.
“What’s a healthy food?” she asked, among other questions. She got replies of cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers.
“Did you all do this for me?” she said of a poster made by the students. It was decorated with children’s hand prints, and had a message that read “NC Pre-K has changed our lives forever.”
“Did you all do this for me?” she said. “I’ll keep this forever.”