Durham County

Pre-K task force recommends preschool for all 4-year-olds in Durham

Superintendent Bert L’Homme (center) chats with Linda Chappel (left) and Jim Spencer (right) Thursday after Durham’s Community Early Education/Task Force released its report on creating universal Pre-K for Durham children.
Superintendent Bert L’Homme (center) chats with Linda Chappel (left) and Jim Spencer (right) Thursday after Durham’s Community Early Education/Task Force released its report on creating universal Pre-K for Durham children. The Herald-Sun

With 38 percent of its children entering kindergarten without having achieved reading proficiency, a task force that has been working on a proposal to bring universal Pre-K to Durham said Thursday that the time has come to act on a plan to give more low-income children a better chance to succeed in school.

The plan, presented by Durham’s Community Early Education/Preschool Task Force during an afternoon session in the County Community chambers, calls for increasing and expanding quality for Pre-K to all low-income 4-year-olds in 2019.

The plan also calls for extending Pre-K to all 3-and 4-year-olds by 2023, using income — 200 percent of the federal poverty level — as an eligibility guideline.

Including 144 new seats scheduled to come on line at Whitted School in August, there will be 955 publicly funded Pre-K slots in Durham. It’s estimated that 1,136 low-income 4-year-olds will not be served.

Task force leaders Donna-Marie Winn and Linda Chappel acknowledged that extending Pre-K to all low-income children will not be easy, but is achievable in a resource-rich county such as Durham.

“Other places, when they have decided to do it, have gotten it done,” Winn said in an interview. “For us to sit here with 38 percent proficiency going to kindergarten, I think it’s unacceptable given how many institutions of higher learning are in our midst. We can figure this out.”

Chappel said setting an “ambitious” schedule is important to ensure Durham one day has universal Pre-K.

“We as a task force agreed that if we’re not ambitious, it will never happen,” Chappel said.

Early childhood education is seen as the great equalizer, with evidence pointing to improved cognitive, language and socio-emotional development in children with access to high quality preschool.

Durham Public Schools leaders have long said providing universal Pre-K would be an expensive venture, and the financial projects in the task force’s report bears that out.

It’s estimated that expanding Pre-K to the 1,136 children who would not be served next school year would cost between $13.1 million and $13.6 million.

And improving the quality for the 955 children under the current service model would cost another $1.4 million to $1.9 million.

The task force shared several options with which to fund universal Pre-K, including a property tax increase, a tax on sugary drinks and other applicable taxing options, some of which would require the approval of the state’s General Assembly.

Other task force recommendations include hiring a full-time project manager and support staff to lead the expansion initiative and manage the new initiative through Durham’s Partnership for Children, which already manages NC Pre-K Program.

The group also recommended that Whitted School’s 144 Pre-K seats also be managed through the centralized administration for publicly-funded Pre-K services that would be created.

Whitted School would also be used as a pilot site to evaluate the success of the initiative.

Superintendent Bert L’Homme was among the several dozen or more public officials to attend Thursday’s meeting.

He said the task force engaged in robust debate before agreeing on recommendations to bring forth in the report.

“This report is better because they met, the argued, the debated,” L’Homme said.

He said the report is only the first step toward universal Pre-K.

“I believe it does bring us to the threshold,” L’Homme said. “The door is not quite open yet and that’s our task from this day forward. The hard work now begins.”

L’Homme said tough questions must be answered before the dream of universal Pre-K becomes a reality.

“We’ll have to answer some really big questions [such as] how many Pre-K students are out there who desperately need this service, how much will it cost, who will pay for it and how will educate our most precious people in Durham,” L’Homme said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645