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Breaking down silos and building universal pre-K: Lessons from McDowell County Schools mission to put ‘students first’

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Editor’s Note: Recently, EdNC published a book, titled “North Carolina’s Choice: Why our public schools matter.” Here is a free PDF of the book. A printed copy can be ordered here. This series spotlights public schools across North Carolina.

McDowell County Schools is striving to take its mission of “students first” farther than it ever has with its universal pre-K program. Through collaboration and a commitment to provide educational opportunities for all kids in their community, they are well on their way to achieving this mission. Currently, 72% of 4-year-olds in the county are participating in pre-K through a combination of the school system and NC Pre-K with two community partners, according to Crystal Hamby, assistant superintendent for learning and federal programs.

It hasn’t always been this way, though. Before COVID-19, only 50 to 55% of 4-year-olds were enrolled in pre-K. To get to where they are now, a group of passionate and dedicated education leaders have worked tirelessly to transform their early childhood education program. Today, there is at least one pre-K classroom at every public elementary school in McDowell County.

“We all came together and said, ‘Okay, we got to do something. We know we’re in the middle of COVID but we got to put a plan in place coming out on the backside of COVID.’ We decided that the best way forward is for every child in McDowell County to have an opportunity to attend pre-K,” said Hamby.

Pre-K students at Old Fort Elementary School. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

The team that formed to address the need for more early childhood education programming knew that in order to fulfill their mission one of the first obstacles they had to tackle was breaking down silos. And that’s exactly what they did.

Before COVID-19, McDowell County’s early childhood education infrastructure was fairly segmented, which is not uncommon. They had several programs, such as NC Pre-K and Head Start, which have different funding sources and requirements for eligibility. These programs were housed in separate buildings, and while there was some interaction between them, they were mostly self-contained in their own operations.

“I’ve been on the Head Start side for 23 years, and I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the state and around the nation with other Head Start programs and hear conversations and be a part of conversations, even in Washington, D.C. Oftentimes, Head Start is its own silo and NC Pre-K is its own silo and universal pre-K is its own thing. So a lot of times in some districts they’re fighting for the same children. They’re trying to enroll those children in their program. Unfortunately, that can hinder progress,” said Karey Dulaney, the Head Start director for McDowell County.

Lorrie Smith, Jill Ward, Crystal Hamby, Karey Dulaney and Tracey Grit at Old Fort Elementary School. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

In McDowell County, key leaders from these programs and others formed a team to address the need for more early childhood education and decided to further integrate their efforts. They took what was the Head Start office and turned it into the Office of Early Learning for McDowell County.

Dulaney worked to move all of the 4-year-olds out of the Head Start center and into a pre-K classroom at an elementary school. The students that were moved still remained Head Start children and the classroom receives funding from Head Start federal funds. NC Pre-K students are mixed into the same classrooms. Those children are considered dually-enrolled. 

Having NC Pre-K and Head Start professionals in the same building made this collaboration and their efforts more cohesive. The staff was able to  communicate more consistently and streamline their efforts to make their mission of increased access to early childhood education possible for more children in the community.

“It took us realizing that it’s about the children first, the students first, and the families first — not Head Start’s needs and not NC Pre-K’s needs. That has really helped us be able to blend these programs and find these funds to be able to achieve this,” said Dulaney.

One of the unique aspects of pre-K in McDowell County is that it is universal for all 4-year-olds. Typically with NC Pre-K, only 4-year-olds that are from households that meet a certain income threshold are eligible. By blending funds from NC Pre-K, Head Start, and a grant from Dogwood Health Trust, they were able to expand their pre-K programming for all 4-year-olds at no cost to the family. The rate the state pays schools to offer NC Pre-K covers less than half of the cost, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. (DHHS).

Pre-K students get ready to play outside at Old Fort Elementary School. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

“Kids quickly figure out poverty, and we wanted to eliminate that. No kid that age should know whether they’re poor or not. Every kid should just have the opportunity to come to school,” said Hamby.

Breaking down silos and finding the funding to make the universal pre-K program possible were just the first steps. The next challenge was getting the word out, and the team utilized every platform available to them, including their social media channels, phone call system, churches, community events, and word of mouth. They also put up flyers at every Dollar General in the county.

 “We pounded the pavement,” said Jill Ward, principal of Old Fort Elementary School.

Through their marketing efforts, the team was able to cover a lot of ground. There are still more children that they would like to enroll in pre-K and early childhood education. In addition to finding sustainable funding for the program, transportation remains a challenge. Despite these obstacles, the team in McDowell is committed to keeping the program running. 

“What I can say is the board’s committed to it, and we see the value in it. We will struggle to do it financially. We certainly need the benefit from the state. I mean, it’d be great if the state would come out and say ‘universal pre-K for everybody,’” said Tracey Grit, superintendent of McDowell County Schools. 

“We see the value and what it’s doing for our kids. Students are first in McDowell County,” he said.

Editor’s note: Dogwood Health Trust supports the work of EducationNC.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 72% of eligible 4-year-olds in the county are participating in pre-K through the school system. It has been corrected to state that 72% of eligible 4-year-olds in the county are participating in pre-K through a combination of the school system and NC Pre-K with two community partners.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the eligibility of 4-year-olds for universal pre-K in McDowell County. Age is the only eligibility criteria for this program, compared to the several types of criteria required by other tuition free pre-K programs.

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.