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Because of the pandemic, we are hearing about an increased need for pre-K in some districts and that our pre-K students are showing up with higher levels of need — academically, socially, emotionally, and a wide variety of other needs too — in many places and for many reasons.

Some districts are having to consider cutting pre-K programs under the additional financial stress caused by COVID-19. Others are having to consider expanding their number of pre-K classes quickly.

COVID-19 has surfaced, or resurfaced, questions about how districts invest in education, how investments relate to student outcomes, and in those conversations the merits of universal pre-K often bubble up relative to other spending priorities.

Over and over, the pre-K program in Polk County — a district known for high student performance — is lifted up as the best of our best. Before other districts shut down or expand programs, we want to learn more.

When we evaluate a program to assess if it is a promising practice for other districts, we observe students and teachers, we meet with school and district leaders.

We ask about staffing and funding and strategy. We learn about instructional practice and outcomes and ongoing professional development. We talk about how districts get buy-in from all the people they need to buy in, including teachers and school leaders, parents and county commissioners, philanthropists and policymakers, and other education stakeholders.

We analyze whether and where and how programs could be replicated and scaled.

And over and over again, we are reminded, it’s often as much about the people and the relationships as it is about the program.

That certainly holds true for the pre-K program in Polk County Schools.

Pre-K in Polk County

Days before our visit to Polk County, Superintendent Aaron Greene emailed us a 2011 article from the Tryon Daily Bulletin. “A quick look at where it all started for us,” he wrote.

The article is about the legacy of a local philanthropist, Margaret Forbes. “Her commitment to quality early childhood education resulted in Polk having preschools in every school in this system long before anyone else was even talking about the importance of preschool,” said the then-Superintendent Bill Miller.

Back in 1995, Forbes bought and then donated a building to the school system, the building that became the Forbes Preschool Education Center in Tryon. Full-day preschool was offered at little to no cost for four-year-old students.

The article in the Bulletin notes, “[Forbes] loved visiting the children who welcomed her with hugs because of her obvious enjoyment of them and because she did not tower over them like most adults.”

In 1998, the pre-K program in Polk County Schools expanded to Saluda Elementary and Polk Central Elementary. In 2000, it expanded to Sunny View Elementary.

The decision to make pre-K available to all students in the district negated any stigma then associated with access to early education.

Today, pre-K is still offered at all elementary schools in the district in nine classrooms — Saluda and Sunny View each have one classroom, Polk Central has three, Tryon Elementary has four. Pre-K is thought of as “just another grade” in this district that annually serves 75-85% of its 3- and 4-year-old students. Enrollment is down this year because the district is choosing to limit pre-K to 100 students to allow for social distancing.

A grant allows students with developmental disabilities to be included in all nine classrooms.

According to the district, it’s been five-star rated (you can search here) since the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and its Division of Child Development and Early Childhood adopted the system in 2000.

There’s one other thing you should know before we take a more in-depth look at this district and its pre-K program. The district clusters grades differently than most for vertical team time: pre-K, K, 1; 2-4; 5-7; and 8-12.

Jeremy Gibbs, the western regional case manager for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, explains why this matters:

Rather than follow the typical arrangement of K-2 and 3-5 in elementary, Polk County Schools approaches vertical alignment both more inclusively and more intentionally. Polk County’s unique approach to vertical planning not only reinforces their treatment of pre-K equally with other grade levels and specialties, but it is also done in a way that thinks more strategically about early literacy in the run up to third grade while knocking the hard edges off of key transitions from the earliest learners all the way through high school.

The program and the team

“I think early childhood is where it’s at,” said Greene.

But he also said, “You’ve got to have a Kathy. You’ve got to have a Peggy, a Xan, an Amanda.” And that’s his just-getting-started list. He can name the teacher assistants you need, the teachers, the principals, and the central office staff too.

He believes the success of this pre-K program is in large part about the team.

Kathy Harding is the director of the pre-K program. She says this program is about more than ABCs and 123s. It’s a holistic approach to early childhood education with wraparound services to address gaps and prepare students for academic and life success. She expands Greene’s team to include the “children, parents, health, nutrition, mental health, dental, disabilities, education, family services, finance, transportation, support staff.”

Peggy Franklin is the health and safety manager. She calls in the school nurse as needed, ensures the children have medical and dental care, provides health and safety education to the families, and liaisons as needed with district and community resources. She also ensures all safety regulations are followed and supports teachers and families of students with disabilities.

Amanda Van Duyne is the family services manager, handling enrollment, family services, and family engagement. Home visits to get to know the students and their families are key.

The district uses the HighScope preschool curriculum and the Second Step program for social-emotional learning (SEL). Xan Morse is the education manager, and she serves as teacher coach and mentor, provides ongoing professional development, ensures the curriculum is implemented with fidelity, and is responsible for assessment and data analysis.

Harding narrates for me what looks like children playing in the classrooms. For teachers, there is a plan, do, and review approach to the learning each day that starts with greetings in the morning and breakfast, then small group learning, then student planning and work time, then clean up, then recall time, then outside and lunch time, then large group learning, then naps and snacks before saying goodbye.

The learning — teacher-directed, student-initiated — is constructed around centers, but the teachers are in the centers with the students, prompting them with open-ended questions to prompt critical thinking.

Principal Jan Crump believes early intervention is the key to student academic success. She said, “When a second grade teacher experiences success with a student, I feel like that started in our preschool program.”

One of the benefits of school districts providing pre-K is that there is no transition for the students to kindergarten. Crump says acclimating students to the school environment, teaching them how to get around the school, knowing who the principal is, making friends, and the pre-existing relationship with the parents — all that makes the students more comfortable and less anxious, promoting kindergarten readiness.

“There is a clear distinction every year between the children who have been to preschool and the children who have not,” said Crump.

The funding

It costs Polk County Schools $1,250,000 to provide pre-K of this quality to 100 students. Do the math. It’s a lot per student.

But even in this era of COVID-19, when many districts are pushing to be 1:1 on devices and worrying about access to the internet, Greene and his team stand by their decision to invest in pre-K instead.

Greene said it takes significant effort to manage the different funding sources, but that a blended funding model is the only way to finance a pre-K program like the one in Polk County Schools.

The funding includes federal funding like Head Start, Title I, and Exceptional Children; state funding like NC Pre-K; and local funding from tuition and a $50,000 county allotment.

Eleven of the students whose families can afford it pay $400 a month for pre-K, well below market price.

The district does not participate in the child care subsidy program.

Greene thinks the costs could come down without sacrificing quality if…

Could universal pre-K be a game changer for North Carolina?

Greene believes pre-K is a HUGE (his emphasis) reason for the student success in Polk County. He says the extra year allows them to address gaps and level the playing field when it comes to kindergarten readiness.

He believes in doing what’s right for students — so much so that it is the district’s motto.

But he is not just focused on his students. Take a listen to his argument for universal pre-K:

The closing slide of Greene’s presentation to us said, “Let us put our minds together and seek a better life for every child.”

While the state considers universal pre-K, Greene lays out these considerations for districts who want to move forward providing pre-K in all elementary schools.

Greene says the total community has to believe in the merits of early childhood education.

If there is the collective community will, then he suggests districts conduct an analysis of capacity, demand, other providers, and competition.

He says districts need to assess their ability to blend funding streams and manage the different requirements of different funding streams.

He says to be realistic about the administrative burden and the attendant need for communication. His office is right next to Harding, the pre-K director.

“You’ve got to be willing to push back on regulations,” said Greene, noting that some regulations are unnecessary if the provider is a school district. From mulch or rubberized surfaces on the playground to the temperature of hot water to transportation to the education of teacher assistants, we poured through various regulations and talked about the difference between regulations needed for child care and regulations needed for public schools.

School districts are in a different position to push back than other pre-K providers, said Greene, encouraging districts to ask, “Why is that regulation important? What is the reason for it?” And then, he said, “If it’s not right for kids, we’re gonna take a look at it.”

“The reporting is insane. The paperwork is insane,” said Greene. “But at the end of the day, we get an extra year for kids at least. That is huge.”

He ends by emphasizing it’s all about relationships. “It’s about people, not programs. It’s about staff, not stuff,” said Greene. Good relationships and good communication are needed with everyone from local providers of daycare from birth to age three to regulators to your county commissioners and everyone in between.

An impossible gap

Remember the article about Forbes, the local philanthropist who got all of this started in Polk County? Remember the article noted she didn’t tower over students like most adults?

Joining me in Polk County to learn more about pre-K was David Stegall, deputy state superintendent of innovation and equity; Jeremy Gibbs, western regional case manager for the Department of Public Instruction; Freebird McKinney, director of legislative affairs and community outreach for the State Board of Education; and Julie Pittman, education outreach manager for No Kid Hungry NC and a member of EdNC’s board of directors. It was on my mind because of the article, but note that none of them towered over the students during our classroom observations.

At the end of our visit, Stegall said as he stood up to leave, “In North Carolina students don’t have to start school until they are seven, and in some communities if you don’t have a strong preschool program, some parents may not bring their child until they are six or seven.”

Seeing a three-year-old reluctantly settle in for a nap and remembering a seven-year-old showing up for kindergarten, Stegall said it just hit him.

“That’s four years difference.”

“It’s not just about the experience,” he said. “It’s three to four years in some of these cases. You can’t make that gap up in a 12- or 13-year period of time.”

We left Polk County wanting to learn even more about pre-K provided by school districts across North Carolina. What questions do you have? Message me on Twitter @Mebane_Rash or email me at mrash@ednc.org.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.