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Early Bird

A pre-K update from Forsyth County

A local early childhood initiative gains county support

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A Head Start pre-K classroom in Winston-Salem sings, “I’m a Little Teapot.” Liz Bell/EducationNC

In the spring of 2021, I was traveling to eastern North Carolina asking early childhood educators, programs, and districts about pre-K — efforts to expand access, barriers to that expansion, and its place in larger early childhood landscapes.

Bob Feikema, former president of Family Services in Forsyth County, saw that reporting and reached out. Feikema told me about the Pre-K Priority, a local coalition of advocates and organizations that had been advocating to establish universal pre-K in the area for seven years. Through the pandemic, the effort had taken time to ensure parent voice was at its center and that more people, particularly community leaders of color, were at the table.

Feikema has since retired, but the work of the group, along with a community-wide task force, is gaining momentum.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the local county commissioners awarded $3.7 million of the county’s American Rescue Plan funds to pay for 30 pre-K classrooms and educators and establish both a high-quality pre-K model and a proof point for future investment.

Smart Start of Forsyth County is the grant recipient. Its president and CEO, Louis Finney, told me that supporting the workforce and increasing school readiness will be the two primary aims with the funding.

That means a particular focus, Finney said, on supporting the private child care industry, which is struggling with lower compensation, fewer public funding streams to pull from, and an inability to find staff.

“What we’re trying to do is level that playing field and just focus on this as a children aspect as opposed to different program options,” Finney said. “That way, regardless of where a child is at in our county, we want them to get the equal services.”

The Pre-K Priority will release a report with recommendations on future expansion in the fall. I’ll keep following this story — one with lessons for similar efforts and those facing similar challenges across the state.

Early Bird reads: What we’re writing

Roanoke Rapids Graded School District to be first in NC designated Heart Safe under Project ADAM

Early childhood policy analyst Katie Dukes brings us another story that education leaders across the state can learn from. Roanoke Rapids Graded School District is training all its schools, including its pre-K center, to be designated as Heart Safe through a partnership with national nonprofit Project ADAM and Duke Children’s Hospital.

“This just helps to make sure that we have the continuity of care across the district,” said Sara Council, director of student services for RRGSD. “Everybody’s on the same page as to what their roles are in that event.”

Forsyth commissioners invest in 30 pre-K classrooms with ARPA funds

The Forsyth coalition has discovered how statewide inequities in early childhood funding and access affect their local landscape. Many localities are considering their roles in addressing families’ early care and education needs. That often means filling funding gaps left because private, state, and federal dollars don’t cover the full cost of high-quality care and education.

Your take, for goodness sake: EdNC perspectives

Perspective | Post federal continuing resolution funding: Need to invest in child care

In her last blog post as president of the Child Care Services Association, Marsha Basloe focuses on the early childhood workforce, as she has for her entire career:

“It is time to use the upcoming weeks to make sure future funding continues the stabilization support and invests in staff recruitment and retention,” Basloe writes. “Families need access to high-quality child care, but that doesn’t happen without the staff to deliver high quality. Don’t forget that the upcoming elections are an opportunity in every state to vote for candidates at multiple levels of government and have them support child care funding.”

In other early learning news: What I’m reading

Research & Resources: Let's talk job satisfaction

Twenty percent of early childhood educators in a new national survey said they were considering a job change. The survey from Teaching Strategies asked 2,300 early childhood educators why.

Forty-three percent cited low compensation, and 40% said mental health was the top reason for considering leaving. Those probably aren’t surprising numbers for those who follow the state of the historically underpaid workforce.

Exactly how many teachers are there in North Carolina compared to their number before the stress-inducing pandemic?

In North Carolina, there were 39,698 total staff in August working in licensed early care and education programs, compared with 37,032 people a year ago in October 2021, and 41,003 in March 2020.

No research has been done on the state’s recent uptick in staff, but one might guess increased compensation from stabilization funds might have helped. Almost all (92%) of the 3,861 centers and home-based providers that had received funds by December 2021 had opted in to increasing compensation, according to a Child Care Services Association report.

Professional development opportunities also matter, according to the national survey results. Among those planning to leave the field, 65% are less likely to have access to professional development than those planning to stay.

“What we see in the data is an opportunity to intentionally create meaningful learning opportunities and career pathways that support educators and enable them to flourish,” said Teaching Strategies CEO John Olsen. “When we support educators where they are, we support children, families, and society at large.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.